Vice’s African News Coverage offers different ways of explaining things and reaches the digital-savvy younger audience

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Vice is an international multimedia brand with assets in print (which it started out with), TV and online. It should be interesting to African broadcasters for two reasons. Firstly, it does news coverage that connects with young people, the demographic who are beginning to slip away from African broadcasters. Secondly, it covers news in general differently but also specifically news about Africa. Russell Southwood spoke to Vice Media’s Managing Editor Ryan Grim and Senior Editor and on-screen reporter Benjamin Shapiro at DISCOP Istanbul 2015.

The constant refrain about coverage of Africa is that it doesn’t really show what’s happening on the continent. In truth, Sub-Saharan Africa is a place where both good and bad things are happening and news is nearly always about bad things. The more substantive part of the accusation is that much news about Africa is like trying to understand living in Europe through reports of the war in Ukraine.

But there’s a second charge – which actually goes much wider than Africa- which is that news channels – both African and international – do not help the process of understanding what’s happening. News seems like a constant river where it’s hard to press a button that will explain the basics of a story to you or get below the short sound bites and one-minute items.

International news channels also take themselves extremely seriously and are often – dare one say it – rather pompous and full of their own importance. Worse still, TV channels often seem to chase the same story and cover it in ways that are often very similar.

So what does Vice do that’s different? Ben Schapiro explains with the help of the example of a recent piece he did on bubonic plague in Madagascar:”I had a morbid fascination with the bubonic plague since I was kid and reading about the Middle Ages. When I read about the outbreak of it in Madagascar, this was a story that fascinated me.” He quickly went from his childhood fascination to realising that it was a story about the collapse of Government and health infrastructure.

He pitched the idea to Vice Reports, the investigative arm of the company that looks for stories like this:”We were there in 2 months. No other news organisation could do that. We flew a helicopter to the villages in the north affected because it was not easy to get there otherwise….It’s a story of how the game is rigged against the most vulnerable people in the world.”

To see the report, click here. The result of the trip was a 25 minute documentary, an article (written by Robert Young Pelton with photos by Tim Freccia), an infographic and an accompanying PR push by Vice. The company has 5.6 million You Tube subscribers and 1.2 million of them watched this programme. The team’s writer wrote 30,000 words, which as Schapiro says is “almost like a book.”

“We’re trying to tell important stories. A USAID worker said to me, you’re able to react quickly. It would take me a year to raise the money to do a documentary like that.”

This is not a one-off but part of a continuous series of reports that Vice has done looking at news issues in Africa including Liberia, South Sudan and Nigeria. Grim and Schapiro showed the report on the Nigerian Delta as part of their presentation at Discop Istanbul 2015. For me, it came the closest to explaining actually what is happening there and why of any news report or documentary I’ve seen.

So why is there coverage so different? Both Grim and Schapiro didn’t start out as traditional news journalists. Schapiro was a professional drummer and later a music writer and Grim started off on online information websites. The ideas don’t come out of the frenzy of newsrooms that feed on their own stories and agency copy.

The presentation of the story is different. Most TV reporters like to give the impression that they’re whole lot smarter than the rest of us. But what they’ve actually done is talk to a whole lot people. The Vice reporters show you the process of acquiring that information and make you part of that process.

Despite the trope that the young don't’ have more than a minute attention span, this coverage gets watched right through. Its style and presentation meets the expectation of young, digital natives and therefore they use it.

News processes are going digital and interactive with citizen journalism and social media. Africa is no exception to these changes, particularly in urban areas where news is made and consumed. The news centre of gravity is moving away from radio and TV. In the market research we have carried out in Africa, those in the focus groups described how they checked their mobiles throughout the day for what is happening.

Instead of producing more lifestyle programming, perhaps some of Africa’s biggest media owners need to think about how they do their own news coverage. If Africa (in all its complexity) wants to be understood by the rest of the world, it needs to be able to explain itself to the mass of its young citizens first.

 


 

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