Why good journalism matters
I borrowed the title of this column from the theme of the IPI conference in Abuja last week. It was a good theme, advisedly chosen by the editors and media managers from within and outside the country to draw our collective attention, as professionals, to the challenges of bad journalism intruding on the lofty ideals of the profession in the 21st century. Editors in the most enlightened century so far in human history face the irony of the looming threat of bad journalism overwhelming good journalism. Perish the thought.
Good journalism matters because it helps to prevent the political and business leaders from going crazy. Without the professional guiding hands of good and committed journalists, the leaders of the world would miss the narrow path that leads to societal salvation and drive all of us to the precipice. The mission of journalism is grand and even grandiloquent. In simple terms, its objective is to help political, business and other leaders do a good, and even a better, job of leading the people aright. That challenge is made more critical by the presence of so many bad leaders strutting the political stage in many countries as the self-anointed saviours of their people.
Good journalism has a long history of doing battle with bad journalism in all countries and in all generations. You could look at it as the same eternal battle between good and evil. Just as good has not wrestled down evil, good journalism too has not triumphed over bad journalism. Its performance record has been patchy at best because it is in the nature of non-shooting wars that territories won are soon lost through a combination of forces. We must be thankful that the good soldiers of good journalism, like the good soldiers of the battle between good and evil, as in the men and women of God, they fight on, determined to keep bad journalism at bay, at least.
What we make of our societies, developed and developing, depends, on our courage and constancy in the battle against bad journalism. Information is critical to human societies because the human need for it goes far beyond titillating our gossip palate. Political and business leaders need facts to help them make sense of the challenges they face as leaders of men and women.
The challenge, really is that bad journalism is wired into the DNA of the profession. The first place to look would be the ownership structure of the news media. Proprietorial interests can, and do, exact a deleterious impact on good journalism. No editor born of a woman is without personal interests and bias. He may keep this in check but it does not alter the fact that there are no angels in the newsrooms and in the board rooms.
News media owners expect their editors to bend the truth to satisfy those interests. The late Brigadier-General Samuel Ogbemudia, once put it nicely when he said no government sets up a newspaper to criticise itself. And, of course, no business man sets up a newspaper to ignore his business interests. Those interests influenced his decision to set up his publication in the first place. No editor is allowed to forget this. All editors, in both the public and the private news media, walk a tight rope, trying to maintain a sense of professional balance between proprietorial interests and the right of the people to be properly informed and educated on matters of importance to them.
The current challenge for good journalism is driven by two factors. One is the conflation of propaganda and false information known in the current strange media parlance as fake news. That political and business leaders indulge in this unholy attempt to keep the rotten eggs homing in on the face of good journalism, there can be no doubt. In the times before these, editors faced the simple task of separating the chaff of misinformation and propaganda from the grains of unvarnished facts. It is not that easy any more, as the 2016 US presidential election showed, to make such a fine distinction between facts and manufactured or fake news planted in the news media to achieve certain defined political objectives – and let the truth bleed to death, if it would.
The other problem comes from some venal men chasing the rainbow of quick wealth without too much sweat. Their invasion of the news media is entirely dictated by their unholy mission to use bad journalism as a tool for making quick money. We saw some evidence of this in our country in the 1980s when the print media space was over run by the emergence of a strange brand of journalism that glorified falsehood and out right lies. This embarrassing brand of journalism was rightly branded by media professionals as junk journalism. Mercifully, in their attempts to ruin people and throw mud in the face of journalism, they exceeded themselves and fell through the cracks of oblivion. But while those rag sheets lasted, their publishers smiled to the banks and managed to infect the society with the virus of bad journalism.
Good journalism faces two other complex challenges. One results from the economic difficulties that force even main stream media proprietors to indulge in inappropriate professional behaviour to survive. This, too, has a long history. Journalism is not a social service as such; it is a business venture. And like all business ventures, it can only offer social services when it succeeds and can thus afford them.
The other challenge comes from the internet. It is the best thing to happen to information gathering and dissemination. And it is the worst thing to happen to information dissemination. The internet opened the flood gates of channels to individuals to engage in information dissemination. Anyone who can string verbs and nouns together can become a publisher on the internet. There are no rules as to what they should feed the public. And we know they have no qualms in feeding the public with lies and unverified facts. Their salacious and sensational fares are lapped up 24/7 by men and women who expect the worst from their political and business leaders. We fail to recognise it as bad journalism at its most disturbing level.
As you can see, it gets more difficult and even messier to keep bad journalism outside the gates. A few weeks ago, Kabiru Yusuf, chairman of the Trust Media Limited, publishers of he Daily Trust titles, made the point about the fact that journalism is not where it should be. He told students of the NIJ in Lagos to “laugh a little and weep for journalism.”
It was a strong point delivered with humour. I suppose it was intended to impress it upon the students being turned out by the NIJ to know that they would be entering a media world much less glamourous than they probably dreamed of as students. They would be entering an industry fraught with economic and professional challenges. No easy road to good journalism, obviously.
Part of the difficulty in keeping out bad journalism is the fact that journalism is essentially a social tool subject, sadly, to manipulation at the proprietorial, business, personal and professional levels. How this important tool is used by the keepers of the journalism flame would determine how the battle between journalism and bad journalism is won or lost. But whatever you do as a professional, remember: good journalism matters.
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