Poor journalism a bigger threat to media freedom than police boots

This commentary is republished with permission from the Daily Monitor  where it first appeared.

BY DANIEL K. KALINAKI

This week was World Press Freedom Day and there was the usual wailing, gnashing of teeth, call to arms and pleas for journalists to be allowed to do their jobs unmolested. That we still refer to ‘press’ freedom in a multimedia world, however, is a reminder of the narrow prism through which freedom of the media has long been regarded.

Many traditional threats remain, of course. Censorship from repressive regimes, the resultant self-censorship, moral turpitude and physical attacks on journalists, some fatal, all undermine media freedom and good journalism. In fact, as journalists in Uganda marked the day, the Inspector General of Police was attempting, in blatant disregard of the law and the Constitution, to define for them what they can and can’t cover.

Step back from it all, however, and it becomes clear that the biggest existential threats to media freedom are internal, structural and related. They can broadly be clustered into the journalism model on the one hand, and the business and ownership models on the other hand.

Our journalism model was premised on a world of information asymmetry. The job of journalists was to find information, often at the pain of life and limb, and bring it to the attention of a grateful public. This contract with citizens was implicit: journalists endeavoured to obtain and publish the best obtainable version of the truth at the most convenient time; citizens used that information to make informed decisions and underwrote the business model by buying the newspapers and the advertised products.

In today’s world of information overload, the role of good journalism is no less important. If anything, it is desperately required to validate reports of what is happening, and explain to citizens why it matters.
It is here that we have been tested and found wanting. Years of underinvestment have left many newsrooms bereft of talent to do explanatory, interpretative and investigative journalism.

The shifting sands in the business model have compounded this problem. The traditional model was based on advertisers using the media to reach audiences. The underlying assumptions were that the audiences would remain in situ, and that the advertisers were benign do-gooders.

Both have been proven wrong. Not only are audiences shifting to digital platforms where they, for some reason, expect information to be free, advertisers, from Big Business to Government, have used their spending power to unduly influence editorial content and keep themselves beyond journalistic scrutiny.

Where the owners of the media houses are these very same entities or are hand-in-glove due to business, social and class ties, then this problem is amplified; where they are outsiders, they are pushed to the margins and punished in the market, for instance by denying them advertising or smudging them with nasty smear of public ridicule. It is the classic case of heads you lose, tails you lose.

As intractable as these problems seem, a good place to start is at the bottom and the fundamentals: media that primarily serve the public interest, and citizens that understand the value of good journalism and are willing to pay for it.

Citizens can and should support the production of good journalism by investing in it. Many argue, with some merit, that they do not get value from the media they consume but the solution to incomplete information is not complete ignorance. So buy or subscribe to a newspaper, it costs less than half the price of a beer, for heaven’s sakes!

The media generally reflect the state of society. Informed professional journalists do not fall from the sky; they are the product of media houses in which citizens are invested financially and ideologically.

But this trust must be earned and journalists and media owners must make the biggest investment. In the words of Norman Mailer, some of us, finding that we were not smart enough to become lawyers, talented enough to become novelists or with hands too shaky to perform operations, became journalists. To survive we must be more diligent, more professional, and deepen our knowledge in order to examine events with rigour and explain them with depth and context.

The police might throw us in jail but when our bodies are discovered hanging from the roof the next morning history will show that the suicidal ropes were woven out of poor, irrelevant journalism.

Mr Kalinaki is a Ugandan journalist based in Nairobi. dkalinaki@ke.nationmedia.com 
Twitter: @Kalinaki

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