Response by William Davison to “A Tale of Two Journalists”

To our readers: Below you will find a response to our Opinion Matters piece, “A Tale of Two Journalists.” This response was written by Guardian journalist William Davison. We would like to thank Mr. Davison for his comments. They are fair and balanced and we appreciate the civility of the discourse. We take his criticisms in the spirit of doing better next time as we hope he takes ours. 

Dear Strathink Editorial Team,

Thank you for inviting me to reply to your Opinion Roundup headlined ‘A Tale of Two Journalists: Graham Peebles and William Davison on Ethiopia’.

Your criticism is generally constructive and well intentioned and I appreciate the opportunity to publicly debate the issues.

I would feel slightly more comfortable engaging in this exchange, however, if I had more information about Strathink. As there’s little on your website, and my queries on the matter have not been answered, I’m going to make an educated guess and assume it’s a semi-autonomous think tank with connections to the Ethiopian government, probably the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

I appreciate the distinctions you make between the two foreign “journalists” featured, but I’m not comfortable being grouped together with Mr Peebles. As you note, his article is fervently and uniformly oppositional, and also it contains no original reporting. I’m a full-time journalist who’s been reporting from Ethiopia for more than six years, and the article is my latest attempt at objective analysis based on a reporting trip to Oromia. I’m not sure Mr Peebles even describes himself as a journalist? For example, he refers to a collection of essays in his response to your article.

Moving on to your specific criticisms of my article. The description of the introduction as a ‘cliché’ is confusing. Can you cite another example where the crossed arms resistance symbol made by the waist has been used before? A cliché cannot also be an exception.
To state that ‘The image conjures up ALL of the stereotypes of Africa’ is a manifestly false statement. Of course it doesn’t. Also, I think it would have been closer to saying something worthwhile if you’d qualified the stereotypes as ‘false’, ‘outdated’ or something similar. Stereotyping when well intentioned and rigorous is nothing more sinister than a legitimate effort to identify shared traits within a defined group.

If the ‘cliché’ is using a farmer opposed to the government to set the scene, then that is a different approach, albeit equally confused. Given that the Oromo protests were against the government and concentrated in rural areas, the decision to feature a farmer opposed to the government is easily justifiable. Strathink itself notes, incorrectly, that more than 85 percent of Ethiopia’s population is subsistence farmers. So arguably journalist should feature poor farmers when covering rural Ethiopia to provide an accurate representation? (The normally cited statistic is that around 80 percent of Ethiopia’s workforce is employed in agriculture.)

The apparently perverse criticism raises the question: What would you have liked me to feature in the introduction that is more representative of the political situation I’m covering in Oromia? Furthermore, the arms-crossed-by-the-waist-gesture was actually a genuinely strong image to convey the article’s thrust: ‘anti-government sentiment persists, but, for now, is muted’.

Given this context, what are we to make of this passage?
“It’s clichéd but Mr. Davison needs to put a human face on the political upheaval of the past two years. He needs to give the Western audience a picture in their minds of an African because Western audiences respond better to an image than an explanation. The image conjures up all of the stereotypes of Africa. Poor farmer. Repressive government. The scene is set.”

When a reporter goes to discuss Brexit in a rural county in the U.K., or Trump in the U.S. Midwest, they also need to put a ‘human face on the political upheaval’, right? Is it an unacceptable ‘cliché’ if they begin the article with a description of an ex-steelworker stacking shelves in Walmart? Maybe the U.K. piece opens with a market trader concerned about the impact of EU regulations on the shape of their bananas. To adapt your analysis:

‘THEY need to give the Western audience a picture in their minds of a WESTERN PERSON because Western audiences respond better to an image than an explanation. The image conjures up all of the stereotypes of BREDXIT/TRUMP. ALIENATED VOTER. ECONOMIC GRUMBLINGS. The scene is set.’
Would this be an acceptable way to report these other issues? If so, then your criticism of my lead is invalid. If it’s not acceptable, then your critique is of an aspect of news journalism as conventionally practiced — not my reporting style, let alone my attitudes towards Africa. (Or perhaps it’s a criticism of the psychology of the average Western reader, who is apparently too simple-minded or distracted to appreciate straightforward verbal descriptions. Here you could be on firmer terrain.)

Assessing the section on land is more complex. I agree that my coverage of the issue was cursory. The purpose was primarily to inform Guardian readers that land was an issue and brief describe to what the locals were saying. But if the treatment of the issue was inadequate, to describe it as ‘reckless abandon’ is hyperbole. Pointing out that tenant farmers feel insecure is uncontroversial and relevant to the political situation. Sure it would be interesting to describe the background to collective land ownership in Ethiopia, but it is not essential context for this article.

Yes, Ethiopia (174) is below South Sudan (169) and Afghanistan (171) in the UNDP 2015 Human Development Index, which is, as far as I’m aware, is the most recent year data is available for, and was linked to in the piece. I don’t understand Strathink’s comment aside from that it appears to be a sloppy mistake. There are probably methodological arguments to make on the matter, but then the Ethiopian government’s proponents don’t spend too much time questioning the UN’s methodology when they cite favorable socio-economic data.

Your criticism regarding Berhanu Nega is similarly flawed to your land comment, but also belies your unhealthy interest in him, as evidenced by the seemingly disproportionate coverage you give Ginbot 7’s leader on Strathink’s website (It’s only you and the New York Times who cover him in-depth), and your lack of familiarity about the format of this type of article. My article was not about Berhanu Nega, or his organization. Rather than not saying he’s a ‘self-professed terrorist’ because it ‘ruins the simplistic narrative of his story’, I did not say it because, again, it is largely irrelevant. Describing him as ‘banned’ is sufficient to describe his legal status, and there’s no space in a 1,200-word article about Oromia for any more elaborate description. If anything, I should not have bothered to describe him as a ‘nationalist’, as it doesn’t add anything to the piece.

On these issues, land and Berhanu Nega, you would have done well to place your criticism within a broader perspective and more relevant context. If you appreciate your misunderstanding of the relevance of Ginbot 7’s ‘all means necessary’ struggle to the article, you should realize it’s a non-sequitur to conclude:
“Mr. Davison echoes the tired story of Graham Peebles—freedom fighters battling an oppressive African government exercising its power over the people using brute force. This narrative continues to sell in the Western media.”

(Apart from anything else about this, your most wild accusation, it is the overwhelming strength of the Ethiopian government’s security forces compared to relatively weak protesters that is a key factor in the Oromia situation.)

These weaknesses and errors in your specific criticisms invalidate your conclusions. But let’s look at them anyway. They’re mostly about the allegedly lingering effects of colonialism.
“Each story that simplifies and distorts Ethiopia’s narrative reinforces an outdated perception of Ethiopia, and Africa as a whole. Colonialism ended in the last century but the cultural lens that the outside world uses to view Africa is active today.”

European colonialism was, at least, genocidal, racist, infantilizing, proselytizing, hubristic, and exploitative. This was a reported article about how some people from the Oromo community feel about their situation and the Ethiopian government. I am struggling to understand where a colonial hangover plays into my treatment of the subject matter. Is it the Oromo interviewed who suffer from it? Have you spoken to the farming communities described in the article and they criticized the colonial filter I employed?

If you don’t have the evidence and the arguments to back up the insulting allegations you made, then you should not make them. Frankly, your conclusions seem like a lazy clichéd technique to deflect attention from the problems discussed, including the issue of ethnic marginalization that is related to allegations of internal colonization.

This is not to say that the legacy of European colonialism is irrelevant, of course. There are obvious and unsatisfactory reasons why, for example, journalists from former colonial powers are the ones writing in relatively influential international media about African countries. Clearly, I’m part of this system. But while structural inequities persist, and should be highlighted, do not make the mistake of thinking that all Westerners involved in Africa carry psychological or ideological baggage from the colonial era. While I make errors, and may well provide inadequate coverage of Ethiopia at times, I constantly aim to meet the ethical journalistic standards that you describe, rather than conceitedly and ignorantly trafficking in the discriminatory norms of the past.

As always, I’ve made my self-available for public criticism on this article — and some comments were made online in response to the article that are more valid than yours. The first was to point out that I did not include the views of Oromo supportive of the state of emergency and of the government’s reform efforts. This is a fair comment to some degree, but it was also actually the case that the vast majority of interviewees expressed their concern at the situation, fear about the state of emergency, and their belief that the underlying problems hadn’t been addressed by the government.
The second criticism was that I didn’t seek out the views of local officials for the article. There were some logistical issues that contributed to this, but it’s a valid point. I hope to reveal more about governance issues and reform efforts in future articles through the views of officials.

It should also be added that taking a sample of views from rural West Shewa Zone as representative of the Oromia Region is statistically dubious, to say the least. Resource constraints mean this type of situation is a constant problem for journalists trying to draw conclusions about large issues. Because of these problems, I try not to be overly confident when making conclusions, and report either only views that were part of a strong consensus, or state when certain perspectives are outliers.

These are some of the actual problems I see with the article. Maybe rather than falling back on truly hackneyed clichés about Conrad, you can strive to address these types of substantive issues in future Opinion Roundups when you analyze the international media’s criticism of Ethiopia.

In conclusion, I’m not sure it’s fair to say that I fell ‘short of good journalism’ in the piece, which was widely read, and generally well received by what I consider to be reasonable observers. Such an assessment is of course highly subjective, and you’re as welcome to your opinion on the matter as anyone else. I hope, however, I’ve shown that some of your opinions don’t rest on very solid factual foundations.

To say the article involved ‘journalistic lapses’ is as correct about this article as it is about the overwhelming majority of articles on complex subjects – if by a ‘lapse’ we define it as including section where there could have been improvement. As discussed, relevant details were omitted, and there is always more to say.

Thank you again for your criticism and for inviting me to respond. I think such exchanges between the media and representatives of Ethiopia’s elite political establishment – however shadowy – can only have a positive long-term effect.

Kind regards
Will

One Response to “Response by William Davison to “A Tale of Two Journalists””

  1. I appreciate your treatment of my response, Strathink eds. Re. this: ‘We take his criticisms in the spirit of doing better next time as we hope he takes ours.’ — Absolutely. Cheers, Will
    PS I suggest you add links to your original critique as well my Guardian article in your above ‘To our readers’ intro to my response.

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