Fourth Peter Stursberg Lecture puts new spin on conflict reporting

By Jena Lynde-Smith

An African correspondent’s experience covering the US presidential election was the subject of this year’s Peter Stursberg Foreign Correspondents lecture, redefining the annual event’s traditional focus on conflict reporting.

Larry Madowo, BBC’s North America Correspondent, took the virtual stage on Dec. 2 from his home in Washington, DC. He discussed his experience covering disputed presidential elections both in his native  Kenya and the US and noted the similarities.

“For somebody who grew up in a part of the world where America was seen as the beacon of democracy, as a shining light for what’s right… in many ways, the US has walked away from that role in the world,” he said.

“That image of American exceptionalism has been shattered these past few years but especially these past few weeks with this chaotic election and its outcome and the uncertainly about what happens next, the systematic undermining of institutions, the denigrating of what is fact, the process by which everything that doesn’t agree with me doesn’t exist…it has just been astounding for me watching it.”

The annual Stursberg lecture, now in its fourth year, was created in honour of legendary Canadian war correspondent Peter Stursberg, who pioneered radio coverage of the Second World War for the CBC. Stursberg passed away at the age of 101 in 2014 and his children Judith Lawrie and Richard Stursberg endowed the talk in his honour.

Madowo said what he has been covering during the presidential election and its aftermath has been a form of conflict.

“This is a conflict in the war of words, in the conflict of ideas and a conflict in the differing visions of this country and the frontlines of this is played out in misinformation,” he said.

“The frontlines of this war is not in …people taking arms but it’s in misinformation which is much harder to put out.”

This year’s Stursberg lecture was moderated by Nahlah Ayed, host and producer at CBC IDEAS. Excerpts from the lecture and discussion will be broadcast on a later episode of Ideas.

Richard Stursberg, speaking on behalf of the family at the start of the event, said his father would have been pleased with the choice of speaker.

“I think it’s a very good thing that Carleton has broadened the issue of conflict journalism…beyond studying conventional warfare to all these other forms of conflict,” Stursberg said.

From Kenya to America

Madowo began his career in Kenya as a business reporter and anchor on two national TV networks. He was also an anchor for CNBC Africa and more recently, the BBC’s Africa business editor. In 2018, Madowo was named among the 100 most influential Africans. He was also named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic forum in 2020. Having reported from 40 countries, lived on three continents and interviewed some of the world’s most prominent people, Madowo brought a fresh perspective to the fourth annual Stursberg lecture.

Madowo said he was thrown into the ring early in his career. His first major assignment as a reporter was covering the disputed Kenyan presidential elections of 2007 which erupted into violence after both leading candidates declared that they won. More than 1,000 people were killed in the violence.

“People died because their supporters went to war. Thousands of people were displaced and it ended up at the international criminal court,” Madowo said. “It was a pretty jarring start to my journalism career.”

Madowo also recounted hiding out from authorities in a safehouse to evade arrest during the fallout from the 2017 election, when once again, the results were disputed. He was reporting on the events with a Kenyan television network at the time.

“They were camped outside of our office, and they wanted to arrest me and my colleagues,” he said.

“We ended up switching off our phones, sneaking out of the basement and into a safehouse as we tried to find a way to block the government from arresting us,” he said.

A Stranger in a Strange Land

Madowo said that as a graduate of Columbia he thought he had a firm grasp on the country’s culture and he understood America when he became a BBC North America correspondent based in Washington in July.

“I thought I knew the country, but America is such a country of contradictions. What looks easy to understand at the surface is often not what we see when we scratch even a little beyond the surface,” he said.

Madowo drew on the example of the Black Lives Matter movement. He said that you would think that all Black people in America would support the movement, but in fact that is not the case.

Madowo said it’s a difficult balance for him, reporting on the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I’m not an activist and I don’t want to be an activist but also this is my lived experience as someone who is Black and male in this country,” he said.

“There are ways that America reminds you of the colour of your skin in ways that can be disconcerting,” he said. “I’m aware of my blackness.’’

The state of the States

Discussing the environment in which he was reporting, Madowo recalled covering a Trump-supporter rally two days after the election. He was conducting an interview with one of the attendees when others began yelling at him.

“Many of these people are armed. When they gather, there will be counter protesters from the other side often who are also armed.”

Madowo said there were times when his team was reporting and they feared that violence might break out, or that producers with BBC back in London feared for their safety. And he said that as a Black man, those moments made him feel especially vulnerable.

“I often stand out in these sorts of events… that puts an extra target on your back,” he said.

“For the most part when I walk down the street I’m just another Black man walking down the street… but if I got pulled over by police I would genuinely fear for my life,” he said.

He also spoke of other microaggressions, like the time a clerk followed him around in a drugstore – assuming he might shoplift – or the evening when he was mistaken for a delivery man when he arrived at an upscale apartment building in Manhattan to attend a dinner party.

“I remember thinking this doesn’t happen to everyone, but it happens to people who look like me.”

He also recounted how surprised he was while filming in Georgia to be told by one person he was interviewing that there was a KKK meeting place just two streets over.

 

“This was not the first time that I felt grateful that I was working with a white cameraman and a white producer because as a Black male in this country there are moments where I’m travelling in predominantly white neighborhoods where I feel that I might be seen as out of place or somebody might consider me an intruder and either call the police on me or try to engage me themselves.”

“We all know how these situations end.”

War of Words

Madowo attributes much of the current turmoil in the US to the spread of misinformation. He said that many people only seek out information that agrees with their point of view and the networks feed that habit. He used the example of some American media outlets spinning claims about election fraud.

“It’s comfort food for people who don’t want to live in this America where Joe Biden will be president.”

An African Perspective

Madowo said that people from his home continent see hypocrisy in America’s ways. He described how US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, was calling on Africa for respect of free elections and rule of law, and peaceful transfer of power.

“Africans are like ‘isn’t it a little ironic, because you have a lot of issues back home… how do you not have the self-awareness to know that you don’t have the moral authority to be lecturing us right now on this very issue that you are facing – where it’s not clear if the current president is going to concede,’” he said.

Madowo said the rest of the world never thought America would have the sort of problems they are experiencing currently.

“The rest of the world is laughing at the US,” he said.

“It’s left is right, up is down and you never know what’s going to come next. It’s been truly bizarre.”

As a journalist in this landscape...

Madowo said that his Kenyan origins have helped him to be more attuned to his own predispositions. He said he was very aware of how Africans have sometimes been caricatured by the work of Western correspondents repeating stereotypes.

“As an African watching my country and my people described and thinking ‘that’s not who we are,’ now that I am a part of this western media machine I’ve spent so much time criticizing I have to be aware of my own biases and my own ways to try and understand something that is complex.”

Madowo said he tries to gain an understanding of the places he is reporting from – he speaks to the people, reads the local press, and listens to the local media. Madowo said that one way to avoid misrepresentation in international news stories is to diversify newsrooms.

“I would love to have more people that look like me. People of colour regardless of where they are from to cover every part of the world. I think it helps broaden our understanding of the world when people come in with fresh eyes,” he said.

“There’s a need for a deeper understanding and nuanced coverage of some of the more complex issues of the world and regardless of the reporter’s background or a reporter’s skin colour everyone should have an equal chance.”

Madowo said he experienced hardship growing up. He lost both of his parents before the age of 14.

“I think it has informed my world but also given me a sudden empathy when I deal with people who aren’t as privileged as I’ve become. I try and make sure I represent that and I do right by them.

“Everybody’s got a story,” he said.

Madowo said he is especially aware of his privilege when it comes to his working environment, as many journalists world-wide do not have the protection that he does.

“Sometimes in some countries, they’re killed just for doing their jobs and oftentimes they don’t get attention because they don’t work for any major news agencies… they’re quickly forgotten.”

Madowo said one of the benefits of his new role is the recognition that he gets to inspire other Africans.

“There are so few opportunities for people who look like us to be in these positions so I might not be holding power to account back at home in Kenya, but I think in ways that I’m still helping people understand this part of the world standing in the gap in the way.”

Holding out hope for the future of journalism, Madowo said journalists are essential now more than ever.

“They are the last line of defence against a complete disillusion of misinformation,” he said.

“It could be the difference between an all-out war, or people keeping peace.”

Photo illustrations by John MacGillis.