JOURNALISM, FACTORY RESET AND THE LIMITS OF SENSATIONALISM
The 2023 general election went true to type, exposing an ill-prepared Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) struggling to conduct hitch-free polls. Expectedly, the protests over the poorly-organised polls and the hotly-contested results produced therefrom have drowned some of the equally damaging outcomes of the electoral season. Some of the more worrying outcomes have to do with the appeal to clannish sentiments by some of the campaigns. Of course, those sentiments have always been there, but the 2023 elections were slightly different because otherwise senior media people openly took sides and weaponised everything they could find to discredit the opposition. In their brazen support for candidates of the same ethnic origin through the distasteful ‘press warfare,’ these senior media figures only returned to what I would like to call here for want of a better word, ‘factory setting’. I use the term deliberately because the masks were discarded as most of them openly took sides, the only reason for the choice of candidates to support being the tribal connections.
This in itself is crucial because, for the umpteenth time, people should be reminded that journalism plays such an important role in any democracy, providing the people with accurate and reliable information that helps them to make informed decisions. This role is probably most crucial during elections, which is why journalists are required to stay true to the ethics of the profession and remain neutral. My idea of journalism is rooted in the long-held tradition established by the best traditions in the business. I particularly like the one espoused by CP Scott, the Manchester Guardian editor in May 1921 in a leading article to mark the centenary of the paper. Such is the power and clarity of the man’s idea of an independent press, that The Guardian reprinted that article in 2017 as the paper marked its 200th anniversary. In what has now become a famous description of what independent journalism means, the man who edited the paper for 57 years and whose tenure ‘cemented the paper’s liberal values and gave it an international reputation,’ said, “Comment is free, but facts are sacred. ‘Propaganda’, so called, by this means is hateful. The voice of opponents no less than that of friends has a right to be heard. Comment also is justly subject to a self-imposed restraint.”
This should be the standard, a journalist and the organisation he or she works making a commitment to report on the facts and present them in a fair and impartial manner, without any bias or opinion. This is not only necessary for the credibility of the profession but also to ensure that the people have the information they need to make informed decisions. Anything less, and we don’t have a media worthy of the name. End of story. What we just experienced is not entirely new though but is no less damaging because divisive politics somehow has a way of bringing out the worst in journalists and their organisations. The press had taken sides in such political tussles as the leadership crisis that started in 1941 and led to the breakup of the Nigerian Youth Movement; the struggle for Lagos pre-independence and in 1953 when the first attempt at independence collapsed because it failed to secure the support of Northern politicians.
In all these instances, journalists and their organisations abandoned the acceptable codes of their trade. Journalistic ethics are understated these days, but it is the foundation of good reporting, it is what I know and practised. The minimum acceptable level should be that anyone who answers to being called a journalist agrees that he or she has a responsibility to provide nothing but accurate, truthful and unbiased news. What this means of course is that they will always try to verify the facts, present all sides of a story, avoid the use of sensational language, leave out their personal opinions and leave their readers or listeners to reach their conclusions. To deviate from this would not only be unethical but erode public trust in news. Journalists know this and respectable organisations enforce it. That has been my personal experience working as a journalist. To understand my story, just check back editions of The Punch newspaper from 1996 to 2004 to get the proper context of my worries about the current state of the profession.
I joined The Punch as a business correspondent at a time when its cover was still largely dominated by political stories and was under the tutelage of fine journalists like Nwobodo Onyekwere, Dr. Bankole Falade, Gbemiga Ogunleye and Demola Osinubi, the man who hired me and believed in me throughout. I found my space and produced some pieces that I am still proud of. I loved the fact that The Punch of the time would hold you accountable for your stories and on two occasions, the company asked me to do just that. On one occasion, I filed a story about the Board of the defunct Hillcrest Merchant Bank Limited, which terminated the appointment of its then Managing Director, Mr. Omolaja Sadiku. As was to be expected with such a story, once it was published, his lawyers wrote the management of the newspaper to demand a retraction. My response to the memo from the company asking me to provide proof for my story was to fax a copy of the Board’s resolution and the bank’s letter addressed to the Nigerian Deposit Insurance Corporation (NDIC) informing it of the change. I presume that the facts in the documents I had, which by the way, I still keep, spoke for themselves because I never again heard anything on the memo issued to me. Such high standards are excellent in keeping with the ethics of the profession and should be maintained at all cost, for only on such adherence to certain minimum standards is the foundation for news reporting laid.
On another occasion, I was similarly requested to defend a story I had filed on America’s response to the adoption of the late Sani Abacha as presidential candidate by four out five political parties. That story of the United States threatening not to recognise the electoral victory of a now-late military Head of State were he to contest and win was as big as any in those days. The story was published as lead in The Punch and many other newspapers. At the Abuja Bureau, we knew at the point of filing that particular story that we had taken a risk. The reason was simple. As the Business Correspondent for the Punch in Abuja at the time, I was not present at the Ministry of Commerce, where the comments were said to have been made by an official of the America Embassy. The day after the story was published, the US Embassy clarified its statement and it was no surprise that The Punch demanded the tape of the comments credited to the Embassy staff. I did not have the recorded tape. I merely took a risk and paid for it because I was suspended for two weeks on that occasion, the only time it happened to me.
Of course, digital disruption has altered the media landscape with untrained participants now involved in the reporting business and I see two problems here. Entry barriers are now lower, meaning anyone can perform acts of journalism, but this is just a small problem. The second problem is that trained journalists and their organisations are failing spectacularly in the performance of what should be at the core of their role: accuracy and verification. Were they to be performing that role with credit, the first problem won’t even matter at all. I accept that the definition of a journalist has changed but what qualifies as good reporting has not and will always remain constant. I also admit that staying neutral during elections can be daunting because emotions run high, and passions are stirred. In an environment such as the one we saw in the run-up to the 2023 elections, it is easy for journalists to be sucked into the excitement and lose sight of their principal responsibility to report the news impartially. However, losing their guard at such times can have serious consequences. It can lead to the spread of misinformation, the distortion of facts, and the erosion of trust in the media, all of which appear to have been on full display during the recently concluded general elections in Nigeria.
It is not uncommon for journalists to be accused of bias during electoral politics. This can come from a variety of sources, including politicians, interest groups, and the public. In such situations, journalists only need to demonstrate that they observed the basic acceptable codes of news reporting. I mentioned two instances when the Punch demanded accountability for stories I filed and my immediate supervisors at the time, Segun Dipe (Business Editor) and Dr. Yinka Oduwole (Abuja Bureau Chief) are alive to confirm my story. Both incidents happened 1997-1998 and I did not leave the Punch until 2004. These days, young journalists are unwilling to submit themselves to such an accountable system. I have nothing against the competition that digital disruption has enabled because it has its value.
I am, indeed, impressed by what some of them have achieved and can only wish that there are more like them. Some of the new entrants into the space such as Sahara Reporters, Premium Times and The Cable have certainly challenged the legacy media houses and a lot of people will admit that their approach of hard, investigative reporting has generally enhanced the quality of journalistic output in the country. I know for a fact that even my friends in these outlets are worried about some of the young journalists who pass through their newsrooms. More often, you hear of young journalists who are quick to leave when their organisations hold them to account for questionable reporting. The picture you get when you talk to the managers in these outlets is that some of these young journalists have little understanding of what is required to hold something in trust for the public.
Donors may provide money for online startups promoted by ill-trained people, and the pull of seeking asylum in foreign countries might be difficult to ignore, but ultimately, what wins is not blackmail, and the illicit proceeds therefrom but the commitment to the ethics of a profession to which practitioners commit themselves. The danger is, once young journalists, or any journalist at all fail the simple test of being able to produce top stories that meet acceptable ethical standards, they will always endanger anything and anyone around them. If they are not running from the truth, the truth will always run from them. Sensationalism, by the way, is lies in disguise, and like propaganda, it has its expiry date.