News editors should stick to public interest in a time of crisis
This topic reminds me of two recent personal incidents. I was in the office on the morning of Tuesday, July 13 when a colleague rushed in with his phone.
He seemed quite animated, but there was also an edge of anxiety about him as he thrust his phone forward, stopping mid-speech, and asking me to speak with the caller. I didn’t know who it was. So, I motioned to my colleague to end the call first and sit down.
He did, collected himself, and spoke. A federal minister, one of the very influential ones in this government, had just called him to complain about LEADERSHIP’s lead story for that day, entitled, “Nigeria moves to tackle terrorists with robots”.
He said the minister was livid that our story was an expose for Boko Haram and a great disservice to Nigeria’s war on terror. Even if the editor did not know, how come Azu, the Editor-In-Chief, also failed spectacularly to see that that story was leaking a vital state secret to the enemy?
I called the minister back on my colleague’s line. In vain did I try to explain that the story was actually a report from the Senate’s plenary. It was open and live. We were obliged, like other newspapers, to cover and report it.
In any case, why should a story about the planned use of drones be deemed a national security breach, when the military routinely calls press conferences to announce its order of, payment for and arrival dates of US-manufactured Tucano jets, one of its prized assets in the war on Boko Haram?
But the minister is not alone, as I found from this second incident days ago. A statement on behalf of the government by the Senior Special Assistant to President Muhammadu Buhari and former President of the NGE, Malam Garba Shehu, on Monday, suggests very clearly that the government seriously thinks that the media has insecurity on its speed dial, stored with the shorthand: if it bleeds, it leads.
For example, the government said, if only the press would replace the ubiquitous phrase “rising insecurity” with “declining insecurity”, we might indeed begin to witness not only a decline in insecurity, but also a totally different perception of the decade-and-a-half-long war on terror. And doubtless too, we might also begin to see, without the malicious veil of bias, the great strides that Buhari has made in degrading, if not exterminating, Boko Haram.
But wait a minute. Is the media as powerful as it is often acclaimed and its forces as potent and even malevolent as the Morning Journal at the hands of William Randolph Hearst in the 20th century? Are media managers, especially editors, supposed to descend the conflict arena as mediators, partisans, neutrals or agents of peace? Or as a combination of these?
Or was the US late-night show legend, Jon Stewart, right when he told the New York Times recently that when journalists pose as change agents, it’s either they’re taking themselves too seriously or perhaps those who believe them are taking them too seriously?
I’m not sure I have the answers. But I would be silly to think that you are here for the gospel of Peace Journalism, after which you would return to a world where the journalistic lamb and the societal lion would lie side by side. It would be naïve to believe – or even think – so when journalism itself, if not politics, is facing a conflict of obsolescence.
Buzz words, key words
It may be useful, at this stage, to explain the context in which I would be using three key words: conflict, mediator, and editor.
First, conflict. When interests clash and disagreement occurs, and such disagreements escalate, we have conflict. Although the basis for conflict, whether at individual or societal level, might vary, most conflicts are as a result of differences in opinion and scarcity of resources.
Here, I am dealing with conflicts involving groups defined by political affiliation, ethnicity, nationality, religion and other social identities. Over the past three decades, we can say that these conflicts have reached staggering proportions.
There is hardly any region of the world where there is no violent conflict. And there is hardly any sub-region within Africa where there is no violence from conflicts.
If we look closely at groups that may operate to trigger or constrain violent struggles, politicians and faith leaders are high on the list. And we have seen how easily any or a combination of these groups can devolve into or stoke fanaticism, extremism and demagoguery.
Unfortunately, conflicts around the world have cost too many lives, brought too much suffering to too many ordinary people and have displaced even more, depriving them of their homes and livelihoods.
In 2003, Roy and Judy Eidelson’s Dangerous Ideas identified five individual-level core beliefs and group-level worldviews which, according to their research, propel groups towards conflict. The five core beliefs are superiority, injustice, vulnerability, distrust and helplessness.
Time will not permit me to do an extensive review of this interesting theory or to deploy it as an analytic tool to deconstruct the Nigerian situation. Briefly, however, this theory explains why beliefs and worldviews, such as injustice and ethnocentrism – and not the media – are drivers of conflicts in Nigeria since independence till the present time.
Mediation, the second key word, is a voluntary process in which an impartial intermediary (the mediator) facilitates communication and promotes reconciliation between the parties which will allow them to reach a mutually acceptable agreement.
Mediation is often the next step if negotiation proves unsuccessful. In mediation, the parties in a conflict or their representatives have an opportunity to explain their views of the dispute. Mediation helps each side better understand the other’s point of view.
And the third, editor? One of the most pragmatic definitions I have known is the one by my teacher, Professor Olatunji Dare. He described the editor as “the one who decides what gets published.” If you find a better description, please send it my way.
How do these three factors interact and interrelate? What roles do their interactions play in the emergence of conflicts, and where exactly does the press stand in the mix?
Watchdog and warfare
The press is said to be the watchdog of society; it is supposed to sound the alarm when all is not well, to bark when the bad guys are roaming the block.
While it may be sensible to assume that the editor, guided by the basic professional requirements of accuracy, balance, fairness, objectivity and facts should exercise reasonable judgment, there is the temptation to over-estimate the role of the media in building consensus or mediating peace.
But which editor – which Nigerian editor – so desirous to cultivate peace and build consensus, can try any of the top non-journalist, media influencers for size? Yemi Alade, Tiwa Savage, and Funke Akindele have among them, 42.3 million followers on Instagram alone – and that was before the Tiwa sex tape!
The top 10 Nigerian editors don’t come close, even if you throw in their media houses to make the number and add their entire social media footprint to the bargain! If current warfare is for hearts and minds and cyberspace is the theatre, how can editors influence outcomes with such limited reach?
Outside textbooks or what officialdom may mislead you to believe, the job of “holding the line”, to use the phrase by journalist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Maria Ressa, is messier and far more complicated in real life than it is at a lecture.
That said, the media is like a double-edged sword, and in some ways, too, like fire – it can help to cook a meal; it can also set the house alight. The media can act as both a catalyst in conflict prevention, while it could also potentially inflame it.
In the context of our discussion, conflict, mediation and the media may be seen as connected dots on different points of a long, wobbly line.
When conflicts break out, between state and non-state actors for example, as the case is between Boko Haram and the Federal Government, battles are not limited to the warfront. Each party engages in a struggle for mindshare with the editor and the press caught in the middle.
The parties in a conflict are often concerned with making sure that the majority of people are on “their” side. And at the centre of that battle is who controls the narrative in the media and public spaces. As a result, there is a lot of potential for misrepresenting facts in the struggle for control and distribution of information.
Conflicting parties understand that information is power and insight can impact public discourse. They know that perception can be influenced by access to the media, as the Taliban have amply demonstrated in their second coming in Afghanistan. Key actors in a conflict thus seek to manipulate public perception; depending on their relative position of power and/or control of resources, they seek to either minimise or exaggerate a conflict.
As Steven Livingston, professor of Media and Public and International Affairs at the George Washington University put it, weak actors in a conflict tend to use the media to “socialise” a conflict, while actors in a dominant position tend to use the media to “privatise” it.
By using the media to socialise the conflict, weak actors in a conflict solicit and enlist supporters in their cause against a greater power by highlighting the perception of being the “victim” and painting a picture of suffering. On the other hand, by using the media to privatise the conflict, dominant actors in a conflict limit attention to or awareness of the conflict.
The former uses the media coverage to draw attention while the latter uses the same media coverage to downplay the conflict.
From available analyses, international media err more on the side of actors who socialise conflict than those who privatise it. Conversely, local media more often pitches its camp more with the dominant actors than it does with the weak actors. It is therefore dangerous for a third party in a conflict to base its response on the substance and timing of the information received from one or a few sources of information.
After all, it was Harry S. Truman, the 33rd president of the United States, who once said, “You can never get all the facts from just one newspaper, and unless you have all the facts, you cannot make proper judgments about what is going on.”
Role of the media in conflict
The editor does not exist in a vacuum. To understand the role of the editor in a conflict – or peace in time – it might be useful to first examine his or her role in the workplace, since editors are by and large, catalysts in the media space.
In a paper by Joseph Olusegun Adebayo and Blessing Makwambeni, entitled, “The limits of peace journalism”, the authors examined the role of the press in three elections in Kenya – in 2008, 2013 and 2017.
They concluded that while reportage in the Kenyan press was implicated in the violence that pushed the country to the brink of war in 2008, by brazenly taking sides and pitching ethnic groups against each other, the press played a significantly positive role five years later in the next election.
In a twist of irony, however, the same press which was hailed for professionalism and restraint in 2013, was condemned yet again in 2017 for “sacrificing democracy on the altar of peace.” It was accused of downplaying massive rigging and election fraud for fear that such reportage might stoke violence. It appears that heads or tails, the press loses!
One eyed-town, one-eyed king
Why, in spite of its shortcomings and limitations, is so much faith invested in the ability of the press to “hold the line” and perhaps also act as a catalyst for conflict resolution and consensus building?
Section 22 of the 1999 constitution requires the press to hold the government accountable. It’s also important to keep in mind that the press played an important historical role not only in helping the country attain political independence, but also as a champion of the common cause during decades of military rule when freedom of speech was severely abridged. So, there is both a statutory and a historical imperative for the press to shine the light.
The draw towards the press could also be as a result of a growing loss of confidence in other mechanisms for conflict management and resolution. The police are overworked and underpaid, the courts are not better off, while other mechanisms for mediation and arbitration are either comatose or out-of-reach.
If the Nigerian fish is rotting from the head, it would be gratuitous to claim that the press is in good health. The misery of some editors who may even strive for professionalism, is compounded by largely compromised ownership structures, redundancies, poor remuneration, and a weak ethical fiber further undermined by poor regulation; not to mention the onslaught of fake news, which appears to have significantly tarred civic spaces and tainted journalism in the eyes of outsiders.
The media is, by and large, plagued by the same social malaise threatening other segments of society, except that perhaps there remains a flicker of hope that in the plurality and diversity of the press and drawing from its rich historical legacy, there might yet be redemption.
Out of the ashes, the Editor
The question is how? How might the press regain lost grounds, rebuild confidence and win back public trust, which is an essential tool in its role as:
Information provider and interpreter
Watchdog and gatekeeper
Policy influencer and agenda setter
Promoter of peace and bridge builder
There are some institutional changes that might help not just the newsroom, but also the editor, become more efficient and effective.
The most urgent, for me, is a professional framework. The Nigerian Media Council Bill is trash. It should be left in the garbage heap to suffer the slow, painful death that it deserves. But there’s a vacuum. Once the local Ombudsman, announced by the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN), is up and running, the association should move quickly to establish a co-regulatory framework for the industry, with South Africa as a useful model. The watchdog cannot – and should not – be above transparency, if it hopes to win public confidence.
Also, as the recent collaborative work on the Pandora Papers has shown, editors can work with colleagues across boundaries to share resources for the common good. The redundancy level in a number of Nigerian media houses – idle presses, huge office spaces, large inventory of unsold print copies, and the trove of unused daily news content – is extraordinary. Yet empty pride keeps them not only from introspection, but also from the economies of scale that could come from sharing resources.
The 21st century editor is at a crossroads. In the journal, “International media and conflict resolution: Making the connection”, John Pauly, a communication scholar at Marquette University, wrote: “Traditionally, journalists viewed themselves as disinterested witnesses or observers to conflict, present only to report on facts. More recently, the public journalism model has advocated that journalists take a more active role in educating and helping the public craft solutions to the problems of the day.”
As the editor iterates, integrates and manages interfaces, developing electronic copies of newspapers and streaming content to ensure presence on virtual platforms in order to escape the conflict of obsolescence, he or she also needs to navigate with caution, checking, cross-checking and fact-checking.
He or she is an easier prey for politicians, demagogues, extremists and Yahoo Boys on virtual space than he is vulnerable to the recalcitrant vendor or distributor in the street corner.
Moreover, the citizen journalist more often than not, does not know or play by the rules of institutional journalism. These are challenges that confront editors and will test their capacity beyond the theories of mass communications.
How successfully journalists manage the innovations and issues technology throws at them would determine whether or not and how far they succeed as mediators.
To paraphrase Pauly, journalists and editors need to take a more active role in educating and helping the public find solutions to the problems of the day. In other words, the continued relevance of journalism, whether in peace time or in time of crisis, lies just as much on its inventiveness as in how it reinforces the agency of the citizen.
That is where journalism should stand. Not with extremists, fanatics and demagogues. And certainly not with politicians who love to fake outrage in the daytime, but at sunset find time for photo ops with bandits strapped to the teeth with deadly weapons.
We can and should find our own way.
Ishiekwene is the Editor-in-Chief of LEADERSHIP
(This is a slightly modified paper he presented at the 17 Annual Conference of the Nigerian Guild of Editors in Abuja on October 21, 2012)
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