Journalism and Sensationalism in a Tense Political Atmosphere: delivered by the Chief Press Secretary to Ekiti State Governor, Mr Olayinka Oyebode at the monthly forum of Broadcasting Corporation of Ekiti State Chapel of the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) on January 30th, 2013.
I am happy to be part of this great gathering today, discussing this noble profession of ours, examining and re-examining ways to make it better than we met it. I must thank the executive of this chapel for the invitation extended to me to be guest speaker at this month’s forum. I believe one of the ways we can preserve this profession is to ensure constant intellectual and professional engagements of this nature leveraging on the concomitant cross fertilization and cross pollination of ideas.
The theme of today’s discussion – Journalism and Sensationalism in a Tense Political Atmosphere- is quite apt. Not because we are in a very tense political atmosphere, but because as journalists, our words and writings can make or mar the peace and prosperity of our immediate society and the world in general.
Today’s discussion is not an attempt to teach journalism nor re-write the ageless rules of the profession, it is just a humble and gentle reminder that as members of the forth realm of the estate, we have a huge responsibility- to contribute meaningfully to the socio-political and economic development and stability of our nation. Should we fail in this enormous responsibility, the result is best imagined- an erosion of public confidence in national discuss, undue heat in the polity resulting in stunted growth and unhealthy economic condition.
Towards Developmental Journalism
The history of Nigeria’s political development cannot be told without a generous mention of the contributions of journalists. Right from the pre independence era to the military and post military era and the current democratic dispensation, the media has continuously played significant roles as the conscience of the nation, molder of public opinion and defender of the defenceless. Journalism has also helped in many ways to improve the climate of democratic debate and reduce corruption in public life. At the same time, media sensitive to the importance of human rights provide reliable sources of information through which citizens, human rights groups, private organisations and public authorities can work together to promote development and to eliminate arbitrariness.
Stories abound about how journalists have put their lives or freedom at risk in order to promote transparency and accountability in governance. Needless to say that many journalists have been killed, maimed or imprisoned howbeit unjustly because they chose to be on the side of the people in the war against dictatorship and also by speaking truth to power.
At the same time media must accept scrutiny of their own affairs, for scrutiny is the sanction which journalists hold over others. The scope and effectiveness of self regulation is itself a benchmark of public confidence in journalism.
In 2008, Ethiopian authorities presented a draft policy document which established development journalism as the official reporting style for the state media. The policy prescribes that the media and journalists should play an active role in the country’s development scheme. While many scholars see the Ethiopian approach to development journalism as laudable in view of the attendant positive effect on socio political and economic growth, many have argued that development journalism need not be decreed by the state. Instead, it should be borne out of the genuine desire of the journalists to contribute meaningfully to development through the instrumentality of his profession.
Development journalism became popular with African governments in the 1970s and 1980s as a way to utilize the media for national growth. Various leaders willingly adopted the model and adjusted it to their system of governance, be it military, autocratic, one-party democracy or multi-party style. By the turn of the century, however, development journalism or development reporting had largely vanished as a concept in African media policy. However, though the concept itself faded, governments continued to view the media as important to nation-building. As of late, scholars have reconsidered development journalism as a promising model for African media practice, as further exemplified by UNESCO’s recommendation to include development journalism as an elective course in journalism programmes for emerging democracies. Development journalism, it would seem, is gaining renewed interest within African media circles The good news is that the media can be highly effective in reducing conflict in strife-ridden societies. International agencies and non-government organizations (NGOs) are increasingly convinced that an unbiased and diverse media ranks almost as high as emergency relief in countries facing or active in war.
Reliable information – such as where to get food, when is it safe to return, what common ground exists among all sides – is an essential element of stabilizing a society. In countries moving towards democratic government, a free and accountable media, one that monitors rights abuses and promotes divergent opinions, helps deter a return to violence. A biased or hatemongering media can sabotage almost any other peace building effort.
Traditionally, bad news is considered good news in journalism. That is why the story of a tanker fire where 100 lives are lost will catch the attention of an editor as a more sellable lead than the story of a 10 year old that broke his school record as Best student in Mathematics.
It is this desire to report conflict in a more responsible way- paying less attention to the escalation of violence to the possibility and dynamism of peace initiatives aimed at ending it that informed renowned Mathematician and journalists, Prof Johan Galtung to propound the concept of Peace Journalism, or what many scholars refer to as Conflict Solution Journalism, Conflict Sensitive Journalism and Constructive Conflict Coverage.
Espousing this concept at a seminar held at the European peace University, Shlaining, Austria in February 2008, Prof Galtung , who is widely respected as the creator of Peace Studies as an academic field noted that most poor handling of conflict reporting usually leads audiences to overvalue violent responses to conflict and in the process ignore non-violent alternatives.
According to him, Peace journalism aims to correct these biases. Its operational definition is “to allow opportunities for society at large to consider and value non-violent responses to conflict” This involves picking up calls for, and articulations of, non-violence policies from whatever quarter, and allowing them into the public sphere.
Peace Journalism also aims to shed light on structural and cultural causes of violence as they impact upon the lives of people in a particular setting as part of the explanation for violence. It aims to frame conflicts as consisting of many parties and pursuing many goals rather than a simple dicotomy. An explicit aim of peace journalism is to promote peace initiatives from whatever quarter and to allow the reader to distinguish between stated positions and real goals.
Whether Development journalism or Peace journalism, current efforts by scholars are geared towards a more responsible and responsive journalism and down playing sensationalism, which many media organizations have found as a viral tool to up their sale and worm their ways into the hearts of unconscious readers/viewers.
Sensationalism in the Nigerian Context
Screaming headlines that have little or no substance seem to the order of the day in many media organizations in the country today. Many unsuspecting readers/ viewers have also been fed with a pout pourri of half baked truth and outright falsehood by news organization in the desperate bid to be the first to break the news or get a fresh dimension to the story. Many have also become experts in the art of recycling pepper soup joint gists into “world exclusives” , without paying attention to the negative impact on the society.
It has been argued that the reportage of the activities of the Boko Haram sect is still being sensationalized by my media organizations, laying emphasis on the seeming invisibility of the sect and the huge number of casualties at the expense of the moral question or the rationale for the dastardly act. Also many have found quite disgusting decision by some media organization to focus on and unduly celebrate a criminal who is standing trial for theft of public fund in the region of billions of naira but who storms the court with about 20 lawyers. The attention shifts to the array of lawyers he is able to hire, the huge amount he has stolen and the sleek car that brought him in and out of the court. While little scrutiny is made on the morality of his actions.
Unfortunately sensationalized journalism is no longer limited to reporting. Now we have sensationalized opinion articles with screaming headlines, which are at best a re-arch of poorly investigated news stories, which the opinion writer, sometimes editorial writers, do not have the patience and courage to scrutinise before “converting” it to opinion.
I have read stories and opinions about the 4,000 LG workers purportedly sacked last year by Ekiti State Government, whereas nothing of such happened. But the 4,000 figure that was craftily attached to the story was the attraction. These are lies whose life span is just a few hours. The few hours that it will take a professional journalist to seek clarification and applying the principle of five “W’ – Where, When, what, why and who?
I have said this in many for a that a journalist in Ekiti State has no business writing sensationalized or poorly investigated news stories because the state is an open book that can be assessed by all and sundry. Information relating to government activities, policies and spending are just a click away. This include details of contracts, on going projects and budget details.
In Ekiti State, the website www.ekitistate.gov.ng is rated number one government website in terms of information and accessibility. Every information a journalist may seek on any government policy are daily loaded on the website, while functional telephone numbers and email addresses of the Governor, Dr Kayode Fayemi, commissioners and other top government functionaries are clearly stated on the website. This is in addition to the regular town hall meetings and media engagements by the government where policies are explained in very simple language.
Added to this is the fact that the state is the first to pass the Freedom of Information Bill into law. This law allows the citizens access any information by simply following the laid down procedures.
Any journalist that is worth the name should take advantage of these unique arrangements to do a thorough investigation in the bid to churn out excellent stories, that are devoid of unnecessary gaffes in the name of sensationalism.
One of the remarkable things about the present administration is that since its inception in October 16th, 2010, the state has been rated as one of the most peaceful in the country. This is due largely to the various peace initiatives of the government. Journalists have a major role to play in preserving this level of peace even as electioneering activities for the 2014 governorship election is about to start. This can be achieved by avoiding undue sensationalism and by taking a firm position not to be used by politicians under any guise to cause tension.
As a veteran in election coverage and monitoring both locally and internationally, I understand the enormous responsibility of the journalists in re -awakening the consciousness of the people and building in them the spirit of hope, trust and participation. Therefore as we approach the electoral season in the state, journalists should shun partisanship and present facts and figures to the people in a professional manner and carefully chosen words that help to stem tension which is bound to increase as we move towards the climax. Particular attention must be paid to language and editing so as not to say (broadcast or print) what we do not mean as did a First World war general, who reportedly had his hometown leveled by rampaging soldiers because of his terse and careless response to an enquiry by the commander: the general had replied via a telegraph: “No war is too bad” while he actually meant “No, war is too bad” . He left the interpretation to his subordinates and the result was disastrous for him. Just as the absence of a comma cost that war general his town and made a mess of his long years of military career, the same way journalists should exercise much caution and tact in the use of language so that we don’t heat up the polity unduly with a news item that ordinarily should inform, enlighten and educate the public.
Journalists are critical stakeholders in the political development of the country, and having sacrificed a lot to ensure its survival, we cannot afford to shy away from the more compelling need to help nurture it. And we can make a statement with the 2014 election in Ekiti State by playing the role of an experienced and dedicated midwife who understands the importance of her role to the survival of both mother and the new baby and therefore apply caution and diligence, relying on her training and reputation to ensure safe delivery.
Journalism and Journalists: Fairness is the Name of the Game
I shall round up this presentation by zeroing on the need for the profession and its legion of practitioners to go back to the very pivot upon which the foundation of the profession was laid- fairness. The fact is by being unduly sensational journalists are not being fair to themselves, and neither are they fair to the profession nor the nation whose interest they are to protect.
Quite a number of reasons have been adduced for this. This include proprietorship interest, lack of professionalism, poor funding, poor education, greed, disregard for the ethics of the profession among others.
I believe everyone has a role to play in ensuring that we do not surrender the relative peace in the society to the callous hands of sensationalism and consistently heat up the polity. While it is important for government at various levels to take a cue form the Ekiti State Government by providing a conducive atmosphere for development journalism to thrive through unrestricted access to public information, and institutionalizing a well structured feedback mechanism.
The media organizations should also ensure that proprietors interests do not stand in the way of objectivity or make the reporter partisan. Salaries and other incentives of the journalists should be paid as at when due, while adequate arrangements should be made to equip the journalists.a 21st century newsroom must have the required basic information gadgets. A situation where journalists are owed months of unpaid salaries or have no working tools would only succeed in making him/her vulnerable. A hungry man is an angry man, so a hungry journalist is an angry one, and the first casualty of his anger or hunger is his sense of fairness.
The journalists should also seek information, the right information. He should also equip himself with the right education. While it is good for employers to send their employees on in service training to boost their professionalism, journalists should also seek opportunities to train themselves through participation in seminars, workshops, conferences and international media fellowships which abound on the internet.
Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, this is the era where every 21st century journalist should be proud of the profession and should see himself as an agent of change and not an agent of disintegration or a purveyor of falsehood that succeed only in heating up the polity.
I am a 21st century journalist and an agent of change. What about you?
I thank you all for listening.
Olayinka Oyebode, FWJI
Last modified: January 30, 2013