There’s no easy way to cover a conflict when everyone’s version of events is coloured by their own particular experience.

There has been quite a bit of discussion recently about the Guardian’s coverage of the ongoing political crisis in South Sudan. Some local journalists who have been documenting their country’s political divisions for years are questioning reports from western journalists, whose stories are given precedence over media professionals who have lived and worked in a community for their entire adult lives.

The question is one of truth and how we define it. Over at Al Jazeera, analyst Nanjala Nyabola suggests that the choice is between “a person whose truth seems conditioned by race, and another whose truth is conditioned on experience on the ground”. While containing an essential nugget of truth, this is misleading and overly simplified.

There are a variety of lenses through which we view the world. Race, age, sex, gender, class, and creed are just a few of these. Sometimes these lenses operate with a single focus. More often, they overlap, magnifying and colouring our analysis based on personal experiences of culture and individual history. Many times, journalists as well as artists, analysts, and writers of any type are not even aware of what lenses they use, and we as readers bring our own prejudices to a work whenever we read it. Such is the nature of creativity and criticism.

This could be an article about the subjectivity of truth, but it is not. Instead, it seeks to question the idea that “western journalists get Africa wrong”, with a look at how journalists, especially those who cover conflict, can instead get the narrative right.

Nyabola is undoubtedly right when she says that journalists should not co-opt African stories to “undermine or reinforce existing narratives among the western audience”. Doing so without questioning the narrative and assessing its validity is shoddy journalism and leads to a poverty of knowledge among many.

However, her claim that it is easy to resolve the problem of objectivity by asking Africans what they think and having them tell their own stories is in itself naïve and unsatisfactory. Western reporters writing about South Sudan have done exactly that. They have spoken to Nuer who described the atrocities taking place in Juba, and some who say that the political battles are really ethnic due to the tense history between the Nuer and the Dinka. It must not be forgotten that history is one of the biggest influences on a conflict, and that local perspectives are shaped by the historical memories that have been passed between generations. Journalists visit particular areas and speak to particular people, their narratives may contain grains of truth while also being seen by some as problematic.

Are we, however, to blame western journalists for reporting the story as they are told it? And are local witnesses inherently any more reliable because they are local?

In 2011, I spent several months in Jos, the capital of Plateau State, Nigeria, which has seen some of the country’s worst inter-communal conflict of the last decade. This conflict is often characterised as both ethnic and religious, but, like the conflict in South Sudan, has many other factors including access to economic and political opportunity, governmental malfeasance, underdevelopment, and judicial and security sectors that have proven themselves time and again inadequate to protect their citizenry or prevent violence.

My work focused on conflict transformation, bringing both sides together in a dialogue of peace. It focused especially on the role of the media, who for years had been seen as partisan and inflammatory. Jos had newspapers that were either seen as heavily favouring the Christian perspective or heavily favouring the Muslim perspective. When women and traditional leaders confronted journalists about this in a mutually safe space, the journalists often replied that they had no access to perspectives from the other side.

It was impossible, as many of the journalists claimed, for a Christian to enter a Muslim neighbourhood or for a Muslim to enter a Christian neighbourhood. Many local leaders repeated this claim, and it was only through dialogue that each side was able to assure the other that their fears were unfounded and harmful to understanding the context at large. Many western analysts have mischaracterised much of the violence in Nigeria precisely by not being able to objectively assess the full picture and the relationships opposing sides have with one another. Naturally, when one has a position on an contested issue, one is prejudiced towards that perspective. Even those Nigerians I worked with in the peacebuilding project were not immune from bias, and it is the responsibility of the journalist to weigh competing narratives to avoid the dangers of a single story.

This in no way claims to compare Nigeria’s inter-communal violence with that of South Sudan. However, it does go to the heart of objectivity and the realisation that (surprise!) Africans are people too and have their own perspectives on a conflict, perspectives that may sometimes be no better or worse than those of an outsider.

In the end, Nyabola is right. We must give more voice to Africans and their perspectives on their own conflicts, their own ideas of development, and their own lives. However, we must not forget that, like in any society, there are a multitude of viewpoints within the African perspective. Outside observers matter. Being able to approach a situation from an outsider’s perspective is no less valuable than that of a local, and often may open up innovative analysis and solutions. It is when the outsider’s perspective dominates that of the local’s, rather than communicates with it, that problems loom.

We must not denigrate one perspective for the benefit of another. Instead, we must communicate, and we must be kind.

Sterling Carter writes on the intersection of political economy, arts and culture, and human rights. He has over five years’ experience on African development, violence and conflict with organizations including Human Rights Watch, Global Witness, and Search for Common Ground as well as an MSc in the Political Economy of Violence, Conflict and Development from the University of London, School of Oriental and African Studies

Source: The guardian