Pitfalls of media driven by half-baked workshop- journalists

By Victor Lugala

That news stories in the local media are boring and dull is partly because some rookie reporters ask irrelevant questions when doing their daily assignments.

Blame editors for poorly or not equipping their reporters when they go to the field to gather news stories.

Last week the pretty but unsmiling deputy minister of Information Lily Albino Akol criticised media practitioners for their lack of professionalism. Some senior journalists were jolted out of their armchairs and probably irked by the wakeup call.

Reporters are like foot soldiers who must be well equipped before they march for action.

It is unfortunate or ill-informed that some reporters seem to have surrendered their ‘birth right’ to that gadget called microphone which aids in recording sound. They think that when a newsmaker or a politician sees a mike pointed at them they will open their mouths.

Well, a shrewd and media-savvy newsmaker will manipulate any novice reporter to advance their (political) agenda, thus misleading the reporter and public.

At a news conference or news events some lazy reporter will point a mike at a news maker’s face, saying: “Can you say something,” or “Say something”, a question or statement which is neither here nor there.

Journalists are trained to ask questions, more so, open ended questions, not close-ended questions. Provocative questions are even better.  A well-framed provocative question will always elicit a punchy response, or a good sound bite or sound clip for radio. Note that a journalist can be provocative without being rude. Stephen Sucker and Zainab Badawi both presenters of BBC’s Hard Talk programme do that.

A reporter is habitually a skeptical and curious person. Therefore, they must ask questions, questions, and more questions. And good and relevant questions they must ask.

Processing information gathered by the reporter is not painstaking if the reporter wants to deliver what matters to the media consumer.

A news reporter should not develop an I-don’t-care attitude when carrying out their work, because they are the ears and eyes of the public. Or put it this way, a journalist is the watchdog of society.

Gathering of information for a news report is one thing, and processing it is another. Writing the story is the end product, which means packaging it neatly and tightly for the media consumer.

There are journalism conventions that journalists must adhere to (or eventually break them after they have mastered them).

It is not only enough for the reporter to answer the Who, What, Where, When, or Why to lay bare the story, but the reporter should explain the How.

As a matter of fact, it is the How in the story which should interest the audience or media consumer.

Moreover, a well-endowed reporter or journalist should be able to not only report the hard facts, but to interpret a complicated story to the audience. This is why sports journalists are not only commentators of sports events, but they go beyond what they see.  It is interesting to note here that in some countries football fans who are actively watching a game would prefer listening to a radio sports commentator watching the same game.

It is a fact that a journalist is not a know-it-all jack-of-all-trades, unless they want to pretend.

In developed countries where the media are technologically and professionally developed and the journalists well educated, journalists specialise in reporting or commenting on politics, economics, science, technology, education, sports, the arts, besides the general or ordinary beat assignments like covering courts, police, hospitals, accidents, breaking news stories, city council, etc.

The president or rebel leader is not ordinary people you meet in the supermarket every other day. Therefore, when the opportunity presents itself at a rare joint press conference, and the general public is waiting with great expectations, in fact it should be the senior journalist to attend such a high-level event, not junior reporters who are too timid to ask tough questions which could adequately inform the masses to form public opinion.

With most newsrooms having access to the internet, some journalists waste valuable time on social media, mainly Facebook – chatting with friends or posting selfies to impress girlfriends/boyfriends.

The current generation of journalists is very lucky to have been part of the digital age revolution, but are they taking advantage of modern technology?

If young journalists could use the internet qualitatively to inform and learn new knowledge they would be better off than someone who crashed their minds in undergraduate studies in a local university where libraries are poorly stocked.

Our journalists are poor readers of books, magazines, journals. Most of those who work in newspapers hardly read their newspapers to critique each other as peers.

Because they have chosen to remain ignorant or with little knowledge, why don’t the greenhorns hang out with veterans to learn from their professional experience or to be inspired.

Without a press club or popular hangout for journalists in Juba where else can the young journalists meet old journalists if not in bars, and the many workshops which have become like a jam session.

I gather in a year the average reporter can attend about four or more media workshops in the country, in the region, or China. China especially has been sponsoring journalists to visit Beijing and other cities so that when they return to their countries they can write favourably about China’s economic inroads into Africa.

Judging by their daily output it is almost accurate to conclude that the many media workshops being held in Juba and other parts of the country add no meaningful value in terms of professional development. I stand to be corrected.

I even don’t know what these workshops are all about, if not to burn donor money. Mind you, journalists are ordinary human beings, and they too have briefcase organisations. And for the sake of writing progress reports they must justify use of the donor money, hence the endless workshops.

There was a time media executives and academics had a protracted debate as to whether journalists should be formally trained in class or on the job. In my mind and experience, I would urge aspiring young journalists to go for formal classroom education in a university. In university they can learn theory, practice, and management.

Although it is an advantage it is not a must for aspiring journalists to study journalism in University. I would even prefer they study a different discipline altogether.

For instance, Hilary Ng’weno, one of Kenya’s best veteran journalists studied physics at Harvard University in the early 1960s. After graduating from that prestigious American university he worked for less than a year as a news reporter before he was appointed as the first indigenous Kenya Editor-in-chief of the Daily Nation, Kenya’s leading newspaper which still has the highest circulation in East and Central Africa.

And for inspiration among the current generation of our journalists, there is Stella Loki. She studied law in university but fell in love with radio, and she is a rising star in radio.

However, with what is bedevilling our media houses a short-term solution should be sought by the owners of the private media houses. Instead of sinking money in black hole workshops, proprietors of media houses should hire qualified media trainers from neighbouring countries, or even Western volunteers, to train journalists on the job, as well as train editors on good editing skills and practices and media management.

The erroneous notion that starting a private media house is like starting a kiosk or barber shop is evidenced by the collapse of some of them in quick succession.

To ease the heat from the poor reporter who badly needs professional direction, we should focus on good editorial work. Media houses lack good editors who can turn a poorly written story into good copy.

Editors, or rather news editors assign their reporters to cover stories. And since journalists are often referred to as the watchdog of society, editors are the gatekeepers because it is their responsibility to approve a news story or ‘kill’ it. So when a ‘gatekeeper’ allows trash to pass through their hands, we the consumers cannot blame the reporter who gathered the story.

Media are not institutions for charlatans. Going by evidence-based research that ordinary people trust media more than politicians, then the media should invest in strong content which informs, educates, entertains or excites the public.

That said, it is really up to the journalist to aspire for excellence by learning on their own, by reading vastly and writing quality stories which inform the public, as well as promote democracy and freedom of expression.


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