Against a ‘Silo-ized’ African Journalism Scholarship: Advancing a Comparative Transnational Research Agenda
by Hayes Mawindi Mabweazara
Journalism as a vibrant field of study has come of age. Several journals and books dedicated to the critical interrogation of journalism as a social practice have emerged and crystallised into a mature academic field known as Journalism Studies. Spinning off from several well-established disciplines through the twentieth century in the US and the UK, Journalism Studies is by no means a coherent field. It is an inherently fractal province, which in itself speaks to the very nature of journalism as a ‘broad church’ that caters to a wide range of interests, opinions and people.
While research broadly continues along the lines that have gone on for many years, especially in cognate fields such as cultural and media studies, communication studies, politics and sociology, all largely dominated by Western scholarship, pockets of research are emerging from the global South. Thus, as journalism itself has increasingly become a global phenomenon, thanks to the Internet, its study has also inevitably become international and collaborative in scope.
Africa has not fallen behind in these developments. The region has seen a bourgeoning of scholarship that offers valuable comparative insights into the complex imbrications between journalism and society in a vastly changing media, socio-economic, political and technological environment. One of the oldest and leading Journalism Studies journals to emerge from the continent, African Journalism Studies, has become a key intellectual forum in the field. Its theoretical and empirical interventions have not only enriched journalism studies in Africa, but contributed significantly towards the internationalisation of journalism research as a rapidly globalising field. The journal’s comparative and interdisciplinary approach places African Journalism Studies firmly within a broader, comparative perspective that makes critical interventions in global scholarly debates. Its founding editor, editor-in-chief and associate editors have high international disciplinary reputations as do the editorial board members who are well-respected international scholars.
In equal measure, several journalism studies books focusing on Africa have also emerged. A more recent addition to this growing corpus of research is the edited book volume, Newsmaking Cultures in Africa (2018), which, to use Silvio Waisbord’s (2013, 9) terms, empirically demonstrates the shortcomings of universalistic assumptions about “one single understanding of ‘good journalism’ […] for a world of diverse journalistic cultures and occupational ethics pulled in different directions by political, economic, and social forces”. The volume demonstrates the importance of understanding African journalism in its transnational comparative context; an approach that helps us to understand developments in journalism in their multiple complexities.
As I see it, comparative research’s contribution has far deeper implications. It invites us to see our world from alternative viewpoints and thus tease out the transnational dimensions of journalism as a social practice. Blindly locking research in one country or region will not get us far. If anything, as Sonia Livingstone (2003, 478) alerts us, it has the potential to generate “claims whose specificity or generalizability are indeterminate without comparable [empirical evidence] from other countries”. More fundamentally, from a global South perspective, comparative research challenges an over-reliance on Western knowledge through projecting insights that invite us to rethink conclusions largely drawn from studies conducted in splendid oblivion of conditions and experiences in non-Western contexts.
The propagation of ideas around developments in journalism should thus not be left to the monopoly or intellectual hegemony of one region. We need to emancipate our thoughts from the “shackles of [Western] intellectual imperialism” (Alatas 2000, 24) or “Western-dominated flows of research and theories” (Waisbord 2015a, 31). This way, we contribute to the consolidation of “an academic community with a shared intellectual core” (Waisbord 2015b, 586) but remain critically aware of the importance of context and difference.
Thus, although our understanding of African journalism should be firmly rooted in its locale, we should avoid cementing “a localized research agenda of separatism” (Atton and Mabweazara 2011, 670), which is akin to ‘scholarly inbreeding’ or what Waisbord aptly sums up as “silo-ized scholarship” (Waisbord 2015b, 585). Rather, as Alatas rightly argues, we should “assimilate as much as possible from all sources, from all parts of the world, all useful knowledge. […] with an independent critical spirit, without turning our backs on our own intellectual heritage” (Alatas 2000, 27, emphasis added).
Ultimately, it should be as much about showcasing the diversity of journalistic cultures as it is about connecting and ‘cultivating dialogue’ across journalism scholarship. As Livingstone puts it, we should not underestimate how much we can learn from “different cultures or what can be achieved [through] the combined creative intelligence” of diverse but focused scholarship, sharing “insights and energies” (2003, 481). We should strive towards avoiding the pitfalls of ‘academic isolationism’ – existing in one’s “research compartment, disconnected from the rest” (Waisbord 2015b, 586).
The research approach I am advancing here (and elsewhere in my research, see Newsmaking Cultures in Africa, 2018), challenges research that essentialises or frames experiences in Africa as the ‘normative other’ without carefully considering the potential contributions of those experiences to the broadening of our knowledge and to ‘theory building’. In other words, research from wider and varied contexts should provide a backdrop for testing and supplementing the predominantly Western perspective on which African (journalism) researchers continue to rely.
Atton, Chris and Mabweazara, Hayes. M. (2011). “New Media and Journalism Practice in Africa: An Agenda for Research”. Journalism: Theory, Practice & Criticism 12(6): 667–673.
Alatas, Syed, A. (2000) ‘Intellectual Imperialism: Definition, Traits, and Problems’, Southeast Asian Journal of Social Science. 28(1), 23-45.
Livingstone, Sonia (2003) ‘On the Challenges of Cross-National Comparative Media Research’, European Journal of Communication, 1
Waisbord, Silvio. 2013. Reinventing Professionalism: Journalism and News in Global Perspective. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Waisbord, Silvio (2015a) Remaking ‘Area Studies’ in Journalism Studies, African Journalism Studies, 36(1): 30-36.
Waisbord, Silvio (2015b). “My Vision for the Journal of Communication”, Journal of Communication 65, 585-588.
Hayes Mawindi Mabweazara teaches media, communication and international journalism at the University of Glasgow, UK, where he is affiliated to the Glasgow University Media Group. He has previously taught journalism studies at Falmouth University, UK, as well as at the National University of Science and Technology, Zimbabwe. He is Associate Editor of the journal, African Journalism Studies and Research Associate in the Department of Journalism, Film & Television at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa. His most recent publication is the edited volume Newsmaking Cultures in Africa (Palgrave, 2018).