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Putting The Bite Back in Nigerian Journalism By Sonala Olumhense

Of the factors working against development and democracy in Nigeria, journalism is the most understated.

Of the factors working against development and democracy in Nigeria, journalism is the most understated.

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As one who has loved the profession since age six, and observed it fairly closely since my teenage years, I believe that just as the decline of Nigeria has accelerated in the soil of her fallen journalism, her healing will be accelerated when its journalism is rejuvenated.

Why? To journalism falls the responsibility of describing the road of travel so the nation does not drive into a ditch, or describing the ditch so that a fallen society can dig itself out.  Journalism does this first, by indefatigably and honestly reporting developments of interest to the community, and second, by refusing to forget a fact.

In these two areas and a third that I will come to, history testifies that journalism in Nigeria has come to the rescue of the nation again and again, with the courage and creativity of patriotic journalists helping the nation to surmount various assaults to survival and advancement.

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Today, particularly in the newsmagazines, those traits still exist, and you can sometimes read well-investigated stories that remind you of better days past.  It is in the daily press, which has great capacity for as much good as ill, that the danger exists, and in frightening proportions.  
Let us examine the evidence: Much of today’s reporting is governed by what is said, as opposed to what is done. Editors, perhaps propelled by publishers who have government public relations contracts, seem to sit around waiting for speeches and dispatches from the government’s information officer.  This is why we see so many quotations of powerful people on the front pages. 

This is the easiest form of reporting; there is no work involved.  You simply need to know how to write quotation marks.    

The problem is what follows next.  In good journalism, the journal would be interested in whether the actions of that individual which follow, match his speech.  In Nigerian journalism, on the contrary, editors often seem more interested in the subsequent speech of that individual. 
I call it rhetoric recycling, where attention is cleverly or incompetently shifted to further speech-reporting, not action reporting.  For some reason, Nigeria’s editors seem to have stepped into a time-warp where it is normal to relinquish responsibility for following up stories that were important enough to have been published on the front page.  They move on to the next quotation, thereby betraying the reader to whom they had tried to sell the original story.  One editor told a reader who had enquired, “Follow-ups are over-rated.”

Of interest on this point is the scandalous abhorrence of questions.  A journalist without questions is a fake, and preparing a follow-up to a story demands the ability to ask a lot of questions.  Today, reporters do not seem eager to ask about their own stories let alone stories broken by others.  True journalism is fuelled by questions, from which either answers or yet more questions arise.  It is from such persistence that the truth which is stranger than fiction emerges. 

Why does our mass media refuse to ask questions?  A recent story in Al-Jazeera said that Nigerian journalists are being paid off (or on, if you like), by politicians and businessmen.  Whether this, or simply incompetence or lack of motivation is the issue, journalism can now hardly claim to be serving the public good. 

When journalists do not ask the key questions or write the key stories—whether they are mesmerized by power or manipulated by money—they achieve the effect of muzzling the people.  We have even reached the point where some members of the media, when confronted with evidence of having accepted inducements, respond by ignoring the allegations. 

Their employers collude too—and confirm such allegations— by keeping quiet, as though credibility is of no consequence to journalism.  These are the games that are keeping poor, the citizens of a rich country. 

Finally, there is the editorial commentary, the third component of journalism’s toolkit that is in such disrepair in Nigeria.

What was the last Nigerian newspaper editorial comment you read?  If you are not an editorial writer, the answer to that one is probably, “A long time ago!”

An editorial is the corporate opinion. Although some editorials may be written to celebrate something or someone, the objective is usually to persuade the reader about the wisdom—or lack of it—of a course of action, policy or idea. 

This means that if the editorial is poorly written, or if it is not read by the target audience, the effort has been in vain.  That is a remarkable tragedy when you consider that the editorial comment is normally penned by the company’s best and brightest. 

What is happening in Nigeria, and one of the reasons why the editorial comment is generally being ignored, is that it is being written for purposes of fashion, not function. 

It is a matter of fashion if an organization which invests in the business of editorial commentary does not investigate, periodically, the impact of its efforts.  If it shows no such interest, the objective is fashion, and the effort is being undertaken just because others are doing it.  
In most newspapers, the editorial comment appears as a long and tedious space filler.  It is being written to fill an allotted space.  It is long and tedious because although there is usually an editorial page editor, the editorial itself is rarely edited.  That is because the first consideration of the validity of an editorial comment may not be quality but its readiness to claim the landfill that was pre-determined by the gods at the newspaper’s inception.

This explains why, in Nigerian newspapers, you find editorial comments that read like extracts from an academic journal.

And yes, it may be very good in such journals, but on a newspaper—where it may be competing for attention with murder, mayhem, runaway legislatures and First Ladies greedier than sin—it is a waste of space.  Unlike the columnist whose wife and proud grandfather might come looking for his work, or the star reporter whose college buddies and proud mother will come hunting for his byline, the editorial has no hyperventilating relatives waiting to devour it.  It must earn every read. 

What to do?  Regrettably, it is impossible to separate the character of an editorial page from the image of the newspaper .  That table is set by the news stories it publishes.  An editorial can hardly expect to be an island of excellence in the sea of dishonor.

Still, in a country where literate people do not read, and the reading people are not literate, the determined editorialist must seek ways of obtaining attention.  I suggest a sharp change of styles to the short (and, if possible, witty), which would permit two to four editorials in the same space.

The problem with pieces of that description is that few people can write them.  Any editorial writer can write, in principle, but to craft an accomplished piece which retains the message while being brief or funny is a different box of ballot papers. 

The first thing, however, is for Nigerian journalists to acknowledge the narrow pass that the profession has reached, pushed on by interloping publishers and quacks who mistake the industry for an oil well.  As my friend, Nosa Igiebor of TELL Magazine says, being a journalist is like being a priest; it is a conscious choice for those who believe in it. 

A good journalism is one in which truth speaks louder than words.  If true professionalism does not return to Nigeria’s mass media, Nigeria will not return from this long night.
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