The scholarship and practice of journalism are at crossroads. Although the current trend was foretold by scholars like Marshall McLuhan in his global village postulation, the extent of the disruption, distortion and destabilisation was probably not foreseen. Much more, the response to issues thrown up by the phenomenon was not anticipated.
But here we are savouring the gains of a new era and enduring the pains thrown up. I am referring to the paradigm shift brought forth by the information and communication technologies (ICTs) and the platform offered by the internet, which has democratised communication across genres and beyond boundaries.
Journalism, in particular, has witnessed an incipient surge in participants, who lay claim to the practice without the codes or even the knowledge base that was hitherto hallowed by practitioners of yore.
A monumental climate change in journalism has taken place; the glacier ice has thawed. The ozone layer of journalism has been pierced and the resultant warming, flooding, desertification and change in fauna and flora are writ large for all to see and savour. But the change is by no means all negative. The grit of non-digital journalism has been replaced by a more favourable “operating system”, to borrow from the ICT register.
Those who initially ignored the new operating system have realised their folly and are playing the catch up game. But my worry today is the maiming of Mr. Gates, a dutiful janitor who opened the gates only for people accredited to enter the house.
No story got published without passing through multiple gates in the media chain of command.
Through that process of gatekeeping, facts were cross-checked, legal and ethical implications were weighed and conflict and other sensitivities were considered, with the goal of building a harmonious and just polity. It never was an El Dorado, as things rank and gross still slipped through the gates occasionally; but it was not left ajar for all to pass through as we now have. It was not this unweeded garden where “things rank and gross in nature possess it merely”, to quote Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
The democratisation of communication is not itself the problem. We have more voices, more freedom to express ourselves and more variegated voices to contend with. I agree with Chairman Mao on the need for a hundred flowers to bloom and diverse sources contend. But a large number of poisonous flowers are blooming and divisive voices are multiplying. From the ultra-right wing vituperations to the ignorant wayfarers, we are on a darkling plain.
We need to engage ourselves more on salvaging the polity by sanitising the communication environment through self-regulation. This is not a duty for the government, which as we know will use the opportunity to muzzle the press under the pretext of sanitising it.
For the avoidance of doubt, I am calling for regulation within and by the media through the fine-tuning of its processes and the institution of an Ombudsman system. The publication of the Ombudsman policy by a growing number of media houses in Nigeria is welcome but a more robust implementation is advocated.
We need to rehabilitate Mr. Gates, so that it can play its role well. The niche will still go to media houses that have processes that are professional, even in this welter of information and communications explosion.
As far as the social media are concerned, one under-discussed phenomenon is the use of bots to generate and perpetuate a particular line of narrative. Bots generate auto followership and gain likes, views and exposure. Bots have left science fiction films and are now active participants in our everyday discussions. They push a narrative within and across social media spaces, with the aim of passing them off as authentic human reactions to issues of the day.
Influential figures like Donald Trump and other lesser social influencers have been fingered in the bot algorithm. Thus, the line between reality and fiction has become blurred.
In all of these, media education must continue to change to accommodate present realities. Information and communication literacy must be given priority. Courses on the workings of algorithms, bots, fact-checking and data journalism are the future of journalism and mass communication education.
The recent unbundling of Mass Communication into about seven specialised courses by the Association of Communication Scholars and Professionals in Nigeria (ACSPN) and its acceptance by the National Universities’ Commission (NUC) provides a good opportunity for reform of the curricula. Even without the updated curricula, institutions and lecturers must infuse these courses into the current templates creatively. The time for reform is short.
Another area of concern has to do with who gets media attention. A landmark study by the late Dr. Bisi Aborisade has established that the poor who are in majority in Nigeria hardly get media attention. When they do, it is for the wrong and negative reasons: crime, malnutrition and other inadequacies.
Recently, Jake Tapper of the CNN featured a Neo-Nazi leader, Richard Spencer on his show and gave him an opportunity to propagate his heinous agenda. This angered Umair Hague, a critic, who blamed Tapper and the media for not getting societal priorities right. Hague contrasted Spencer to Ben Ferencz, 99 years old now and the lead prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials who helped create the idea of “crime against humanity”. Ferencz’s voice, according to Haque, is more needed now in a world that has become increasingly hateful and violent, to nudge us back to compassion. He blamed the American media for privileging negative voices as they set agenda for society: “Why is it that you know who the latest hate filled Neo Nazi leader is and what he has to say… but you don’t know who the actual lead prosecutor of the Nazis at the Nuremberg trials was, or what he has to say and warn of?”
The jury is out on whether negative voices should be totally shut out of media spaces in the spirit of peace journalism but the tenets of conflict-sensitive journalism condemn valorising and legitimising them. Conflict-sensitive journalism believes that it is in the enlightened self-interest of the media to be more discerning because when the society is in crisis, neither the media nor other concerns will be able to ply their trades.
*Jide Jimoh is the Head of Department of Journalism, Lagos State University. Email: [email protected]