15.10.2005 Feature Article

The Need for Critical Journalism in Ghana

The Need for Critical Journalism in Ghana
15.10.2005 LISTEN

I coined the term “ critical journalism” based on some of the ideas that Kofi Akosah-Sarpong articulated in his article “When Superstition and Journalism Collide”, published on the Ghanaweb on Sept 23, 2005. The synopsis of Kofi's article is that Ghanaian brand of journalism has inadvertently allowed superstition to flourish instead of rationality. Kofi also argued that where superstition rules as it is in Ghana, it is exceedingly difficult or impossible to modernize the society in all its permutations. This idea resonates with Busia's crusade which he articulated in his great book “Purposeful Education for Africa”. Busia thought about using scientific education to fight superstition and ignorance in Ghana.

Critical journalism, which from my perspective should be the cardinal guarding principle of journalism in Ghana, consists of three fundamental concepts. First, journalists should not merely report news or events but they should also analyze, critique, and interrogate the news regardless of its nature. In this new paradigm, Ghanaian journalists would have to remove the cloak of objectivity or neutrality that has been prevalent in the journalism field in Ghana. After all no journalist can be neutral in so far as he/she chooses what to report as news, how to report it, and what words to use to convey the message to the reading, listening, or viewing public. This is not to suggest that interrogative or critical journalism is never practiced in Ghana; on the contrary, critical journalism ceases when the event involves superstition or anything religious. Accordingly, Kofi writes: “ Like good environmental/science/business writers, Ghanaian journalists who write about prophets, religion, juju-marabou mediums and other spiritual activities should not only report the news, but also should offer an assessment of what the experts know and don't know, given the evidence at hand”. He goes on to say that “while most Ghanaians accept journalistic inquiry into various wrong-doings or oversights or the implications of petroleum prices on the average Ghanaians, journalists have failed in asking about the implications of the rain of prophetic and other spiritual activities in Ghana's development process.” That is, when the subject matter involves issues of spirituality, religiosity or Christianity, the average Ghanaian journalist throws his or her critical lens to the dogs, so to speak. This apparent double standard journalism may stem from the irrational fear that casting a critical gaze on the activities of self-acclaimed prophets and spiritualists would result in death, terminal illness, or some form of misfortune for the journalist. In fact, some prophets or priests, quoting the Bible, have warned members of their congregation and the general public that God would curse them if they say or do anything that tarnishes the names or reputation of their priests, pastors, prophets or spiritual leaders. This has not only been a historical instrument of control in the church, but also a contemporary means of psychological control. In Canada, for instance, some Native children in the past were subjected to sexual, physical and emotional abuses in the infamous residential schools by Anglican priests in the name of Christianizing and civilizing them. Survivals of this horrendous treatment relate their experiences by saying that they were psychologically petrified to tell anybody, not even their parents, of the abuses they endured because the priests had warned them that God would curse them if they said any unpleasant things about their priests. Until recently, victims of the residential school system kept to themselves all the inhuman treatment they suffered at the hands of the priests, who supposedly were men of God.

Furthermore, the Catholic priests in Martin Luther's days also used the same psychological instruments of control to abuse and exploit their congregations until Luther exposed them. Was Luther cursed by God? Certainly not! The rise and proliferation of the Pentecostal faith is credited to Luther, whose revolutionary spirit made it possible for ordinary folks to have access to the Bible and to break the monopolistic control of the Catholic Church on the interpretation of the Bible and life-world events. The revolutionary spirit of Martin Luther was similar to that of Jesus Christ, who attempted to protect the Gospel of God against corruption, distortion, and exploitation by the Scribes and the Pharisees. Surprisingly today, some pastors, priests, or spiritualists in the Pentecostal movement in Ghana and other parts of the world are resorting to the use of fear, intimidation, and manipulation to control their congregations in order to prevent the exposure of their unchristian activities.

The second cardinal concept of critical journalism is that journalists should investigate the underlying causes of events before they report them.

Investigation here implies searching for data, gleaning data through interviews, participant-observation, observations, surveys, and analysis of official documentation. The thrust of the second concept of critical journalism suggests that journalists should not report the news without having thoroughly searched and verified their sources of their information. The critical journalists should not rely on either hearsays or dominant official interpretation of events. They should search for counter-news or stories that would balance the dominant official stories. For example, recently the Ghanaian government reported that Ghana's GDP has hit well over the $(US) 600 mark. Journalists from the Chronicle, Daily Guide, Ghanaian Times, and others did nothing to verify the authenticity of the government's claim, nor did they search for any counter-stories to prove the falsity or veracity of the statistics the government was peddling around. On the contrary, they came out with trumpeter headlines such as “Ghana Near $1000 per Capita Income”(Chronicle); “Per Capital Income Rises By 74% under NPP”(Statesman); “Per Capita Income to be Above $600(Chronicle)”; “Ghana Per Capita Income is $600” (Graphic). Are Ghanaians really richer today than they were in 2000? Who are really richer today than they were in 2000? In trumpeting the GDP as a measure of economic prosperity, the Statesman (August 12, 2005) is reported to have stated: “The average monthly earnings of employees show a big percentage jump. With the minimum wage at 4,200 and a dollar buying 7,047.7 cedis, the average monthly income of Government workers was 333,924 in December 2000. By December 2004, this had shot up by 369% to 1,122,653 cedis, far in excess of the accumulative percentage increase in inflation for the period”.

What is the accumulative percentage of inflation for that period?

In fact, it is true that the monthly incomes of workers have gone up. Using the Statesman's figures, in 2000 the average monthly income of public workers was 333,924 cedis and the dollar exchange rate was 7047 cedis; implying that the average income in dollars was $47.39 (333,924 ÷ 7047).By contrast, in December 2004 the monthly income of public employees was 1,212,653 cedis and the exchange rate was 8900 cedis. In dollar terms, the average monthly income was $136.25, a huge difference of $88.86 or 187.51%.Neverthless, reporting the absolute percentage increase in the minimum wage is nothing to boast of, unless this is matched against the rate of accumulated inflation of that period. The inflation figure would have helped the reader to assess whether Ghanaians are really better economically than they were in 2000.

Statistics has been used in different parts of the world by governments to lie and manipulate the psychology of their people because people have been deceived to believe that statistics is objective. However, statistics follows the same input/output relationship that has come to be known in the computer world as “garbage in garbage out”. The common or average Ghanaians know very well the economic realities on the ground—the mass unemployment, stagnant job market, the skyrocketing rate of inflation, unbearable costs of living, deteriorating infrastructures and sanitation, unaffordable health services. As a matter of fact, GDP as an indicator of economic growth is used only in international politics rather than in domestic politics to show economic prosperity. No government in Canada or the Western world could use an increase in the GDP to demonstrate to their citizens that their economies are improving. The fact is that Western people would not buy that, for they know that GDP as an average distorts reality! Instead Western governments tend to use other indicators such as the unemployment figures, personal bankruptcies, and real estate index, and so on to show economic growth. In Ghana one would have expected our journalists to question why the government was overly interested in the use of GDP figures. Why is the government clinging on to an economic indicator whose significance has been reduced considerably in the 21st century? When GDP increases who benefits? What is the difference between economic growth as demonstrated by GDP and economic development? What is the relationship between a lifeless statistic such as the GDP and economic realities on the ground? These are some of the questions our journalists should have posed to the government. As a matter of fact, the GDP is an inaccurate, inappropriate instrument to use to measure economic progress in Ghana. Consequently, our economists and other social scientists have to invent instruments that are more suitable for the nature of our economic system.

The last concept that forms the framework of critical journalism is that journalists should use their professional craft to promote development in Ghana rather than hinder it. For instance, critical journalists would expose road contractors who have failed to honour their contracts, or government officials who either divert money or materials meant for road construction. This is because critical journalists know that road network is crucial for economic and social development. Similarly, critical journalists should critique cultural norms or practices that hinder the progress of a community or the whole country. Accordingly, Kofi in that article stated: “Aware of a society deeply superstitious, this approach could enlighten the Ghanaian society and help Ghanaians think better, in part because of disagreement among theologians, philosophers, and other scholars about the veracity of many religious, prophetic, juju-marabou and other spiritual activities”. Critical journalists educate the public about outmoded customs, patterns of behaviour, attitudes, and traditions that work against the social, economic, and political development of the country. In this educational work, critical journalists combine sensitivity, respect, and dialogue to empower people to initiate changes in their communities. Not only that; critical journalists draw government's attention constantly to broken-down or deteriorating infrastructures, and use their craft to protect the rights and reputation of production workers such as farmers and miners who produce the bulk of our national wealth. Moreover, critical journalists use accessible language because their object is to have a mass readership or audience who understands our colonial language of English rather than to show off their accumulated stock of vocabulary, or to communicate to our few educated population who are fluent in English. Even in Canada where English is indigenous to the society, newspapers write at a grade eight level which is equivalent to JSS3.The writing or reporting style of our journalists, particularly their choice of words, sentence structure, and organization, makes it difficult for ordinary folks to understand. It requires the level of SSS3 education or higher in order for one to read a newspaper or government document and understand its content. Therefore, a vast majority of people are excluded from understanding national issues that affect their lives. In this case, how can Ghana overcome its problems of ignorance, disease, or poverty? How can we change Ghana for the better?

The development of Ghana is not the sole responsibility of politicians and their bureaucrats. It is equally the responsibility of our journalists who inform and shape the consciousness of members of our society through print, electronic, and photographic reporting. Toward this goal, Arthur Kennedy, a former president of NUGS, sometime ago suggested to me that our journalism institutes should require a minimum of undergraduate degree as an entry requirement. After a deep reflection, I find this suggestion valuable in that it would give our journalists a broad knowledge-base from which to draw for their practice of critical journalism. Y Fredua-Kwarteng OISE/University of Toronto Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.

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