How does Africa get reported? A letter of concern to 60 Minutes

by Howard W. French

The following open letter was sent by email to CBS 60 Minutes Executive Producer Jeff Fager:

Dear Mr. Fager,

60-Minutes-The-Ebola-Hot-Zone-Liberian-gravediggers-US-virologist-Joseph-Fair-Lara-Logan-110914-300x168, How does Africa get reported? A letter of concern to 60 Minutes, World News & Views
In the 60 Minutes story “The Ebola Hot Zone,” broadcast Nov. 9, 2014, Lara Logan watches as American virologist Joseph Fair instructs Liberian gravediggers at a graveyard adjacent to an Ebola treatment unit. No African voice is heard in the 15-minute segment except that of the African American doctor who heads the clinic and speaks a few words. – Photo: 60 Minutes screenshot

We, the undersigned, are writing to express our grave concern about the frequent and recurring misrepresentation of the African continent by 60 Minutes.

In a series of recent segments from the continent, 60 Minutes has managed, quite extraordinarily, to render people of Black African ancestry voiceless and all but invisible.

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Two of these segments were remarkably similar in their basic subject matter, featuring white people who have made it their mission to rescue African wildlife. In one case these were lions and, in another, apes. People of Black African descent make no substantial appearance in either of these reports, and no sense whatsoever is given of the countries visited, South Africa and Gabon.

We, the undersigned, are writing to express our grave concern about the frequent and recurring misrepresentation of the African continent by 60 Minutes.

The third notable recent segment was a visit by your correspondent Lara Logan to Liberia to cover the Ebola epidemic in that country. In that broadcast [which cannot be reposted – ed.], Africans were reduced to the role of silent victims. They constituted what might be called a scenery of misery: people whose thoughts, experiences and actions were treated as if totally without interest. Liberians were shown within easy speaking range of Logan, including some Liberians whom she spoke about, and yet not a single Liberian was quoted in any capacity.

A-Continent-for-the-Taking-The-Tragedy-and-Hope-of-Africa-by-Howard-W.-French-cover, How does Africa get reported? A letter of concern to 60 Minutes, World News & Views Liberians not only died from Ebola, but many of them contributed bravely to the fight against the disease, including doctors, nurses and other caregivers, some of whom gave their lives in this effort. Despite this, the only people heard from on the air were white foreigners who had come to Liberia to contribute to the fight against the disease.

Taken together, this anachronistic style of coverage reproduces, in condensed form, many of the worst habits of modern American journalism on the subject of Africa. To be clear, this means that Africa only warrants the public’s attention when there is disaster or human tragedy on an immense scale, when Westerners can be elevated to the role of central characters, or when it is a matter of that perennial favorite, wildlife.

As a corollary, Africans themselves are typically limited to the role of passive victims, or occasionally brutal or corrupt villains and incompetents; they are not otherwise shown to have any agency or even the normal range of human thoughts and emotions. Such a skewed perspective not only disserves Africa, it also badly disserves the news viewing and news reading public.

Chinas-Second-Continent-by-Howard-W.-French-cover, How does Africa get reported? A letter of concern to 60 Minutes, World News & Views We have taken the initiative of writing to you because we are mindful of the reach of 60 Minutes and of the important role that your program has long played in informing the public. We are equally mindful that American views of Africa, a continent of 1.1 billion people, which is experiencing rapid change on an immense scale, are badly misinformed by much of the mainstream media. The great diversity of African experience, the challenges and triumphs of African peoples and, above all, the voices and thoughts of Africans themselves are chronically and woefully underrepresented.

Over the coming decades, Africa will become the backdrop of some of the most significant developments on the planet, from unprecedented population growth, urbanization and economic change to, potentially, the wholesale reconfiguration of states. We would like to see 60 Minutes rethink its approach to Africa and rise to the challenge of covering topics like these, and many more, that go well beyond the bailiwick of the staid and stereotypical recent examples cited above. In doing so, 60 Minutes will have much to gain, as will the viewing public.


Howard W. French, Associate Professor, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and author of “China’s Second Continent” and “A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa”

Fatin Abbas, Manhattanville College

Akin Adesokan, Novelist and Associate Professor, Comparative Literature and Cinema and Film Studies, Indiana University Bloomington

Anthony Arnove, Producer, “Dirty Wars”

Adam Ashforth, Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, University of Michigan

Sean Jacobs, Faculty, International Affairs, Milano, The New School and Africa is a Country

Teju Cole, Distinguished Writer in Residence, Bard College Photography Critic, The New York Times Magazine

Richard Joseph, John Evans Professor of International History and Politics, Northwestern University

Leon Dash, Swanlund Chair Professor in Journalism, Professor, Center for Advanced Study, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Michael C. Vazquez, Senior Editor, “Bidoun: Art and Culture from the Middle East”

Achille Mbembe, Professor, Wits University and Visiting Professor of Romance Studies and Franklin Humanities Institute Research Scholar, Duke University

M. Neelika Jayawardane, Associate Professor of English Literature at State University of New York-Oswego, and Senior Editor, “Africa Is a Country

Adam Hochschild, Author

Ann Garrison, Pacifica Radio Reporter-Producer and Contributor to the San Francisco Bay View, Black Agenda Report, Black Star News, Counterpunch, Global Research

Eileen Julien, Professor, Comparative Literature, French and Italian, African Studies, Indiana University Bloomington

Mohamed Keita, Freelance Journalist in New York City, former Africa Advocacy Coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)

Aaron Leaf, Producer, “Feet in 2 Worlds,” The New School

Dan Magaziner, Assistant Professor, History, Yale University

Marissa Moorman, Associate Professor, Department of History, Indiana University

Sisonke Msimang, Research Fellow, University of Kwazulu-Natal

Achal Prabhala, Writer and Researcher, Bangalore, India.

Janet Roitman, Associate Professor of Anthropology, The New School

Lily Saint, Assistant Professor of English, Wesleyan University

Abdourahman A. Waberi, Writer and Professor of French and Francophone Studies, George Washington University

Binyavanga Wainaina, Writer

Chika Unigwe, Writer

James C. McCann, Chair, Department of Archaeology, Professor of History, Boston University

Susan Shepler, Associate Professor, International Peace and Conflict Resolution, School of International Service, American University

Peter Uvin, Provost, Amherst College

G. Pascal Zachary, professor of practice, Arizona State University

Cara E. Jones, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Political Science, Mary Baldwin College

James T. Campbell, Edgar E. Robinson Professor of History, Stanford University

Nii Akuetteh, Independent International Affairs Analyst, Former Executive Director of OSIWA, the Soros Foundation in West Africa

Mary Ratcliff, Editor, San Francisco Bay View National Black Newspaper

James Ferguson, Susan S. and William H. Hindle Professor, Stanford University

Alice Gatebuke, Rwandan Genocide and War Survivor, Communications Director, African Great Lakes Action Network (AGLAN)

Max Bankole Jarrett, Deputy Director, Africa Progress Panel Secretariat

Mohamed Dicko, retired Computer Applications Analyst in St. Louis, Missouri

Mojúbàolú Olufúnké Okome, Ph.D., Professor of Political Science, African and Women’s Studies, Brooklyn College, CUNY

Adam Ouologuem

John Edwin Mason, Department of History, University of Virginia

Dele Olojede, Newspaperman

Dr. Jonathan T. Reynolds, Professor of History, Northern Kentucky University

Daniel J. Sharfstein, Professor of Law, Vanderbilt University

Lisa Lindsay, University of North Carolina

Anne-Maria B. Makhulu, Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology and African and African American Studies, Duke University

Karin Shapiro, Associate Professor of the Practice African and African American Studies, Duke University

Garry Pierre Pierre, Executive Director of the Community Reporting Alliance, New York City

Lynn M. Thomas, Professor and Chair, Department of History, University of Washington

Martha Saavedra, Associate Director, Center for African Studies, University of California, Berkeley

Kathryn Mathers, Visiting Assistant Professor, International Comparative Studies, Duke University

Siddhartha Mitter, Freelance Journalist

Alexis Okeowo, Contributor, The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine

Susan Thomson, Assistant Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies, Colgate University

Nicolas van de Walle, Maxwell M. Upson Professor of Government, Cornell University

David Newbury, Gwendolen Carter Professor of African Studies, Smith College

Charles Piot, Professor, Department of Cultural Anthropology and Department of African and African American Studies, Co-Convener Africa Initiative, Duke University

Adia Benton, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Brown University

Gregory Mann, Historian of Francophone Africa, Columbia University

Anne Pitcher, University of Michigan

Howard Stein, University of Michigan

Adam Shatz, London Review of Books

Peter Rosenblum, Professor of International Law and Human Rights, Bard College

Timothy Longman, African Studies Center Director, Chair of Committee of Directors, Pardee School of Global Studies, Associate Professor of Political Science, Boston University

Laura E. Seay, Assistant Professor, Department of Government, Colby College

Robert Grossman, Producer

Daniel Fahey, Visiting Scholar at UC Berkeley, Served on the U.N. Group of Experts on DRC 2013-2015

Jennie E. Burnet, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Louisville

Kim Yi Dionne, Assistant Professor, Smith College

Lonnie Isabel, Journalist

Karen L. Murphy

Ryan Briggs, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Virginia Tech

Yolande Bouka, Ph.D., Researcher, Institute for Security Studies

Elliot Fratkin, Ph.D., Gwendolen M. Carter Professor of African Studies, Department of Anthropology, Smith College

Gretchen Bauer, Professor and Chair, Department of Political Science and International Relations, University of Delaware

John Woodford, Journalist

Frank Holmquist, Professor of Politics, Emeritus, School of Critical Social Inquiry, Hampshire College

Alice Kang, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Institute for Ethnic Studies – African and African American Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Michel Marriott, Journalist, Author

Jennifer N. Brass, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University

Séverine Autesserre, Department of Political Science, Barnard College, Columbia University

Jill E. Kelly, Assistant Professor, Clements Department of History, Southern Methodist University

Dr. Meghan Healy-Clancy, Lecturer on Social Studies and on Women, Gender and Sexuality, Harvard University

Dayo Olopade, Journalist, Author

Mary Moran, Colgate University

Sharon Abramowitz, UFL

Rebecca Shereikis, Interim Director, Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa, Northwestern University

Barbara B. Brown, Ph.D., Director of the Outreach Program, African Studies Center, Boston University

Jeffrey Stringer

David Alain Wohl, M.D., Associate Professor, The Division of Infectious Diseases, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Andy Sechler, M.D., Instructor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School

John Kraemer, Assistant Professor, Department of Health Systems Administration and African Studies Program, Georgetown University

Barbara Shaw Anderson, Associate Director, African Studies Center, Lecturer, Department of African, African American, and Diaspora Studies, African Studies Center, University of North Carolina

Adrienne LeBas, Assistant Professor of Government, American University, D.C.

Catharine Newbury, Professor Emerita of Government, Smith College

Ana M. Ayuso Alvarez, Epidemiology Programme Applied to the Field, M. Art (Anthropologist)

Cynthia Haq, M.D., Professor of Family Medicine and Population Health Sciences, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health

Aili Tripp, Professor of Political Science and Gender and Women’s Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Gloria Ladson-Billings, Professor, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Kellner Family Professor in Urban Education, University of Wisconsin

Anne Jebet Waliaula, Ph.D., Outreach Coordinator, African Studies Program, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Judith Oki, Salt Lake City, former Capacity Building Advisor for Rebuilding Basic Health Services, Monrovia, Liberia

Sandra Schmidt, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Social Studies and Education, Teachers College, Columbia University

Emily Callaci, Assistant Professor, Department of History, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Louise Meintjes, Associate Professor, Departments of Music and Cultural Anthropology, Duke University

May Rihani, Former Co-Chair of the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI), Author of Cultures Without Borders

Tejumola Olaniyan, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Selah Agaba, Doctoral Student, Anthropology and Education Policy Studies, University of Wisconsin

Casey Chapman, Wisconsin

Ted Hochstadt, Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (Lesotho)

Kah Walla, CEO, STRATEGIES!, Cameroon

Kofi Ogbujiagba, Journalist, Madison, Wisconsin

Matthew Francis Rarey, Visiting Assistant Professor of Art History, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

David B. Levine, Consultant in International Development, Washington, D.C.

Claire Wendland, Medical Anthropologist, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Frederic C. Schaffer, Professor of Political Science, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Joye Bowman, Professor and Chair, Department of History, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Cody S. Perkins, Ph.D. Candidate, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia

Eric Gottesman, Colby College Department of Art

Lynda Pickbourn, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Economics, School of Critical Social Inquiry, Hampshire College

Kate Heuisler, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Henry John Drewal, Evjue-Bascom Professor of African and African Diaspora Arts, Departments of Art History and Afro-American Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Sarah Forzley, lecturer in the English department at the University of Paris 10- Nanterre (France)

Laura Doyle, Professor of English, University of Massachusetts-Amherst

Ralph Faulkingham, Ph.D., Emeritus Professor of Anthropology (and former Editor, The African Studies Review), University of Massachusetts Amherst

Dr. Jessica Johnson, University of Massachusetts Amherst History Department

Joseph C. Miller, University of Virginia retired

Sean Hanretta, Associate Professor, Department of History, Northwestern University

Iris Berger, Vincent O’Leary Professor of History, University at Albany

Jackson Musuuza, M.B.Ch.B., M.P.H., M.S., Ph.D., Student in Clinical Epidemiology, University of Wisconsin Madison

Dr. Anita Schroven, Researcher, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle/Saale, Germany

Professor Dr. Baz Lecocq, Chair of African History, Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany

Monica H. Green, Professor of History, Arizona State University

Sandra Adell, Professor, Department of Afro-American Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Pamela Feldman-Savelsberg, Broom Professor of Social Demography and Anthropology Director, African and African American Studies Program, Acting Chair, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Carleton College

Michael Herce, M.D., M.P.H., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Centre for Infectious Disease Research in Zambia (CIDRZ)

Satish Gopal, M.D., M.P.H., Director, Cancer Program, UNC Project-Malawi, UNC Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases

Mina C. Hosseinipour, M.D., M.P.H., Scientific Director, UNC Project, Lilongwe Malawi

Cliff Missen, M.A., Director, WiderNet@UNC and The WiderNet Project, Clinical Associate Professor, School of Information and Library Science, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Groesbeck Parham, Professor, UNC (working in Zambia)

Norma Callender, San Jose

Harry McKinley Williams, Jr., Laird Bell Professor of History, Carleton College

Robtel Neajai Pailey, Liberian Academic, London

Rose Brewer, professor, University of Minnesota

Fodei J. Batty, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Political Science, Quinnipiac University

Graham Wells, M.S., P.E., Professor, Retired, Department of Mechanical Engineering, Mississippi State University

Chouki El Hamel, Ph.D., Professor of History, School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, Arizona State University

Obioma Ohia, Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Physics, University of Maryland

Paschal Kyoore, Professor of French, Francophone African-Caribbean Literatures and Cultures

Director, African Studies Program, Gustavus Adolphus College, Saint Peter, Minnesota

Preston Smith, Chair of Africana Studies. Professor of Politics, Mount Holyoke College

Catherine E. Bolten. Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Peace Studies. The Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame

Michael Leslie, Associate Professor of Telecommunication, College of Journalism and Communications, University of Florida

Agnes Ngoma Leslie, Senior Lecturer and Outreach Director, Center for African Studies, University of Florida

Martin Murray, Urban Planning and African Studies, University of Michigan

Laura Fair, Associate Professor of African History, Michigan State University

Noel Twagiramungu, Post-doctoral Research Fellow, World Peace Foundation, The Fletcher School, Tufts University

Professor Howard W. French, prior to joining the faculty at Columbia, spent 23 years as a foreign correspondent, much of the time as senior writer for the New York Times, his work in both Africa and China nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. He lived in West Africa from 1979 to 1986 and speaks five languages: English, Chinese, Japanese, French and Spanish. He can be reached at Visit his blog, A Glimpse of the World, where this letter first appeared.