WEDNESDAY GUEST COLUMNIST by Abubakar A. Bukar
Reminiscent of Washington Post’s Janet Cooke and New York Times’ Judith Miller, Premium Times, a reputable online newspaper yesterday became the news when the News Agency of Nigeria broke that it has fired its reporter, Mr. Andrew Ajijah, for misleading its editorial team over the source of his story: Killing of nearly 100 people in Plateau ‘retaliatory’ – Miyetti Allah. The reporter, it turned out, did not conduct any interview with the attributed source, and independent investigation by the newspaper revealed that the information on which Mr. Ajijah’s story was based was allegedly a transcript of interview with Miyetti Allah’s leader shared by The Nation’s reporter on whatsApp to fellow journalists on Government House beat.
Their employee’s inability to verify from the source and his pretentious posture arguably caused the paper to lose hope with the embattled reporter’s integrity, thus took such drastic a measure to reaffirm its commitment to ethical conduct in the profession. For Premium Times it was, as can be recalled, that accused and rebuked many national dailies for ethical breach in reproducing Obasanjo’s letter to former President Jonathan without acknowledging it as the source. The letter, as the paper claimed, was exclusively sent to it.
In a profession notoriously bedeviled by cases of ethical transgressions and in a country desperate for its soul; often characterized as a ‘bleak house’, ‘dancing on the brink’, or a fallen one due to enormous existential threats, Premium Times’ antecedent and present reaction can be heralded as hope-inspiring development. An honorable path.
When the news was broken, social media went agog with interlocutors caught in lexical crossfire – some praising its stand, some upbraiding it as aggravatingly part of our collective predicament, while others astonishingly shocked and appalled that a journalist can be embroiled in fabrication controversy in an attempt to peddle a particular narrative. However, to those following the trajectory of media, ethics and conflicts, there is nothing new in the news.
As far back as 1981, Washington Post had to return the Pulitzer Prize awarded to its reporter, Janet Cooke, who also had to resign because her award-winning story about the eight-year old boy heroin addict was false. Actually both the slum-dwelling lad and the eye-witness accounts were cooked by Cooke herself. In the late 1990s, Stephen Glass of the New Republic magazine also met similar fate on similar ground. However, the case of Jack Kelly of USA Today seems to be the most staggering. He was said to have willfully defiled over 700 stories in the course of a decade. His editor was so much embarrassed that he’d to resign after retracting many of such stories. A year earlier, in 2003, both the executive and managing editors of New York Times had to also resign because their reporter, Jackson Blair, brought them to disrepute with his hitherto undetected yet consistent falsification of stories. How else can one also forget the role of Judith Miller of the same New York Times in the buildup to Iraq’s invasion? Or the role of American media generally in Vietnam’s war? And if all these are anything to go by, one can then appreciate why the American scholar, Sheikh Hamza Yusuf said he no longer believe in the press. Obviously for their damages to him personally and to a fellow scholar, Tariq Ramadan. So Premium Times is just entangled in a malaise plaguing journalism profession for that long. And to me, excusable for it quick reaction to save its credibility which is quite appreciable compared to say Vanguard newspaper especially in its handling of Boko Haram in the eclipse of Jonathan’s regime.
Naturally what needs to be considered in all these is the fact that we are dealing with humans – much like you and I. Fallible. Therefore one cannot be accurate all the times. When mistakes are genuinely accidental, they ought to be forgiven. Where they’re maliciously and repeatedly made, especially in a conflict situation, the organization has to pay for it – shouldn’t scot free.
Secondly, objectivity as a caveat is myth. George Orwell and Donald McDonald say it is impracticable. Tumber and Prentoulis say it is ‘an impossible goal’. Williams says it is ‘all pretence’. While in his nostalgic memoir on Vietnam’s war, Sam Anderson recalled, ‘…Detached, professional, objective observers, we called ourselves – and it was a lie. About the war, one couldn’t be objective; every word written, every foot of film taken, was a choice, no less than the one at the pavilion of Takeo. Indochina offered no escape. Not choosing sides was choosing sides,… In that sense, my friends and I had merely been witnesses to a small, tragic fragment of history – bystanders to a bloodletting, you might call us, and not so innocent ones, at that. To believe otherwise, as I had for long, was a preposterous conceit… It was the illusion that had kept me going’. In other words, like all humans, the journalist is a bundle of ‘selves’ – pulled hither and thither by religion, culture, ethnic and regional cleavages personal interests and whatnots. He can only transcend these primordial affiliations for loftier values such as peace and fairness when he is properly trained. However, where the reverse is the case and ID card is thrust on him as meal ticket, worse should be expected. For, how often does one hear so and so media proprietors in Nigeria are owing their staff for months? This also brings in the theoretical explanation that the media are microcosmic, reflecting the society in both virtues and vices.
The saddest part of it all is that many local journalists have, out of laziness, also feasted from that pool and went to town with this conflict-sustaining, disinformative stuff. How many would be misled and harmed consequently only time will tell. This obviously explains the emotional take on the social media. People are losing hope. Pessimism is taking its toll. As recent audience research in Plateau revealed, ‘majority of the respondents felt that most media reports of the Fulani herdsmen and farmers were lopsided, ignored the principles of factuality…’ Impressively, such allegation was of course what moved the BBC and VOA to employ Amaka N. Dike and Grace Alheri Abdu respectively in the wake of 2001-2002 Jos crises. Balancing, recruiting and firing should therefore be unhesitating in order to minimize these proliferating ethical tragedies.
Bukar studies and teaches Mass Communication. He wrote in from Gashua, Yobe State, and can be reached at email@example.com