When would the fangs of a wild dog thrust into the ankle of a frightened innocent girl turn newsy? Believe it or not, dog bites are bloody and very often bloodier. But media experts say it is no news for the bloodiest leads, if it bleeds well it leads. When a dog bites a man it is no news, but when a man bites a dog it is the best news to scoop in haste.
So non-violent stories, stories that project peace and harmony receive less attention until violence blows up. That is why the solitary farmer's crop glut receives no or lean media attention.
These are the apprehensions of the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP), when Ghana was preparing for its 2008 general elections which resulted in a workshop organized for journalists and other stake holders to avert the catastrophe of election related violence.
The fear of WANEP was legitimate since it was election-related disputes that interspersed violence in most parts of Africa, with Zimbabwe and Kenya as fresh examples in Africa. However, Ghana has once again averted another near bloody elections and its presence as the star of democracy in Africa. We however, owe so much gratitude to the patience of Ghanaians for their deep sense of maturity and forbearance, especially the New Patriotic Party (NPP), who were antagonised by the principle of majority in which their 49.13% of the votes as against 47.72% by the National Democratic Congress (NDC) in the first round could not give the NPP victory.
Then the wheels of fortune turned against the victor during the run off, giving the NPP a disturbing 49.77% and putting the NDC in the lead with 50.23% of the votes.
Fear laid hold on many as business activities in the city centre came to a halt. The air of war started blowing. Calls were received here and there from panting parents calling children to head homeward from wherever they were, friends calling their loved ones to roost before disaster blew up.
The suspense was excruciating and like a melodrama that reached its peak, the Electoral Commission announced the results, but again, left it in a limbo for Tain Constituency in the Brong Ahafo region to be the final decider since the people of the constituency could not vote on the December 28 2008, because of some missing electoral materials.
Various media outlets reported these events based on their philosophies and political leanings of the owners of the media houses they worked for, and sometimes the biases of the reporter. Part of the decision that determined how the stories were written was commercial. What are you talking about, the paper must sell!
The media is not only in business, but in a tough contest with each other as they struggle for limited news in a capricious manoeuvring to outwit the other in scooping the news.
Time has become journalist's combatant and their lives are ruled by deadline which could be a tyrant master. Journalists have most often complained about Time.
The haste with which to reach their audience first, and the deadly nature of time in reportage, especially for the daily newspapers, more often than not, make journalists give half-hearted approach to prime principles -objectivity, balance and accuracy.
One wonders if journalists wield the power they claim they have. Do they have the legal authority to investigate many areas of public and private life and equipment needed to efficiently carry out such duties? Journalists in Ghana must be indebted to the Kufour administration for improving and building on the media foundation laid by the NDC, by scraping off the criminal libel law, but painfully failing to pass the Freedom of Information Bill into law.
Ironically, the NPP strode too quickly to enact the Peoples Representation Amendment Bill into law, which was dead at birth, just as the Burns Constitution of 1948. Lack of the information law incapacitates and limits the media of its power to scrutinize the activities of government officials efficiently.
The effect of media report about some perceived powerful people in society is a worry. The courage to defy conventions and lash at wrong doers is lost among journalists, apart from some ostracized few who dangerously endanger their lives for reporting deviant people in the saddle of power.
Ghana today has a polarized media along party lines, as well as ethnically creating cracks in the resolve of journalists to hold rulers in check for the society. So there are two or more truths to a story. Pro NDC media houses have their own truth while pro NPP media houses also have another set of truth, and the media war rages on.
Many journalists lack high education. Few have degrees in specialised fields such as law, economics and medicine, according to WANEP reports. Salaries of journalists are very low, as a result journalists are vulnerable to social pressure as they reflect the biases and the shortcomings of the society.
The principle of survival pushed some to shameful lengths of struggling for 'soli' (money given to journalists to defray their transport cost at assignments) and denting the image of this noble profession. Journalists have not caused these problems but are mirrors that reflect these dilemmas.
But be careful not to accuse the media of fanning the flame of violence. “Many journalists and media workers proclaim that all they are doing is collecting and dissemination of ideas, information and images. They often protest that they are not to be blamed for the content of their reports or the consequences that might arise. 'Don't kill the messengers if they bring you bad news,' is their refrain, one copied from an ancient Greek saying when a hapless runner brought news of defeat.
Such observations would now be regarded as naïve,” said Robin Cohen and Paul Kennedy. The likelihood to fan flames of mayhem or be a peace broker with journalistic nib is a choice which journalists must make and must be responsible for the reward or curse that may follow. But the question is -which path does the media in Ghana choose? They hide them in their headlines. By your own judgement do you think the following headlines can lead to peace? “Kufuor Weeps for Rawlings; More on the Hit-List,” “Evil Job of Looting and Destruction; NPP Loots State Pool of Vehicles,” “Looting of Vehicles; Don't Provoke Govt-NPP Men Warned,” “Nana Addo Chases Apraku to Account for Campaign Cash,” “Kufuor Draws Dagger on Mills,” “Tsatsu Bites Kufour Over Pardon,” “Panic Over Killer List,” “Coming Up-Knives out for Mac Manu and his Troglodytes,” “Crushed Spio Licks Wounds”, etc.
Apart from the media being cheer leaders of rogue governments and helping them to subsist, brave at exposing war time abuses, journalists show sheer disinterest in the warning of war. The naivety on the part of some media men about conflicts they want to report on make them builders of wars, as one can see from the headlines above, with most of them over-dosed with extraneous materials meant to achieve sensationalism.
Edward Biateng once remarked “the flow of information could turn out to be the most powerful and engaging elixir of our time... in Africa information revolution will simultaneously be able to scale down the impact of sporadic wars on foreign direct investments by promoting more differentiated view.”
The recent 2008 pre and post election could serve as a better threshing floor for judgement of the media. Some radio stations during the period were blamed for feud laden reports. They stooped to levels that anybody that walked in with a piece of information could have access to the microphone. Thanks to the repeal of the criminal libel law, which cleared the buffer that gags journalists not to open their mouth too wide? This media freedom is good to the spirit and soul of the journalists as members of the inky fraternity must be celebrated with ethical precision.
Radio, as a matter of fact is highly psychological and has emotional and imaginative bonds with its audience. Radio still remains the most significant source of news, entertainment and could be used deceitfully or truthfully.
In the recent run-off elections, when news went round that a radio station was under attack, moments after some thousands of angry youth swiftly converged at the premises of the radio station to either prevent the attack, or they themselves attack the perceived intruders.
In most cases people behind the microphone cannot anticipate the panic they create. A WANEP report stated that radio is the most powerful medium and a contributor to conflict. Permit me to use the chestnut Rwandan example in which radio 'journalist-warlords' ( Hutus) were said to have declared war between the rival ethnic Hutu and Tutsis.
Reports had it that they were directing tactical attacks on the opponents (the Tutsis) from the studio and the result was the genocide that history has labelled as a novelty, as far as war and crime is concerned in recent times.
The good news is that 'hate journalism' has given way to 'peace journalism' with a Bujuburam radio station in Rwanda, Studio Ijambo, in collaboration with Search for Common Ground, a US organization that supports media involvement in conflict prevention around the world.
Peace journalism is very costly and daunting because one must be fair, exceptionally objective and absolutely resolute in exploring for fuller information about conflict situations before one leaps – or writes.
Disputes are very complex, time consuming and costly reconciliation efforts. Anyone who wants to report it must educate himself very well on it, so that the report could go a long way to promote tolerance and draw-out the negotiations required to resolve the dispute.
A well balanced media report on conflict situation may flakes-off the mistrust that opposing parties involve in the conflict have for each other. This could help to revive the lost trust.
“By presenting opposing parties as real people with ordinary concerns, the media can emphasise the common humanity of people in conflict and undermine stereotype about different groups,” stated WANEP report.
In addition journalist must avoid speculation and must be courageous to report clearly what they do not know and what they know as journalism is always referred to as the “first draft of history” and that readers should be told what the gaps are, but not to be filled by the journalists' speculations.
In conflict situations, feuding parties try to engage the media to undo each other so the media must be up to the task of identifying the hidden motives behind statements and determine whether it will inflame passion or not and what must be done to lower the heat.
Conflicts factions are mostly very rigid and hold unchanging positions, journalists must identify peaceful options to win the hearts of all factions in conflicts.
Finally, journalist must strive hard to tell the truth, minimize hazards, act independently and have clear, distinct and transparent process in taking news decisions.