How a courtroom ritual of forgiveness absolves white America

How a courtroom ritual of forgiveness absolves white America

Botham Jean’s younger brother Brandt Jean hugs convicted murderer and former Dallas Police Officer Amber Guyger after delivering his impact statement to her after she was sentenced to 10 years in jail, on Oct. 2, 2019, in Dallas. Guyger shot and killed Botham Jean, an unarmed 26-year-old neighbor in his own apartment last year. She told police she thought his apartment was her own and that he was an intruder. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News via AP, Pool)


Last week, fired Dallas police officer Amber R. Guyger, who is white, received a sentence of 10 years in prison for the murder of an unarmed black man, Botham Shem Jean.

While the sentence of 10 years for Jean’s murder certainly didn’t sit well with many, the other events of the courtroom are what have become the subjects of discussion — the words of grace, forgiveness, love and well-wishes offered by Jean’s younger brother to Guyger, capped off by a warm embrace. And if that were not enough, Judge Tammy Kemp, also an African American, added grace upon grace by going to her office to retrieve a Bible. After handing it to Guyger, the judge, too, embraced Guyger tearfully and warmly.

This scene of grace, forgiveness and reconciliation operates almost like a ritual. We saw it in 2015 when relatives of the nine victims murdered by Dylann Roof in the shooting inside an AME church in Charleston, South Carolina, told Roof “I forgive you.” We saw it again when then-President Barack Obama eulogized Pastor Clementa Pinckney, one of those killed by Roof in that Charleston church, by singing “Amazing Grace How Sweet the Sound …”

The show of grace and forgiveness toward Guyger, like those before it, requires that we ask some hard questions. What if “grace” and “forgiveness” and their compulsory racialized performance are part of what makes this anti-black world keep on ticking? What if grace and forgiveness work in the interest of anti-blackness? And finally, what if grace and forgiveness are part of what must be refused in order to bring to an end an anti-black and brown world?

I know these are profane questions for a society that holds up forgiveness as hallowed virtues. But I raise them not to cast judgment on Jean’s younger brother. The Jean family is grieving. They are in a process of healing in the wake of violence and irreparable loss. My questioning of the virtue of forgiveness and grace in civil society does not begin with the individual.

Rather, I raise these questions to get at how America is structured through race.

President Barack Obama leads mourners in singing the song “Amazing Grace” as he delivers a eulogy in honor of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney during funeral services for Pinckney in Charleston, S.C., on June 26, 2015. Pinckney was one of nine victims of a mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Photo by Brian Snyder/Reuters

That is, in asking about the value of forgiveness and grace within the American social and political structure, I am asking about how the anti-blackness of American society works through religion-like rituals and liturgies of grace and forgiveness. I’m interested in how grace and forgiveness function publicly, how they script roles around blackness and death within a society organized around whiteness as the sign of proper life, or the life that is properly human. In this context, police violence and forgiveness rituals work to secure the common good and civil society. They work to secure America as a project of religion. Such religion may be thought of as “the religion of whiteness.”

Sociologist Robert Bellah coined the phrase “American civil religion” to explain how a secular nation maintains a religious dimension that suffuses public culture, from the political realm to civil society itself. That religious dimension has embedded within it beliefs, symbols, and ritual practices — the most well-known being the inauguration of U.S. presidents.

But Bellah’s concern was not just with the history of American religious belief, symbols and rituals. He came to his insight about the working of American civil religion in a moment when the American fabric was being torn by internal strife. It’s as if through his work as a sociologist Bellah was channeling the racial melancholy of a nation in fear and despair. The moment of crisis that he was trying to make sense of was the violence against black life and the protest movements of the 1960s.

Bellah’s idea was that the belief in and commitment to the sacred ideal of equal rights to all humans as the natural law guiding the American project is what America has always drawn on. He makes a case that the Founding Fathers in their exodus from the Old World to the new drew from the reservoir of this civil religion to found the nation. Later in America’s history, Abraham Lincoln, as a kind of savior, drew from the civil religion reservoir as well, though in his case, it was to preserve a nation in the internecine distress of the Civil War.

Notwithstanding Bellah’s great insight about the operations of American civil religion, what he nonetheless failed to grapple with was the degree to which America as a religious project rooted in the higher ideal or the natural law of human equality and freedom for all rested on an inequality within the ranks of the human ideal of freedom.

Bellah failed to address how America, as a project guided by the ideal of human freedom and equality, was predicated on settler colonial genocide and the ongoing use of black lives as property to rework stolen land and to build the national treasury. Within this structure of violence and death, blackness cannot matter for itself but only for its usefulness. In short, Bellah did not account for anti-blackness, which is not America’s original sin but its DNA.

J. Kameron Carter. Courtesy photo

It is within this framework that the sacredness, sanctity and compulsory rituals of forgiveness must be understood. American religion needs black (and native) forgiveness in order to keep the national fantasy of civil society, which is anti-black, alive. After racial crisis and distress, American religion turns to rituals of forgiveness and grace carried out by those structurally positioned as black to re-cohere itself around its ideals of being the beacon of human equality and freedom. In fact, the rituals of forgiveness can be thought of as structural performances of the ideal made visible for an instant. These rituals of courtroom forgiveness display the “rightness” and sacredness of America as a project, confessed, as it were, by those who suffer under that project.

Again, what I am dealing with here is the American racial structure, not individuals. I’m dealing with why, within the religion of whiteness, whiteness needs black forgiveness to maintain itself. Black forgiveness is part of the ritual work of absolving or extending salvation to America. It is part of the work of re-cohering or saving whiteness in a moment of crisis. Should such black forgiveness be withheld, whiteness or the American religious project would face a potential collapse. It might suffer a “white out,” a possible end of the world or an end of its world.

But could the end of the world, a white out, be an alternative understanding of forgiveness, perhaps even an alternative religious orientation? Can there be a forgiveness that does not absolve guilt but brings the anti-black world to an end? Could there be a poetics of forgiveness that pressures forgiveness as we know it? Could there be a forgiveness that ends forgiveness, a forgiveness at the end of the world? Let’s hope so.

(J. Kameron Carter is a professor of religious studies at Indiana University. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

Halloween and the Holy Ghost

Halloween and the Holy Ghost

Video Courtesy of WYServe

It’s once again that time of year when I don’t know whether to say it’s pumpkin season or Jack-o-Lantern season.

It all has to do with this Christian dichotomy of how we regard Halloween. Is it a nationwide glorification of all things wicked, sinful, and abominable? Or is it merely a cultural ritual that celebrates the adrenaline rush of being scared, touts the fun of dressing up like something we’re not, and grants us permission to eat high-calorie sweets without guilt?

We can answer the question of what Halloween was by studying its origins. One of the world’s oldest holidays, it started with the Celtic festival Samhain (pronounced sow-in) that marked the end of summer. Believing the spirits of the dead would return, Celts lit bonfires, wore disguises and offered animal sacrifices to their deities to ward off ghosts. From that information, courtesy of the History Channel, we can imagine the evil celebrations that likely evolved as part of these practices.

But does that presumed celebration continue when we allow our kids to dress up and go door-to-door asking neighborly strangers for sweet treats? Are we acting as agents of the devil by donning our costumes for the various parties we’ll go to this weekend and Monday, likely with church worship services in between?

Probably not.

I would argue that the majority of people who plan to participate in the candy trade, costume parties, and perhaps mass readings of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark will not consider themselves celebrators of all things wicked.

Instead, it seems as if a sizable handful of Christians have created something else, devoid of any representation of questionable origins, for the sake of fellowship over bite-sized candy instead of bread. Quite honestly, the only evil I see in candy corn and other delectable features of the holiday, is the sugar content — and maybe the fact that isn’t sold in abundance year-round.

At the same time, I don’t deny the validity in the argument of those who vehemently denounce everything related to Halloween, including the motivation to make money. That’s likely what has made the holiday the hullabaloo it has become. Some interpretations of Halloween do, in fact, include Ouija boards, séances, and satanic rituals. I’m willing to bet, though, that people who practice that side of Halloween “fun” don’t need a holiday for that.

As an alternative to all that is demonic and unholy about Halloween, many churches opt to have a “Hallelujah Night,” where people still collect candy and play dress up — just in the form of biblical characters.

I attended several of those in my younger days. One year, it took me a while to figure out why one first lady came dressed like Barney. Turns out she was actually dressed as Lydia, the lady who sold — and apparently wore — purple. I was obviously less studied then, so she wasn’t the only one who threw me for a loop. The presumed Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz turned out to be the Lion of Judah. I never dressed up, but I often wondered whether my preferred costumes would’ve disqualified me from the festivities. After all, one kid wearing a sheet over his head and a cross around his neck had trouble at the door. The irony that the Holy Ghost almost couldn’t get into the church on Hallelujah Night wasn’t lost on me.

What if I had dressed as Saul’s buddy, the witch of Endor? That’s a biblical character. Or suppose I’d shown up with a platter fixed around my neck, serving up John the Baptist? (Yes, decapitation happened in The Omen and Friday the 13th movies, but it happened first in the Bible.)

The main thing that I didn’t understand then and struggle with now is telling the difference between Halloween as commonly practiced and its church-led alternatives. Candy? Check. Games and dressing up? Check. How do we know which is which, and is there a real difference beyond what we say it is?

I don’t have an answer and likely won’t anytime soon, but I guarantee you I’ll be having some candy corn in the meantime.

What the Story of Cyntoia Brown Should Teach Us

What the Story of Cyntoia Brown Should Teach Us

Video Courtesy of PBS

Last month, Cyntoia Brown Long was released from a Nashville prison after serving fifteen years of a life sentence for killing a man who solicited her for sex. Her story sparked a national conversation on how the justice system deals with abuse and sex trafficking victims who act in self-defense.

According to a study published by the Vera Institute of Justice in 2016, 86 percent of women in jail are survivors of sexual violence. Black women are incarcerated at around double the rate of white women.

Such cases speak to a large need in the justice system to recognize when an individual’s actions are the result of neglect, abuse, and circumstance.

Bishop Joseph W. Walker III

Bishop Joseph W. Walker III of Mt. Zion Baptist Church lobbied for clemency in Brown’s case. In his book Restored at the Root, he wrote about what Americans—and the church—can learn from stories like Brown’s:

What causes people to choose an oppressive mechanism as a remedy?

Too many use a nonredemptive approach to deliverance that is in conflict with the teaching of Jesus. Rather than use a model that liberates the man, they seek to tie him up further. Our justice system is an example of how we as a society have practiced putting chains on people and isolating them in places such as jails and prisons. We have created social systems designed to bind people instead of seeking methods to restore those who are engaged in behavior that often leads to criminal acts, especially when the behavior begins when they are teenagers or young adults.

Although many situations merit harsh consequences, there are countless cases where a different approach would bring about a more restorative result. People who are plagued by systematic oppression caused by social inequities such as unequal education and impoverished neighborhoods that are riddled with crime, drugs, and sex trafficking more frequently find themselves in the criminal justice system.

Over the years as a pastor, I have sat in courtrooms and visited jails and prisons to support my church members or the relatives of members when they found themselves face to face with the legal system. One of the most critical cases I have been intimately involved in is that of Cyntoia Brown. Her story was both tragic and complicated.

A victim of sex trafficking, prostitution, and abuse, Cyntoia Brown was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison, having been tried as an adult for a crime she committed in 2004 at the age of sixteen. In December 2018, her case was appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which ruled that she would be eligible for release after she serves fifty-one years in prison.

I met the governor shortly after he took office, and I had worked on a few of his initiatives that were important to us both. We had been friends for seven years and had mutual respect. I felt I was in a pivotal position to speak to him concerning this case. I requested a phone call with him in the eleventh hour of his tenure as governor. So many people had petitioned for Cyntoia’s release, and her amazing legal team had worked tirelessly on her appeals and were in constant contact with the governor. I chose to add my voice to a chorus of others advocating for her future.

On January 7, 2019, the governor decided to grant her clemency. I was honored to play a small role alongside so many others in advocating for this. I share this to provide a further understanding of my desire to see people like Cyntoia given a second chance at life. She was a teenager who had experienced much abuse in her life, and as a result, she became caught up in a situation that led to her committing a criminal act through which a life was lost and she was imprisoned.

Her conviction, like countless others’, is part of a larger systemic problem with incarcerating people who are often defenseless against the social ills of their community and end up engaging in criminal activity because they see no other options.

According to Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, “Mass incarceration is designed to warehouse a population deemed disposable—unnecessary to the functioning of the new global economy.”

People who are deemed disposable are placed on the margins, put in chains or handcuffs, and made to live in the dead places of our prison systems. There is a need for social reform to take place, more specifically in systems that seek to chain and contain instead of helping to restore those who have endured broken situations that led to a life in bonds.

My belief in the power of restoration over simple restraint led me to be an advocate for Cyntoia Brown’s clemency. As we look forward to her release in August 2019, my church and I plan to give her our full support as she enters the next phase of her life. We will walk with her through her years of probation, help her with job placement, and assist her in her efforts to be a voice for others who endured some of the same hardships.

Cyntoia’s case is just one example of how the current systems in place allowed for only one way of handling a person deemed disposable—to put them in bondage and lock them up. Yet the question must be asked, If that method is successful, why do our prisons continue to expand?

If we truly desire to restore order to our communities, cities, states, nation, and world, we must be intentional about our efforts to combat the forces of darkness that come against the world in which we live. Dealing with spiritual warfare is the responsibility of not just the individual but also the community at large. The church must be careful not to replicate the model of the Gadarenes:

He lived among the tombs. And no one could constrain him, not even with chains, because he had often been bound with shackles and chains. But he had pulled the chains apart and broken the shackles to pieces. And no one could subdue him. Always, night and day, he was in the mountains and in the tombs, crying out and cutting himself with stones (Mark 5:3–5, MEV).

When we tie people up, it is an attempt to control. We push things away or sweep them under the rug in an attempt to maintain what we hold sacred. Yet we run the risk of sacrificing the deliverance of our brothers and sisters to keep from disrupting our “sacred” systems. We have no idea how many people are hurting privately among us but are being pushed away because we don’t like their issues.

We must be willing to persevere through the process while seeking new approaches. Never lose hope. Perhaps God is using this moment to awaken a fresh vision in your church or ministry to reach those who are hurting and bound. They are not disposable to God; they are dearly loved.

Bishop Joseph W. Walker III, DMin, is the senior pastor of the historic Mt. Zion Baptist Church of Nashville. His book Restored at the Root: Get to the Source of Social, Emotional, and Spiritual Struggle released August 6, 2019. Walker serves as the international presiding bishop in the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship International. He received a master of divinity degree from Vanderbilt University and a doctor of ministry degree from Princeton Theological Seminary. He holds two honorary doctorates, from Meharry Medical College and Southern University. Bishop Walker is a regular guest on The Rickey Smiley Morning Show radio program and has been a guest on CNN, CBS This Morning, and The Roland Martin Show. He and his wife, Dr. Stephanie H. Walker, have two children.

What did church teach the students posing in front of Emmett Till’s marker?

What did church teach the students posing in front of Emmett Till’s marker?

Video Courtesy of CBS News

The investigative news agency ProPublica released a photo showing three white students from the University of Mississippi posing with guns in front of a bullet-riddled marker dedicated to Emmett Till.

White men lynched Till, a 14-year-old black boy visiting from Chicago, for supposedly flirting with a white woman at a store in Mississippi in 1955. His murder, along with his mother’s defiant decision to display her son’s mutilated face in an open casket, helped spur the civil rights movement.

Upon seeing the photo, one of my first questions was: “What church do these young men attend?”

To ask about their churches is to inquire about the role communities of faith play in perpetuating or dismantling racism in its various forms. The young men may not go to church. They may not even be Christians. But in an area known as the “Bible Belt” the cultural influence of Christianity is strong. So how the church influences the racial understanding of white Christians deserves probing.

The young men positioned themselves in front of this marker like big-game hunters proudly displaying their deceased prize. It’s as if Till, his memory, his murder and his legacy were all just a game to this grinning group.

One of the people pictured even posted the photo on his Instagram account. It garnered almost 250 “likes” before being taken down when reporters started asking about it. One person who saw the photo filed a complaint with the University of Mississippi back in March, but officials there did not take any action. Instead they referred it to the FBI where the case stalled because officers said the photo “did not pose a specific threat.”

Other entities took more decisive action. The three men pictured all belong to the Kappa Alpha fraternity. According to its website, the fraternity cites Confederate General Robert E. Lee as its “spiritual founder.” When fraternity leaders were made aware of the photo last week, however, they immediately suspended all three frat brothers.

Aside from the disciplinary actions, other issues remain.

Did these young men bother to read the historical marker behind them to learn about Till and the significance of his life and murder? Did they think twice about posting this picture publicly and what it communicated about how they regarded black people? Did the teaching of their churches help or hinder their sensitivity concerning race?

Video Courtesy of NBC News

The primary question is not whether churches are endorsing overt racism; they almost certainly are not. The question is about how church leaders understand race and what they are teaching their members about it.

It could be the case that churches are not teaching much about race at all. Pastors remain relatively silent about racism from the pulpit, Bible study groups may not touch the topic, and few church members in homogenous white congregations ever bring it up.

In other cases, churches may talk about race, but in unhelpful ways. Oftentimes, they try to do so in a “colorblind” way by emphasizing commonality and by minimizing or ignoring differences.

They claim they “don’t see color” and that all believers are brothers and sisters in Christ regardless of their race or ethnicity. These teachings become problematic when the varied life experiences, racial hardships, and history of black people is blotted out in a blob of contrived sameness. Unity does not mean uniformity.

Other churches may have a truncated explanation for how race works. White evangelical Christians, in particular, tend to think of race in individualistic terms. The problem, they say, is bad relationships — as when a person doesn’t like another because of race, or when someone uses racial slurs. The solution, according to this line of thinking, is to have more positive relationships across the color line.

Relationships with people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds is a necessary part of bringing about racial justice, but it is not sufficient. Personal relationships have little impact on structural racial inequalities such as anti-black police brutality, high rates of maternity-related deaths among black women, or the racial wealth gap.

No amount of one-on-one lunches, small group discussions or coffee meetups will automatically impact the broader issue of institutional racism.

White churches have to be attuned to how they may implicitly reinforce racism. Some Christian churches have started private schools. If those schools do not intentionally embed racial awareness into their curricula and practice, they are likely perpetuating misunderstandings.

Some churches, in effect, make adherence to the Republican party platform a litmus test for Christian orthodoxy. Most black people are not Republican, so political differences can create barriers to belonging.

If churches want to improve the way they teach their members about race, they should start by examining their understanding of the term.

Ask church leaders to define the words “race” and “racism.” Oftentimes there are as many different answers as there are people answering. The key here is to move beyond a narrow concept of racism as only an interpersonal phenomenon. Christians must acknowledge the ways race operates on systemic and institutional levels. Developing a shared language and definitions is a key to improving racial responsiveness.

Churches also have to talk about race. On any divisive topic, the temptation is to avoid discussing it for fear of offending someone. But people are already talking about race— at the dinner table, at work, in group text messages — and they often do so in unhelpful ways. With a shared language and mutually understood concepts, pastors and church leaders can be the guides their members need for talking about race in nuanced, spiritual and morally informed ways.

What if those young men who proudly posed in front of a defaced sign dedicated to a lynched boy had been deeply educated by their church about race and racism? What if they’d had a Sunday School class on the history of American Christianity and race? What if they learned to see what the Bible says from Genesis to Revelation about how to understand and celebrate differences? What if those young men had learned a robust doctrine of the image of God to better grasp the dignity of all people?

No one should need specialized teaching to know that standing with guns in front of a plaque detailing Emmett Till’s murder is racist. An elementary understanding of U.S. history and a modicum of concern for other human beings should prevent such offenses. Yet, whether churches lend more to perpetuating racism or providing remedies remains a pressing concern.

If churches, which have historically had such a large role in driving racism, do not effectively teach their congregants about race, then many Christians will continue to be part of creating racial problems rather than helping enact solutions.

(The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

The Marathon

The Marathon


It can be an eerie feeling to see everyone around you accomplish the same goals that you have for yourself, whether it’s graduating, getting married, having kids, or getting promotions. For me, it’s even more difficult when the people closest to me are achieving these milestones. But I’ve come to accept that everyone’s race is different, and people don’t achieve things at the same time. We can’t compare our personal races with other people’s races because we never know what hurdles they had to overcome to get to where they are.

For me, it took four-and-a-half years to graduate with my bachelor’s degree. I was able to see some of my peers graduate in the standard four years and even some in three-and-a-half years. But I needed an extra semester to complete my undergraduate journey. I was a little devastated that I wasn’t graduating on time. According to The New York Times, “only 19 percent of full-time students earn a bachelor’s degree in four years.” But despite the statistics that the majority of full-time students take five-to-six years to graduate, I wanted to graduate “on-time.”

Being Twentysomething it seems that I haven’t been on time for any of the goals I made for myself when I was younger. By 25, I thought I’d at least be engaged to my college sweetheart, but here I am at 24 and have yet to have been in a serious relationship.  Sometimes I find myself getting upset that the plans I had for myself weren’t a part of God’s timing. How do we know what God’s “on-time” plan is for us? Did I miss the orientation where God told each of us when we would accomplish certain goals? It can be so frustrating, especially in this age of social media when you can see all the accomplishments of the people around you. It might make you feel like you aren’t doing something right. But trust me that isn’t the case. It’s all about God’s timing, not yours.


Despite things not happening the way I wanted them to, I know that as long as I keep my faith in God everything will work out. The Bible says, “At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up” (from Galatians 6:9 NLT). Knowing that it would take me an extra semester to get my bachelor’s degree I could have easily gotten discouraged, distracted or maybe even thrown in the towel. How many times have we thought about quitting something because it’s not happening as fast or easy as we wanted it to happen? It’s not about how fast or slow we finish the race, but that we finish.

Graduating with your bachelor’s degree at 50 or getting married and starting a family at 20 will feel no different if you accomplish it sooner or later in life. What God has for you will be for you, no matter how long it might take. So take a deep breath and don’t rush through your race to catch up with the masses. Jeremiah 29:11 says, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the LORD. ‘They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.’” God has a plan for your life. So go ahead and celebrate your friend’s engagement and know that if it’s in His will it will come to you.  If you are feeling down about something not happening when or how you want it to, stay faithful and hold on to God’s hand because He’s got you no matter what. And no matter what bumps in the road you encounter, remember life is a marathon, not a sprint.

Jordan Clayton-Taylor is a twentysomething recent college grad with a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and English and a minor in Black Studies. As Jordan navigates her way through life, she tries to walk by faith and not by sight while staying positive despite all the things going on around her. 



Donor-funded journalism is on the rise in Africa: why it needs closer scrutiny

Donor-funded journalism is on the rise in Africa: why it needs closer scrutiny

Some African journalists are concerned that foreign funders may influence what they cover and how.EPA-EFE/Jayden Joshua


An enormous and increasing portion of the foreign development aid coming into Africa annually is for media development. Foreign aid funds diverse projects, ranging from investigative journalism in Nigeria to stories on Chinese building projects in Kenya, or health reporting in South Africa.

The news media landscape and journalism practices – on the continent as well as globally – have undergone massive change in recent times. This, coupled with the collapse of familiar business models, and the limited potential for genuinely independent “watchdog” journalism, the relationship between external influences on local cultures and practices of journalism needs to be reassessed.

A report last year, by the American Centre for International Media Assistance, concluded that about US$600 million a year is spent on media development in Africa by state and private funders. This may exceed a billion dollars if the opaque amount China spends on media operations and training globally is included. Much of this is focused on Africa.

But how does this aid influence journalism in Africa?

Our recent international study examined the impact of foreign development aid on media systems in seven African countries. These were Ghana, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Tanzania, Senegal, South Africa, and Sudan. A separate report focused on Latin America.

We witnessed parallel and intensifying debates among media workers in developing countries who accept (or depend on) foreign funding. Funders themselves are also increasingly reflecting on their objectives and how they measure success. And, the role of foundations in funding journalism is coming under increasing scrutiny.

Much of the media aid industry still holds the view that media workers and institutions in the South should emulate their counterparts in the North. But, our study took a different approach. We asked to what extent a flow of foreign money has affected the ability of developing regions to foster a critical and independent media sector.

Chinese versus Western perspectives

Journalists who took part in our project worried that the foreign assistance or travel they’ve received may limit the stories they can tell, or influence the way they tell them. On the other hand, they often feared that without foreign financial support, critical journalism in their countries would vanish.

The colonial powers of Britain, France, and Portugal still cast a long shadow over Africa’s media. More recently, however, African media has been shaped by the US and China. Many foreign interventions are small, like the funding of a single investigative news story, for example. But some are massive.

Since the end of the Second World War in 1945, foreign aid has been directed at disseminating a model of journalism practice and education that aligns with the interests of wealthy, Northern donor nations. Chinese involvement in Africa has led to questions being asked about the assumptions underpinning Western media funding and training.

Because Chinese media are based on a very different model, their initiatives have caused anxiety among journalists and commentators steeped in the liberal-democratic tradition. This tradition emphasizes the “watchdog” role of journalism.

Chinese media, on the other hand, adopt a more persuasive and positive tone and favor official perspectives. This, while taking a critical view of the history of Western involvement in Africa. This approach is sometimes called “constructive journalism.” It promises to present Africa in a more positive light than the stereotypes that have historically characterized Western coverage.

The establishment of Chinese media outlets such as China Global Television Network, the wire service Xinhua, and China Radio International in Africa have been seen as part of China’s strategy to increase its visibility overseas.

Simultaneously, the cultural diplomacy component of media aid has seen African journalists receive offers for paid travel to Europe, North America, and especially to China.

We know little about how these exchanges – and other forms of foreign investment by corporate or religious institutions – affect African media and the stories they tell.

The fear is that the Chinese model, because of the government’s control over the media, is dangerous to introduce in African countries where press freedom has often come under attack.

But fears about a major shift may be overblown or premature given that research has shown that the influence of Chinese media on journalists and audiences in Africa remains minimal.

For its part, Western aid has resulted in an Anglo-American culture of journalism education, which has proved impractical to implement in countries with illiberal political regimes.

A quandary

Should under-resourced African journalists accept any foreign funding?

This is a difficult question. There are risks that come from shunning aid. This includes missed opportunities to develop African media or report independently on local power brokers.

On the other hand, aid can be used to coerce journalists to change their norms and practices unduly.

Media producers and users in developing countries need to be more vigilant about foreign media support. And they need to evaluate it. For citizens in countries that provide such aid, the challenge is to scrutinize the efforts made in their name.The Conversation

Herman Wasserman, Professor of Media Studies and Director of the Centre for Film and Media Studies, University of Cape Town; Audrey Gadzekpo, Professor in the Department of Communication Studies, University of Ghana, and Chris Paterson, Senior Lecturer in International Communication, University of Leeds

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.