The Numbers Game in African Reporting

Donnelly, John
September 2004
Nieman Reports;Fall2004, Vol. 58 Issue 3, p18
This article explains why many statistics about Africa that reporters rely on can be so wrong and what inaccuracies can mean. There are several ways for journalists to proceed with numbers in Africa, and this advice applies to such work in other developing countries. Reporters want to use numbers in their stories. Just use caution when the numbers come out of Africa. Remain skeptical. Ask tough questions, and find ways to let readers understand the dilemma the numbers pose in their telling. Journalists should find ways to stop this charade of using ever-escalating estimates of disease and disaster that seem to be little more than desperate attempts for attention. In writing about the human suffering that exists on the continent of Africa, whether it is 13 million or 26.3 million Africans who are infected with HIV or 100.000 or two million people in Darfur who have run from their homes, the toll these disasters exact is dreadful. And in Africa, these troubles can be found on a so much greater scale than anywhere else. What journalists can do is let Africans speak for themselves about the difficulties they confront and the lives they want to lead without depending on numbers that we know are false to sell a story that simply deserves to be told.


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