How News Is Lost
Kelechukwu Ogu and Habib Oladapo
IN 2017, British writer, Howard Jacobson, sat down with BBC Hard Talk presenter- Stephen Saca. As the discussion got heated, he flew into a rant, ‘They’re not reading, they can’t concentrate, they don’t know the nature of the discourse that they are reading,’ Jacobson was mad at the decreasing levels of concentration spurred by the advent of mobile phone and the social media. The ‘They’ in those rush of words are the millennials.
It is this upward and trendy audience that the media makes neck breaking effort to sell its content. In haste to satisfy the millennial, two Ws’-What and Why, are distorted too often for comfort. Consequently, the piece of news which should have informed, educated or caused an action, becomes one more gossip- left to the interpretation of the still uneducated audience. This is evident in the hateful and sentimental comments that accompany such stories; the actions these comments can influence, if done right, are best imagined.
Here are two vivid examples of how news is lost on the people by the media in the typical Nigerian setting. Please note, these examples are used because they fit into the context of this discussion, it is not intended to malign any news organization.
Misplaced or Unidentified Context
This actually comes to play a lot in Nigeria, news medium are particular about reporting the news on corruption and malfeasance without adding a context to it; a context, in this case, would have helped the impatient audience understand what the story is about and how it affects them.
A major example to this was when Sahara Reporters published CBN officials discuss N500bn stolen funds yesterday, although this can be seen as a house style, there was no particular context to the story, that made it easy for the Central Bank to debunk the story in a press statement released afterward. Even though the press statement did nothing to allay the fears raised in the audio, the lack of context in the story gave the apex bank a leeway to offer a simple explanation and hope it ends there.
Another popular area where misplaced context feature more is when reporting on violence. Granted, it can be difficult to report cycles of violence but the key issues are frequently lost in a layering of feud, counter-accusations and the need to quash, crush as well as pulverize the attackers. In essence, there are many criminals on the loose and the prison system as it is cannot even absorb and rehabilitate them. Yet, the media’s coverage of violent cycles, have been unable to capture and show the correlation between developmental issues and frequent skirmishes.
In this report on the killing of ten persons in Southern Kaduna, the story spends 460 words confirming there was an attack, trading blame between some interest group and the government.
In this other report on fresh feuds between the Jukun and Tiv ethnic groups, around the Taraba, Nasarawa and Benue axis, the narrative for the attacks is skewed towards reprisals.
A security map maintained by SBM Intelligence shows that the trajectory of the conflict spots is commensurate to the water bodies (rivers, lakes, ponds, etc.) around the communities, that is safe to say, lack of water is a major cause of these crises.
However, Journalists have failed to spot the right context that gives clear definition to the killings, kidnappings, banditry and other forms of violence in order to seek out solutions. The basic reports we currently have would rather leave the portal open for more descent.
There was an in-depth report investigating ‘massive extrajudicial killings’ committed by security forces in the Southeast between 2015 and 2016. In this June 2016 report, the names of specific commanding officers, army, navy and police divisions were given but while the investigation was detailed and well contextualized, it should have been followed with small ripples that would have continued to rehash the context till the accused officials are nailed.
In November 2016, Amnesty International released a report which was derived from an analysis of 87 videos, 122 photographs, and 146 eyewitness testimonies. It was on the anchor of the AI report that the news medium gave expression to its own detailed investigations, this was five months after.
Amidst the tales of the Indigenous People Of Biafra, Nnamdi Kanu’s trial, the refusal of the government to release him from detention and the commando-style attempt to get him rearrested after he was finally granted bail; the news of top security officials who had incited and perpetrated acts of violence against innocent Nigerians was lost. The extrajudicial killings in the Southeast are one instance of the numerous strands of news the Nigerian media has inadvertently let slip.
Often times, reporters seem to display acts of impatience and intolerance. They are quick to jump-off an issue and dive into another.
The media is expected to bark whenever it notices an intrusion into the rights of citizens. A seeming absence of understanding and an apparent misplacement of priorities have made those barks too sparse in ratio to the issues demanding its vociferous rebuke. But it is not totally bad, there are a few times the media went full throttle, with landmark impacts.
When the Media Got it Right
When the contexts are as complex as a chain linked fence, everyone jumps in a frenzy, slamming the right context into the basket with ease. This happens chiefly when a public official goes out of line.
Recently, the Minister of Labour and Productivity and Employment made this statement on a Channels TV programme- Sunrise daily:
“No, I am not worried (about doctors leaving the country). We have surplus. If you have surplus, you export. It happened some years ago here. I was taught chemistry and biology by Indian teachers in my secondary school days.”
A Punch correspondent, Eniola Akinkuotu reduced the interview into a news story. The reporter used data depicting the doctor to population ratio in the country which stands at 1 to 5,000 as a backgrounder to the news piece.
Just as the media have demonstrated symptoms of impatience in news coverage, there are instances when they have followed a tread until positive outcomes became manifest.
After Punch Newspapers carried out an investigation that saw the return of 14-year old Ese Oruru to her parents in 2016, the news medium went on to orchestrate the release of several kidnapped girls forced to become brides by patriarchal institutions such as the Bauchi Sharia Commission.
One tale of success was the rescue of three girls kidnapped on their way to school. Though the campaign against forced teenage brides in certain Northern states embarked on by the news channel tailed-off prematurely, it showed a glimpse of what could be possible if media houses chose to turn a news story into an anthem until an impact is felt.
Two years later, Premium Times took the same approach with Punch and a Minister resigned.
Between 7 July 2018 and 15 September 2018, a Google search shows that the online media platform did a minimum of eight stories on Kemi Adeosun’s National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) forged certificate of exemption.
The forced brides and Kemi Adeosun NYSC certificate campaign, became brushwood for other news outlets, because the lead platforms made them flammable through unceasing reportage.
News loss is a global problem.
News stories of grave importance disappearing or getting misinterpreted is a global phenomenon. In a 2016 article for Jstor, Livia Gershon studied the 1984 findings of an American scholar- Daniel Hallin. Hallin had observed in the paper that the American press depended on views from political officials, putting little investigative effort at scrutinizing the 1968-1972 war the country fought in Vietnam. He concluded that the press tried to be passively objective, leading the media to take sides with the most powerful narrative. The press felt no compulsion to query the contexts and found the lost news until the American Senate began to contradict elitist viewpoints.
Too often, the stories on screens, radio, television, and the occasional newsprint, flow from official sources.
The media will have to make more frequent barks to bring peace and justice to the deprived parts of the country. If the editorial echelon of media outfits in Nigeria could use their platforms to give the right context and prevent amnesia on issues of huge national interest, a tide of change will be swept onto the shore of reality.