On 6th May South Africa’s News24 ran a story picked up from Bloomberg News with the headline: “Rapidly spreading variants compound Africa’s coronavirus woes”.The headline, the framing, the sources and the focus of the story got our attention for these reasons:
- Biased headline: In one sentence, the article set the stage for an exaggerated story of ongoing issues with the virus that are unique to Africa.
- Negative framing: It ignores the evidence that shows that African countries are coping remarkably well (given their resources) in their response to the pandemic, and in many cases doing it more effectively than some western countries.
- Biased science: It implies covid variants in Africa are to be feared despite the fact that variants themselves are occurring globally, many are benign and their existence is inevitable given the virus changes as it moves across populations.
- Prioritising the sensational: Although there are two named sources, Prof Tulio de Oliveira, from KRISP, in South Africa and Phionah Atuhebwe, from the WHO in Congo, the more sensational comments of the former dominate the article.
- Offering opinion as fact: Oliveira’s statements imply that Africa has more concerning variants of the disease than elsewhere in the world. He says it risks becoming “a reservoir for variants” and that the variety of variants is “quite a concern”. All of which are opinions not backed by data, yet presented as facts.
- Lacking balance: Atuhebwe downplays the threat and says the Ugandan variant referred to in the article is no cause for alarm because the risk is “still being assessed”. She is given much less space in the article.
- Alarmist: Oliveira is quoted as saying new variants are “quite a concern”, that Africa “might” become a reservoir for variants. The article does not verify or contextualise these comments with data to show if a trend does indeed exist.
- Lacking facts: It does not verify Oliveira’s comment about the East African variant that “could increase transmissibility and the ability to neutralize antibodies.” Both points are unproven and somewhat sensationalist.
- Omitting alternative voices: It doesn’t balance the story with comments from perhaps a health worker on the ground in the East Africa region who could speak to the potential impact of that particular variant, if any.
- Feeding the Africa stereotype: The narrative around this article is of a broken Africa and a long trend of waiting for disaster. A continent portrayed as if (unlike the rest of the world) it’s facing insurmountable problems - this time around variants.
- Presenting Africa as a monolith: The story falls into the trap of applying the occurrences in one country or region to the rest of the continent with little to back it up.
Like many of the pan- African articles Africa No Filter has reviewed, the story comes from an international news agency. In a report we commissioned on How African media covers Africa, it was found that “one-third of all African stories in news outlets on the continent were sourced from foreign – mainly western news services”. This in itself can be problematic as stories may serve a global agenda which may be contrary to how Africans want their stories told.