Peter Wonacott, The Wall Street Journal Africa bureau chief.
How did you become interested in Africa in the first place?
My academic and reporting background focused on Asia, China especially. I spent my honeymoon in 2000 climbing Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and going on safari at the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, but still never thought I would be based in Africa as a journalist. It was only a decade later, when the opportunity came up to open the first WSJ Africa bureau in Johannesburg, that I began to see the similarities between reporting I had done in China and India and what I could do in Africa. I felt I had a perspective that could be useful in telling the story of the continent’s economic opening and the emergence of its middle class, along with a multitude of other stories on security, politics, culture, etc.
What are some common myths about the journalism profession?
That journalists are cynics, always looking for ways to cast their subjects in a negative light. The best journalists are insightful narrators, who look for compelling stories that give meaning to the day’s news and the people behind the news.
Who were the biggest inspirations for your career?
I have many, but can mention a few …My father Paul Wonacott was a widely-traveled lawyer who was endlessly curious and loved to befriend people from different countries – important attributes for any journalist. Reading the books of Sinologist Orville Schell on China’s modernization convinced me journalists were also students of politics, history and culture and the most engaging stories not just informed but instructed. My predecessor in South Asia, Daniel Pearl, abducted and murdered by al Qaeda, was a courageous, witty and humane journalist – it shows in his stories.
The news can have a big impact on people and the decisions it takes. How important is this knowledge in your work?
Extremely important. We think hard, often collectively, about a story’s impact before it’s published. We try to make sure that people who should have a voice in our stories do…even those people who don’t want to speak with us, we try to persuade them the story will be stronger if their point of view is included.
In what way journalism can contribute to the understanding and promotion of African culture?
Whether it’s China’s in the 1990’s or India in the 2000’s, there’s heightened interest in a place when it becomes a core part of global news coverage, as Africa is today. African fashion, art and music have always had a global following, but I think the interest is more mainstream now – perhaps because the artists and the people who are promoting the art are becoming more familiar to our readers.
Do you think that the perception that common people have of Africa is correct or do they need to be made more aware of it?
Clearly the panic in the U.S. and parts of Europe over Ebola shows that many people still have a lot to learn about Africa, not least the vastness and diversity of the continent. I would hope one silver lining of Ebola, and the recent U.S.-Africa Leaders’ summit, is that we better understand how much people have to learn about the continent. The upside to doing so is great. The downside of not doing so is also great.
Africart Org mission is to promote the development of Africa counteracting the lack of information about the high quality of its art and culture: what do you think about this topic?
Mission Possible. My experience has been the more people know about Africa, including its art and culture, the more they want to learn…Good luck!