Back in the mid-2000s, I remember taking a class on journalism that introduced me to a few of the immutable tenets of the profession. I remember that with every piece that myself and my other classmates submitted, our professor would always use a four-point check list to grade us on our adherence to these ‘immutable laws,’ which he called: “The foundation of ethical journalism.”
The first thing that he would grade our stories on, after assigning each one of us practical beats to cover for the semester, was whether or not our stories were accurate and fair to all sides concerned. He would ask: “Did you seek out the truth and report it exactly as you heard it?” If we responded in the affirmative, he would then ask if any of our sources stood to experience any unnecessary discomfort by the publication of our stories. If we responded in the negative, each time, he would remind us that as ‘wielders of the pen’ – which he always claimed was ‘mightier than the sword’ – we had a responsibility to balance out our public interest pieces, with the proper respect for the subjects that we wrote about. He always quoted the following lines: “The pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.”
A third point that my professor would always harp on, was the fact that although we were student-journalists, when, and if, we chose to go out into the real world to practice the profession, we must always act with the primary focus of serving the general public – not our paymasters, or even our publications. He would always say that we should always conduct personal litmus tests to ensure that we did not have anything to gain by the stories that we wrote. And of course, he also frowned upon preferential treatment or undue negativity dedicated to any cause and/or individual.
Finally, the one law that my journalism professor always spoke about, was the law of transparency and accountability. I remember that in class, we would have these debate exercises on what should be the ethical decision to make in certain scenarios that he thought up. We would also argue about whether publishing retractions and apologies when we were wrong diminished or increased our credibility as journalists. Back then, most of my classmates and I thought that rampant retractions when wrong diminished the credibility of publications, but my professor insisted that it actuality increased it. I did not believe him then, however these days, with hindsight as a guide, I certainly believe him now.
This prior experience from my university days in the United States that I have just narrated might have been tedious, however, I strongly believe that it was necessary. This is owing to the fact that since I returned to Nigeria, I have seen an evolving breed of a profession that claims to be ‘journalism.’ I have seen newspapers and online publications take obvious slants, tilts, and sometimes, blatant distortions in an attempt to favour and/or disparage certain causes and/or individuals. This is not journalism.
The profession that is practiced in Nigeria today, seems to believe that the role of the newsman is to create the story – as opposed to report it. The profession that is practiced today in Nigerian newsrooms seems to also believe that as long as a story goes out in the papers, it must accomplish the purpose for which it was sent. Meaning that retractions to Nigerian newspapers and online portals are almost a no-go area. This is also accentuated by the fact that the reporting of the ‘truth’ now depends on which one of the concerned parties in a story is the highest bidder. This is a problem.
The evolution of this brand of journalism in Nigeria creates a problem for the unsuspecting public as many people that I have spoken with believe that we can no longer trust if a piece of news, is in all actuality a ‘piece of news’, or if it is an attempt at telling someone’s version of the truth.
What the brand of journalism that is practiced in Nigeria today also does, is that it works to diminish the work of the few credible professionals and publications that are still in the practice of reporting the news based on the foundational and immutable principles of the profession. In addition to this, it is important to note that the rise of blogs and ‘citizen journalism’ portals have also contributed to the fall of professional journalism in Nigeria. These days, we see fabricated documents being pushed out as ‘original scanned copies.’ We see obvious and damaging lies being perpetuated as the truth, without any regard for fact-checking of sources. We also see certain publications owned by influential politicians skew the news of the day to disparage their owner’s enemies, and certain citizen-centered ‘report yourself’ portals attack politicians that they do not like on a weekly basis – with one even going as far as publishing a passport page of a certain politician which has been revealed to be a fake. This demonstrates that the news the we read these days must be questioned for the actual intent of the publication that is publishing it.
These developments should bother every Nigerian that truly wants to know what their public figures and organisations are up to. Honestly, if I had the power to, I would organize a boycott of certain publications and portals that have made it their duty to ‘by fire, by force’ peddle falsehoods and misinformation to the general public.
However, as this is not possible, and as my role as a journalist is not to ‘make the news’ but to report it – this time, I will simply settle for telling the general Nigerian public to err on the side of caution whenever they read the morning papers.
-Oluwatosin Fabiyi writes from Lagos.-