The Nigerian Media And The Challenge Of Objective Reporting In A Conflict-Ravaged Polity

by frontiers | January 20, 2018 8:47 pm

BY ABUBAKAR UMAR KARI, PhD

SOCIOLOGY DEPARTMENT, UNIVERSITY OF ABUJA

BEING A PAPER PRESENTED AT A WORKSHOP ORGANIZED BY STATE HOUSE CORRESPONDENTS, AT MITROS RESORT, ABEOKUTA, OGUN STATE, ON SATURDAY, JANUARY 20, 2018

INTRODUCTION

Perhaps, more than at any other period in recent memory, the Nigerian social, economic and political environment has been characterized and punctuated by convulsions, conflicts and crises, happening almost at the drop of a hat and individually and severally exerting a serious stress on the social fabric, if not threatening our very existence as a country and a people. An economy not well managed, hence in a pretty bad shape, has taken its toll on society, as evidenced by the myriad of social problems that flourish like mushroom and which in turn invariably and inevitably translate into deprivation, misery, haplessness and hopelessness, hence veritable sources of conflict and ferment. Unfortunately, political leadership at all levels has failed to live up to expectation or is even complicit in the whole sad saga.

Ordinarily, and under normal circumstances, in the ensuing floodgate of news breaking out ceaselessly, the media should be awash with stories – and probably that is what is obtained. But methinks the way and manner the media – both mainstream and social media – report events and issues, particularly politics and conflicts, in Nigeria constitute a clear and present danger to the unity, stability, cohesion and even corporate existence of the country. There in lies the kernel, the main argument, of the paper: that the media have been part of the problem, rather than being in the vanguard for addressing same.

By way of a compass with which to navigate the tidal waves of issues under discourse, I would like to proceed by postulating the following:

1. That the Nigerian media, easily the freest and most vibrant in Africa, have however been bogged down by and often pander more to primodial forces and instincts, succumbing to and promoting or tilting toward narrow alliances as dictated by ethnicity, regionalism, religion, language, ownership, interest of editors, and the like;

2. The media reportage and treatment of conflict and politics sometimes degenerates into crass partisanship and complete lack of neutrality. Reality and truth become subjective and a matter of conjecture. Propaganda, misinformation and fabrications take centre-stage;

3. Objectivity, a fundamental principle and requirement as enshrined in all statutes, codes and practice books, is a scarce commodity. Ditto balance and fairness. Stories are often one-sided, poorly investigated and unattributed, save for reference to mythical “authoritative” and “reliable” sources that remain unknown;

4. Mercenary journalism is common, where pens for hire do a job on individuals, groups and organizations for a fee. This is often a consequence of failure or even refusal to remunerate media practitioners as and when due or even at all. It is equally an outcome of a reductionist conception of the role of the media as a tool or weapon with which to levy war on real and perceived enemies;

5. Commitment to ethics and professionalism leaves much to be desired. Interestingly, some studies have come up with shocking findings that a significant number of media practitioners in Nigeria betray an amazing ignorance of the most basic of such ethics and rules!

NIGERIAN MEDIA: A HISTORY OF PARTISANSHIP

The Nigerian media emerged in the throes of the anti-colonial struggles, during which they were widely and effectively used against the British colonialists. The early newspapers were affiliated to or ran directly by political leaders (Obafemi Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Aminu Kano, the Northern Peoples Congress, etc). The media – mainly newspapers – were also used to project and protect the interests of their political paymasters. Therefore, the Nigerian media can be said to be born in partisanship, weaned in geo-ethnic power struggles and raised amidst the climate of controversies and endless jostlings and contestations for power within the political space. Very little has changed even with the emergence of the hitherto mainly government-owned broadcast media now bubbling in a deregulated environment. Politics has remained the most favourite of all issues the media here cover, and in so doing often all hell is let loose!

It is in the nature of political reportage that it easily begets partisanship and tilts towards propaganda and controversy. Politics itself has a polarizing tendency, which if not handled well – which is actually the case most times – traps the media and the journalist in a labyrinth of partisanship from which it cannot possibly come out unscathed. That was the case in the First Republic, particularly the coverage of the 1964/65 election crisis described by Shobowale (1995: 42) as “a study in professional political partisanship and journalistic debauchery.” He revealed that the press permitted itself to be used to deceive, cheat, and fan the embers of hatred, distrust and acrimony. He lamented that truth was absolutely disregarded while sheer expediency and transient political gains displaced all known journalistic norms and dicta. Absolute falsehood and half-truths were reported as facts.

In a similar vein, a prominent media scholar, Mike Egbon (1988:4) blamed a section of the Nigerian press for starting the Nigerian civil war before the actual physical firing of the first shot. Toward the twilight of the Second Republic , an influential section of the media, smarting from the rigged 1983 polls that returned the ruling National Party of Nigeria vide a “moon-slide” victory, orchestrated a campaign for the military to return to power – which they did. The trend continued in the aborted third republic, particularly in the wake of the controversies surrounding the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election. A veteran journalist, Alhaji Lateef Jakande, was so piqued by the role the media played then that he lamented that “Nigerian journalism has degenerated into a state of depravity which has no parallel in the history of this great country.”

An accomplished editor and columnist, Dan Agbese, attributed all these to what he dubbed “supersonic journalism,” a phenomenon which rules he identified as:“recklessness is courage. Prejudice is patriotism. Partisanship is crusading journalism. Fiction is news. Manufactured news is investigative journalism. Plain, uninformed opinion and ignorance are objective analysis. Incompetence is professionalism. Bias is balance. The headline is the story, the bigger the higher the degree of truth”(New Nigerian, July 17, 1995).

Unfortunately very little has changed. Indeed, things seem to have gone for the worse in this Fourth Republic, particularly in recent times.

OBJECTIVITY AND RESPONSIBLE REPORTING: WITHER NIGERIAN MEDIA?

Objectivity or unbiased reporting is a style and method of presenting information which translates into separating fact from opinion, presenting an emotionally detached views of the news; and striving for fairness and balance, giving all sides an opportunity to reply in a way that provides full information to the audience (Steyn, 1996). It also means dispassionate, impartial and balanced reporting, one that is unprejudiced, un-opinionated and unbiased; it equally means that the report is accurate, matches reality, tells the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

The idea of strict adherence to the principle of objective reporting has been pooh-poohed by many as unrealistic and idealistic, owing to inherent human frailties. But its defenders insist that the principle is the cardinal creed in journalism; the grundnurm and golden rule of professional practice.

The famous American broadcast journalist, Walter Cronkite, sums up the pros and cons, thus: “…there`s not a man who can truthfully say that he does not harbor in his breast prejudice, bias, strong sentiments, pros and cons on some, if not all the issues of the day. Yet it is the distinguishing character of the professional journalist that he can set aside those opinions in reporting the day`s news. None of us succeeds in this task in all instances, but we know the assignment and the pitfalls and we succeed far more than we fail or than our critics would acknowledge”(Uwajaren, 1998).

The trouble is that many a Nigerian journalist hardly puts up an appreciable effort to comply with the objectivity principle, especially as pertained to politics and conflict reporting.

“There`s,” says Lynch (2005) “one cancer above all that afflicts much of the reporting of wars and conflicts. It is the issue of partiality and bias in conflict journalism.” He goes ahead to list 17 things a reporter should avoid while writing on conflict or else his reports are likely to escalate or even precipitate conflict. They include among others blaming someone for starting the conflict and focusing exclusively on the suffering, fears and grievances (or wrongdoings) of only one party. Others are using victimizing language such as “devastated,” “tragedy,” or imprecise emotive words such as “genocide,” “decimated” and “massacre,” or demonizing adjectives like “brutal,” “vicious,” or offensive labels such as “terrorist” and “fanatic.”

In other words, conflict reporting should be aimed at peace-making and quenching the fire rather than adding insult to injury. Perhaps, to this end, according to Christopher (2000), Reuters – one of the major international news syndicates – has a standing policy of avoiding the use of emotional terms and do not make value judgment concerning the facts they attempt to report accurately and fairly. This is enshrined in their stylebook . in the same vein, Loyn (2005) confirms that the premier global radio station, the B B C, has a similar policy governing conflict reporting. This style of reporting ensures that the way crises and violence are reported does not compound the problem.

Just contrast this with the almost celebratory way killings and violence are being reported in our newspapers, radio and television stations. The media, depending on region, religion, ownership and related affiliation, seem to have joined the fray and taken position in the tranches, firing from all cylinders. They have become so predictable in terms of the kind of headline cast, slant or angle taken as well as general treatment given a story. In the case of the major television networks, one can easily guess who they would invite to discuss what issue and what the guest would say. For instance, I monitored the three major privately owned networks for a period of one week in terms of their coverage of the farmers-herdsmen clashes, and was shocked that for a sensitive issue like that, two of the stations failed to invite for discussion a single farmer, herdsman or their allies or sympathizers. A flurry of rabble-rousing “experts” came to make incendiary statements, inflamed passions and even issued threats. Even more scandalous, one of the major television networks in Nigeria, Thursday afternoon, did a special prograamme on the farmers-herdsmen clashes. It used BBC pictures of arms-bearing herdsmen from East and Central Africa, posted five years ago, but claimed they were those of Fulani herdsmen in Nigeria. Days earlier, a Lagos-based newspaper had used a picture of bloodied Christian clergyman killed in Congo DRC in 2016 and claimed it was that of a pastor victim of Fulani herdsmen in one of the North-Central states.

The radio FM stations, at least those based in Abuja, have become battlegrounds where callers in the name of phone-in contributions trade insults, engage in unbridled hate speech, often whimsically dismiss and debase the country itself, and freely use foul, indecorous and slanderous language, while the anchormen and women do little or even nothing to stop or so much as caution them.

The campaign for 2019 elections has begun in earnest as far as the media are concerned, but if what is going on in the media so far is anything to go by, we are in for a torrid times ahead. The build-up to the 2015 elections might just be a mere child`s play in terms of negative mobilization, resort to manipulating our national fault lines, fanning the embers of disunity, merchandizing in falsehood, raising fears and ferment, and generally playing up the centrifugal forces. Unfortunately, the media are active participants in all these. And seem oblivious of the dangers of same.

THE WAY OUT

1. At all times, media stations and practitioners must be circumspect in all they do, report and celebrate. It does not pay ultimately to imperil the country and its corporate existence, health, unity and cohesion, for whatever reason;

2. Journalists should operate strictly within the principle of social responsibility, which emphasizes on self-censorship, sensitivity to issues that border on the unity, stability, tranquility and integration of the country and its component parts;

3. Journalists should endeavor to be objective as much as possible in their reportage and coverage of political and conflict issues. Their reports should also balanced, fair and neutral as much as possible;

4. Regulatory bodies, particularly the National Broadcasting Commission and the Nigerian Press Council should be up and doing, and forthwith stop treating violations of ethical and professional codes with levity and impunity. Sanctions must be applied to offenders judiciously, but also expeditiously and commensurate to the offences;

5. Nigeria Union of Journalists and other professional outfits, as well as the regulatory bodies, must insist on enforcing the basic qualification to be obtained to practice journalism. They should endeavor to weed out charlatans and misfits among them and who are giving them a bad name;

6. Journalist unions and professional groupings, such as the State House Correspondents, should from time to time organize fora, including seminars, workshops, discussion sessions on issues around professionalism, practice, problems, challenges, etc

CONCLUSION

I sincerely appreciate the opportunity given to me by the organizers of this event to share my thoughts on these issues. I thank you all for listening.

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