Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Ghana’s media landscape is cloudy, time to consider non-profit news

By Emmanuel K. Dogbevi
Image Source: European Parliament

Ghana to a large extent used to have a strong and dedicated news media that pursued high standards
of professionalism in news gathering, packaging and dissemination soon after independence and during the 1980s. These periods were difficult both during civilian and military dictatorships but most committed journalists and publishers stood true to the principles and ethics of the profession.

In their book, ‘The Elements of Journalism’, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel have argued that changes in politics, technology, culture and taste have occurred in the world around us requiring that journalists adapt to the changes without abandoning the elements of journalism that remain fundamental and enduring.

“To survive, journalism must adapt in form and style to reflect changes in culture, politics, taste and technology. But as journalism changes, those who produce the news also must keep in mind the purpose and principles of producing accurate information on behalf of the citizens.”

Meanwhile, a cursory look at Ghana’s news media landscape today shows a cloudy, shady news ecosystem. Generally, the news is shallow, one-sided, and often not the news at all.
This situation is prevailing in spite of the fact that the country has been practicing democracy since 1992 and Chapter 13 of the country’s Constitution stipulates in very elaborate terms and unambiguous language the freedom of the press. A freedom, unfortunately that seems not to be exercised fully by news practitioners that it seeks to protect, eventually making space for nonprofessionals with no news gathering and disseminating training or skills to hold sway, creating the impression that anyone with a good voice, good looks, a command of language that might not necessarily be good and could scribble away something or anything to put themselves up as journalists.

The act is so inundating to the extent that good quality journalism has been eclipsed.
There are hundreds of private FM radio stations and several hundreds of registered newspapers and almost 20 TV stations, but not much positives can be said for particularly the news component of these organizations.

What can be referred to as good quality and professional news is sparse and far in-between. What is news in the professional sense is not often covered well, and not enough is being done to enhance news coverage in ethical and professional ways, because most of the news organizations are owned by politicians both in the ruling party and opposition. Depending on which political party is in power, its supporters and influential members are allocated radio and TV frequencies and they often seem to have the financial capital to invest in media organizations. This development has become costly for a country like Ghana that is struggling to figure out a development path, because often the facts are clouded and judgemental, and depending on whose interest is being served, the facts are skewed in that direction with little or no commitment to ethical demands of journalism and the pursuit of truth.

According to Kovach and Rosenstiel, “Journalism provides something unique to a culture: independent, reliable, accurate, and comprehensive information that citizens require to be free. A journalism that is asked to provide something other than that subverts democratic culture.”

The news organizations seem to have become unsuccessful in performing their role as ‘Fourth Estate of the Realm’, even with the obvious ineffectiveness of the country’s often ruling party dominated Parliaments to hold the Executive in check - a situation that in itself should compel the journalist to rise up and play the watchdog role with zeal.

 Parliaments in Ghana are on record to have passed into law questionable agreements and have also in some cases rushed to pass laws without adequate debate or enough information to the public. A case in point was the repeal of a 1974 law making right-hand drive vehicles illegal and the passing of the law to make genetically modified organisms legal in the country. Some questionable sale and purchase and loan agreements have also been passed without much information to the public – literally behind the back door.

What has also become common is that most of the news organizations do not seem to probe deeper into and rigorously question political decisions and actions of government and the opposition as required by the tenets of journalism. Often, it is the word of one government official against an opposition figure and often outright falsehoods are carried in the news without cross-checking simply because a public official has said so. Most news organizations have simply become platforms for propaganda and the spread of often suspicious official views.

Some companies put out misleading advertorials that get carried by news organizations without any questioning because majority of these news organizations are commercial entities and they depend largely on advertizing revenues to stay in business.

The incidence of businesses using advertisement as a control tool to get news organizations to feign ignorance when they flagrantly abuse laws and regulations governing business practices in the country is on the increase. Some news organizations that expose the misconduct of companies are denied advertising.

In the past for instance, it was common practice for news organizations to vet advertisements and if they do not meet the ethical standards of these organizations, they would reject them, but not anymore. Adverts that are in obvious contravention of laws such as the food and drugs law, the safety of children and public morality are accepted for broadcast and published by some of these organizations.

Knowing the importance of advertizing revenues to the sustainability of these news organizations, some company executives are known to regularly threaten news organizations with withdrawal of advertisements on account of publishing factual information about their operations.

Some outstanding journalists have lost their jobs for insisting on publishing the facts against the wishes of their employers, while others have had to quit their jobs because they couldn’t ignore the facts and kill stories that owners and marketing officials of the organizations do not want to see published even when all the professional conditions for doing such stories have been fulfilled.
Other journalists sometimes kill stories half way and after completion or they simply do not look into them after receiving primary information.

Ghana no doubt has very highly trained journalists and some of them can stand at par with the best in the world. Indeed, some have excelled in various beats both at home and abroad including receiving prestigious global journalism fellowships at Ivy League institutions. The bigger picture of journalism in Ghana is not a true reflection of the caliber of journalists working in the country, it is a reflection of media ownership and the large number of news organizations established not for the basic principles of journalism but for profit and in most cases for political purposes only.

That being the case, one possible way out of the depressing quagmire is to consider non-profit news. Non-profit news has been used in most developed countries to pursue what has become known as crusading journalism. Non-profits are set up for the single most important purpose of publishing the truth in the public interest and non-profit news organizations are not encumbered by the parochial interests of politicians and the corporate world and therefore exist to serve the greater interest of the public to know the truth.

Kovach and Rosenstiel say journalism’s first obligation is to the truth; its first loyalty is to citizens; its essence is a discipline of verification; its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover; and it must serve as an independent monitor of power.
They add that journalism must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise and must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant.

At this very crucial stage of Ghana’s nationhood, where in spite of constitutionalism, there is very little transparency and accountability, the need for non-profit news organizations has become more important.

The role of journalists in holding governments and their allies in the corporate world to account on behalf of the people cannot be overemphasized and no strings attached non-profit news organizations could be one of the important players in this regard. Journalists should be able to do their jobs without fear of offending political figures or business people whose interests their employers serve or on who they depend for sustainability. They should not be compelled in doing their jobs to favour any individual or groups, but the truth.

Due to the suffocating influence of nonprofessionals on news, it is so hard at this moment to get a good, fair and balanced idea of the state of affairs in Ghana by looking at the newspapers, listening to radio or watching TV. Facts are often not facts by and in themselves but because someone, most often a public official has said so. And despite the strong belief and perception of growing public corruption among Ghanaians, news reports about corruption are often denied by public officials or their assigns making journalists and news organizations look bad, and not many of the reports exposing corruption can be proven because most of these reports are either one-sided or not dug into efficiently, often leaving more room for doubt. Additionally, not many of the so-called ‘revelations’ can stand as evidence in courts of law.

While, there is consensus among Ghanaians that the journalist is important in the pursuit of a progressively accountable and transparent society ran on good corporate governance principles, one way to empower the journalist to play that role is to consider the provision of funds or a source of funding to enable not-for-profit news outlets to play that role.

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