The Sunday Mail
What do readers expect us to write about? How should journalists capture the nerve centre of what really matters to readers?
As dynamic as the profession is, most journalists are still stuck on the dictum that the unusual is the juiciest.
In other words, the journalist is instinctively framed to anticipate bad things to happen.
And most journalists believe that bad things sell. It can be a sex scandal, a corruption scandal or the macabre.
The media has also programmed audiences to anticipate the worst things to happen.
As journalists, we trade on this fear and the prospects of a doomsday. Under the guise of informing, journalists hold so much power in shaping the way people interpret, perceive and participate in their realities.
But is this what journalism ought to be? Where is the soul of journalism whose mandate as the Fourth Estate is to inform, educate and entertain?
How can journalists rise about the mundane polarised arguments that daily pervades all sorts of platforms?
I think the time has come for journalists to step back and reflect on the immense power they hold in shaping public perception. The time has come for journalists not to take for granted the immense power they have.
Many a time, journalists infuse their own prejudices and biases in their reportage, disadvantaging innocent readers, some of whom might not be very perceptive. Isn’t it time that we fact-check ourselves and peer review each other on whether we are still exercising our mandate in informing, educating and entertaining?
Are Zimbabwean journalists really ready to debate the state of the media, or are still letting our egos get in the way of honest introspection and peer review?
There is no doubt that if caution is not exercised, the media can work as a flaming sword, capable of cutting through any political armour.
Antony Browder, an African-American Egyptologist and writer, captures eloquently the importance of the media in shaping people’s perceptions.
In an interview with a London-based weekly newspaper, The Voice, Browder said: “The media are the most powerful forms of communication ever devised by man. If you are not conscious of that, then you won’t know how to protect yourself from negative image projected through the media.”
We need to seriously reflect about the impact of what we write about on a daily basis.
Many audiences still have a lot of trust in the mainstream media as a source of authentic information.
However, this trust needs to be cultivated and retained through regular introspection and improvement.
For some journalists, the only brand of journalism they know is one that adopts a perennially negative attitude towards their country.
There is a difference between holding Government to account and criticising elected officials, which all journalists must do, and writing many times, false and exaggerated reports that are clearly harmful to national interest.
A point helpful to cub reporters fed on the mantra of “free press” is that even the Western media, that is viewed as the paragon of virtue, adheres to an unwritten five-point code.
This five-point code consists of national interest, government lead, ideological leaning, historical baggage and advertisers or readers’ power.
Western journalists strictly adhere not just to the five-point code, but to the laws governing their operations. They know the red line and they don’t cross it.
We saw this recently in their coverage of the Iran crisis.
Referring to the killing of Iran General Qassem Soleimani, the headline on CNBC screamed: “America just took out the world’s number 1 bad guy”.
One cannot miss the deliberate framing.
Most African journalists, in contrast, pretend to be oblivious to the devastating effects of reckless reporting when examples of the negative impact of their reporting are galore.
A case in point is the Rwandan genocide. The death of Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana in a plane crash in April 1994, triggered a genocide against the Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
A United Nations tribunal set up afterwards established that some former media executives played a key role in inciting ethnic killings. The tribunal established that “hate media” played a significant role in the genocide in which 800 000 people were murdered.
A private radio station — Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines — was accused of calling for a “final war” to “exterminate cockroaches”, in reference to Tutsis, soon after President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down. A media executive, Hassan Ngeze, who ran an extremist magazine called Kangura, was also sentenced to life.
The Rwandan case teaches journalists to exercise extreme caution and perceptiveness in the exercise of their duties.
As recounted by a reporter in an article published in the South African Mail & Guardian of 21 September 2018: “A lot of time … we are right to target the politicians who do not act in the interest of the people. But by focusing so much of our resources and news coverage on reactionary and responsive journalism, we end up doing the work of the politicians for them. We end up aiding confusion, obfuscation, fear, distrust and a consciousness that somebody else is responsible for my life and thus my needs.”
As journalists, we arrogate to ourselves the duty of being agents of relations between the so-called big people and the ordinary people.
But we need to stop and ask ourselves whether our publications are helping readers to better understand the world they are living in?
What exactly are we informing our readers about and why?
What do our readers really need and are we providing them with what they need?
It is food for thought.