I Just Cannot Understand

By Edward Ladu Terso

William Pike, in his keynote speech at the first Uganda  National Journalism Awards event on April 9, 2014, said, “Today I will focus on the print media because that is where, I believe, media faces its challenge.”

He said he started Journalism in 1978 and yet the printing press today is recognizable.

“We have lived through a technological revolution in the last twenty five years and that revolution is not over yet,” he said.

Why are newspapers important? He questioned. He responded to his own question saying, “They help us work towards the TRUTH.”

He emphasized, “That protocol is not followed on the Internet … any blogger or writer can present his or her version of events that may be true or false. Stories submitted by citizens can be a great contribution but they only become truly valuable when they have been examined and checked by editors to confirm them, or contextualize them by attributing the sources.”

If a story is in the Monitor, or New Vision, (all Ugandan papers), we assume that it is true, or likely to be true, because it has been validated by a process, by the editors. That is important because political and social debate will be based on agreed facts, that eventually some consensus will be reached.

It is also important because it provides a historical record, a factual record that future analysts can refer to.

“I get annoyed reading academic treatises where there are assumptions about what happened in the past, where the writer has clearly not gone back to the newspaper archives,” says Pike.

Newspapers set the news agenda. Electronic media and the Internet now have greater reach but newspapers drive the news agenda. It is the deep stories in the print like investigations, exposes, analyses, that very often are followed up in the television or radio news or in discussions by bloggers.

The mindset of the Internet is brief. For in-depth stories, we will need newspapers. But in a world of immediate, short, digital information, newspapers will become a minority product, read mainly by the intelligentsia and opinion leaders who are willing to pay for a more in-depth news product.

The world still needs verified and factual news stories. But that checking process costs money.

Above all, Pike tells Journalists, keep the faith. Keep producing detailed factual stories that have been cross-checked and balanced with both sides. Remember you are creating history. You are defining society. Unless Journalists perform this vital task, society will lose its self-awareness, its self-consciousness, and its direction.

I quite agree with William Pike, a renowned Journalist, except for a few reservations. Just as there are hard copy newspapers, there are also on-line newspapers whose stories have been verified, cross-checked, attributed to sources, balanced, and are in-depth and factual.

But when he hinted that, “Stories submitted by citizens can be a great contribution but they only become truly valuable when they have been examined and checked by editors to confirm them, or contextualize them by attributing the sources…,” I sensed he was referring to the social media like Facebook, twitter, linkedin, whatsup, and the others which are yet to mushroom.

Yes, citizen journalism makes great contribution to society but not when the postings are rife with misleading, inflammatory, defamatory, sensational, unverified, unattributed and non-factual information.

Disinformation, misinformation, and mal-information, which are all forms of information pollution, are easily disseminated online by citizen journalists. Information pollution or disorder which comes in the format of misinformation, disinformation and mal-information, is what the United States President, Donald Trump, decided to summarize into a phrase called “fake news.”

“Fake News” is an inherently vulnerable phrase which could be deployed as a weapon against the news industry to undermine reporting that the powerful do not like.

In a seven-module handbook for training on fake news, UNESCO defines the three terms which cause information disorder, as follows: mis-information is information which is false. But the person disseminating it believes it to be true. Dis-information is information that is false and the person disseminating it knows it is to be false. Finally, mal-information is information that is based on reality, but used to inflict harm on a person, organization or country.

At the time of giving the speech, Uganda was undergoing a process of nomination of candidates for presidential elections come 2016. One candidate was declared dead by one of the social media.

The candidate in question was later asked by a Journalist in an interview: “the media says you are dead. What do you say?” The seasoned politician sarcastically responded, “Yes, I am and I am now talking from my grave.” Was that a contribution to society? It was information pollution through disinformation. The dissemination of that false information was meant to cause harm to the politician and by extension, to the country.

Is it the job of the media to declare a person dead? That is the extreme we have reached. However, as we are in a world guided by Freedom of Expression, an opinion is fought by a counter opinion. A thought is countered by yet another brilliant thought. Ideas are countered by ideas.

The response of that politician served that citizen journalist well. I am sure he got it rough.

In the African setting, there are two sayings which go like this, “Where there are elders, young ones must keep quiet.” The second one says, “Where there are men, women must keep quiet.”

My friends, in the world of social media, these sayings have almost or totally lost meaning. If young ones cannot talk in the presence of the elders, they can always use the social media, which is at their disposal seven/twenty-four. Similarly, if women cannot talk in the presence of men, they can also talk using the news media.

We say tradition dies hard. But this is no more the case. Media technology or digitalization of the media has become like nerve gas for the demise of certain die-hard traditions.

The social media have opened a free space for self-expression and no one can do anything about that. Young citizen journalists create their blogs, facebook and twitter accounts using the smartphones they have at their fingertips, and post anything that instantly goes viral for better or for worse.

They have no time for such things like media laws, code of ethics and standards or editorial guidelines. They just post and feel good.

Social media has even helped in cutting down expenditure for celebration of birthdays. We celebrate birthdays online nowadays. Very cheap! You only need to load air-time for less than three pounds. The local telecom companies also appreciate and promote this new tradition.

The hotels and bakeries are the ones which are disadvantaged because they do not receive orders for TORTA and hall reservations for birthday celebrations except for some people who must spend.

However, the fact that the new or social media have opened up a free space for expressing opinions, thoughts and information, does not mean that they should be abused to cause unnecessary harm. This is the gist of the matter. New information technology is welcome but should be used for the common good of all.

If we use any means of communication to hurt, insult, defame, and demean others, we are polluting or creating disorder within the information regime. By the way, defaming, insulting, hurting or demeaning others is different from telling someone the bitter truth.

When you expose the bitter truth, you are being so scriptural because truth sets human beings free. Truth is freedom but it is bitter. Because it is bitter, it hurts.

Diplomacy, as they say, could be a way of telling someone what really hurts but in a way that makes the person smile. If you can help a person to change from dangerous to useful habits in a way that does not hurt, so be it. It simply means you are quite ethical in your approaches.

It also means you do not have ulterior motives. The temptation we have as human beings is to celebrate the ordeal of others which makes us look like sub-humans.

We should not use the tragedy, weakness or ordeal that befell a fellow human being to celebrate.

The bottom line is that the new, social or alternative media has brought us new means of interaction with one another provided that we avoid abusing it.

Our collective responsibility as journalists and citizen journalists should be the spread of truth, information that is true and in the service of public interest as we prepare to accompany the process of reconstruction and reintegration. Our country has bled enough.

Mal-information, disinformation and misinformation will not rebuild our country or promote unity in diversity. It will not be in the interest of our country to create information disorder because the damage will be almost irreparable and we will go down in history as a destructive generation.

 

 

 

 

 

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