News Coverage of Hillary in Africa: Does Anyone Under 30 Give a Damn?

Probably not.  At least that’s what I would conclude based on the results of a project  my international news students worked on last spring.

They studied reactions to news about Africa by audiences aaffleckges 14-29 (average age 22), asking friends and family members to watch and compare news reports from

  1. the frisky VBS.tv online channel inspired by the Canadian lad’s magazine Vice (audiences watched either a documentary about mountain gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo or the Darfur genocide in Sudan);
  2. a video report (also about DRC focusing on the refugee crisis) created by Amnesty International, the global human rights non-profit organization which especially focuses on recruiting student members;
  3. an ABC news segment about actor Ben Affleck’s visit to DRC to investigate the on-going war there.

A total of 80 people were interviewed.  Ethnicity, age and a brief bio were collected in addition to gathering their responses to the videos (specific ethnic breakdown in table below reflects the diverse nature of Los Angeles).  Many were college students attending Los Angeles universities including Cal State Northridge, Cal State Los Angeles, USC, UCLA, and Mt. Saint Mary’s.  Participants often said they spent their spare time hanging out with friends, watching movies, working out or engaging in creative projects such as sewing or “making things with friends.”

Ethnicity Percentage of those interviewed
White 25%
African American 21%
Latino 20%
Asian American 17%
Multiracial/Didn’t say 13%
Middle Eastern 4%

Nearly every person interviewed said they got their news online, supplemented sometimes by television, often mentioning CNN as a main source. An handful used print media. 

The interviews suggest the following might help news organizations engage younger news audiences with international news:

  • use “real” people as sources and reporters, meaning fewer government officials and guys in suits and more of the ordinary folks who are experiencing whatever the topic of the story is.  Lucy, 22, who gets all of her international news from CNN, said “unscripted” shows such as VBS were more appealing because the people being interviewed didn’t seem to perform for the camera and the reporters were not famous but instead “risking their lives to let the viewers know of the issue.”  Others thought viewers would find Ben Affleck more real because he was not a professional journalist.  Kathleen, 25, who enjoys traveling and is interested in “world culture news” said, “Ben seemed like he was trying to reach out to a lot of people, saying, ‘he is just trying to share his story,’ like a normal person.”
  • don’t make it too slick. Some participants found the VBS reports more authentic because they appeared to be “independent” of corporate producers and their “raw” quality made them more trustworthy. Mya, 18, who has no interest in international news, liked the VBS report on the gorillas because “it didn’t feel like you were watching news, but rather listening to a story being told.” Zachary, 25, didn’t like the Amnesty video because the narrator “talked like a newscaster.”
  • keep it brief. Viewers complained that the complete VBS show on mountain gorillas was much too long to hold their attention. Patrick, 25, who plays video games for fun and is a fan of the WSJ, said this made the VBS video  “boring and I like National Geographic!”
  • make it easy to understand. Lack of personal experience with Africa makes stories about the continent difficult to follow or to care about.   Cindy, 22, one of the few participants who relies on newspapers (LAT, NYT) for news, said a more informal style that is not “condescending” would appeal to young audiences.  Many of those interviewed said the use of music and a documentary style of reporting made the VBS stories more accessible.  Kate, 23, noted that

“I find international news overwhelming at times because of the many outlets that are offered. Each story or article can have conflicting opinions and it is sometimes difficult to learn the underlining story.”

  • bring the story to the audience. The people interviewed here said they would most likely only pay attention to a report about Africa if they came across it within their own social networking sites such as Facebook.  They would not visit CNN or the NYT to specifically look for such reporting.  Trevor, a 22-year-old student, said he would watch more international news but that it was  “hard to find.”
  • connect stories to existing interests. If the story could bring in sports or music or some topic the young news consumer was already connected to, it would make it easier to get them to pay attention.
  • use celebrities? Maybe. Christine, a 23-year-old college grad working in marketing, said she preferred the Affleck report because of its “Hollywood” connection.  In fact, many reported a third-person effect with their interview subjects certain that other people (not necessarily themselves) would trust Ben Affleck because he is a famous actor.  Yet others scorned the idea that Affleck was a serious conveyer of international news and said they would specifically avoid reporting if it was delivered by celebs. Mike, 22, who gets much of his news from blogs and spends his spare time biking, sewing and watching movies, said of the Affleck DRC report,

“This video was a joke for me. It took an issue that needs to be addressed and made a mockery of it.”

So, has news coverage of  US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Africa this week made use of any of these suggestions?  Not that I’ve seen.  And for all the reasons noted above, we can expect younger audiences haven’t paid much attention.  While they may not have been the intended audience anyway, without news media laying the groundwork for interesting younger audiences early on, the likelihood of them developing a yen for global stories later on seems pretty slim.

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3 thoughts on “News Coverage of Hillary in Africa: Does Anyone Under 30 Give a Damn?

  1. To be fair, the New York Times website has not treated the story well either. Front page reports about the trip are usually low on the page, and there have been no pictures that I can recall. Further, the Times policy of using last names only in headlines has meant some confusion with *Bill* Clinton and his negotiations in North Korea and their aftermath. Also, the Times of late has run pieces on Hilary Clinton’s diminished visibility in an administration led by an African-American president who is quite assertive in foreign policy, Bill Clinton’s reemergence as a “player,” and so on. I’m trying to remember if Madeleine Albright faced the same uphill struggle early on.

    But my point, I guess, is that not only are the younger people disinterested, the news media themselves are largely doing a piss-poor job of covering Africa, for any number of reasons: racism, sexism, whatever.

    Among mainstream outlets, I find the BBC (particularly the World Service) to be the only one that covers Africa with any depth. But then, Nigeria is either the largest or second largest audience for the service.

  2. Great comment. The writing’s on the wall — we are left with the BBC as the world’s international news outlet. One of the reasons I picked the two alternatives — basically PR from Amnesty and the VBS channel — is these sorts of entities will have to pick up the slack if we’re going to make up for the gutted coverage by mainstream news outlets.

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