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11.02.2006 Feature Article

How Can Journalists Make Government More Accountable?

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– A view from the UK. Sure, there are laws but where are the policies? The words are easy, we hear them every day. There are no end of words written about reform, corruption, financial transparency and government irregularities but how should journalists in the print and broadcast media ensure that politicians and bureaucrats are held to account? Five core principles should be considered. The discussion of these five principles is designed to ensure journalists within Ghana can contribute positively to making politicians more accountable to their electorate. The theory is that once the public are empowered and educated through good journalistic practice and techniques then wider society will start to demand a higher standard of conduct from elected officials and civil servants alike.

The Five Core Principles are:-

1. Be More Pro-Active (Seek and You Shall Find)

Journalists should start to think about increasing their levels of pro-activity. Do not wait for the news to come to you – go and seek it. Make the calls, get out there. Develop a network of formal and informal contacts within government at all levels but always promise to protect your sources. This way you will be trusted and you can go back to such sources at a later date for more stories. By being more pro-active you reduce the likelihood of government driving the news agenda. If you cannot get access to politicians or government officials then interview the person on the street and quote them (this is commonly referred to as a vox pop i.e. 'voice of the people'). Don't forget you can always ask experts from an associated field outside government to provide a view. Do not rely just on the politicians' version of events. Think globally. There are many ex-pats or experts abroad who could provide not just quotes or alternative views but also an international perspective. Such experts could also prove a valuable source of further news stories and contacts.

2. Probe Inconsistencies When Interviewing

Whether you are interviewing for the broadcast or print media always look for inconsistencies in either responses or action. If a politician states that something has happened then check it has – if it hasn't then challenge them. Always demand evidence in respect of any claims. The more elaborate the claim the more evidence you should demand. Don't be frightened to ask, 'where's the evidence?'. As a journalist you are likely to gain credibility with the public if you develop a reputation for being forensic when you interview. Furthermore, politicians will eventually realise you are not going to let them get away with empty rhetoric.

3. Follow Up Stories

Stories can be continuing – they do not necessarily need to finish when the interview ends. If a promise has been made to improve education in a particular region why not follow up in two or three months time? Following up even a year later is not too late. Once the public and the politicians realise you will be following up stories they will be more cautious about making promises which are likely to remain unfulfilled months later. Encourage your readers and listeners to get involved by informing you when the politicians do not deliver.

3. Develop Your Investigative Skills

In other parts of the world, such as the United Kingdom, there is a long tradition of investigative journalism. In fact the investigative journalists are often viewed as heroes by the general public and develop quite a following. Government can be quite fearful of a probe by the top investigators and there are many examples of investigative journalism exposing poor practice or corruption and even changing government policy! The skills of investigative journalism are specialist ones and so developing them is crucial. Skills training is therefore vital.

4. Develop Your Formats

Whether you are a print or broadcast journalist you need to be creative with your formats. Broadcast journalists should give consideration to discussion programmes which involve a number of people being invited to debate a particular issue. This requires the journalist to both present and chair a discussion. Print journalists should understand the distinction between a feature and news article and endeavour to find the best fit for the story. In depth interviews, for example, may be an appropriate way to probe politicians and personalities whereas feature articles can be effective in educating the public on particular issues. Broadcast journalists should also be aware of the power of drama as a learning medium. Embedding current issues within a drama can be an effective way of educating the public about things such as health, education or anti-corruption. Make as much use of the vox pop as possible as this is often an easy and cheap way to produce an article or item. It also brings journalists closer to the public.

5. Know How to Interview Effectively – do not rely solely on prepared questions

It is also important to develop your interviewing technique. Relying too heavily on prepared questions can mean that you are less able to probe and push the subject during the life of the interview. Understanding the psychology of questioning and the different types of questions can help to ensure that an interview has the necessary edge and bite. Listen to the answer and be prepared to depart from your script in order to follow up on particular points of interest – particularly where there is an inconsistency in the responses from the interviewee.

In considering these Five Core Principles journalists will ensure that their practice is developed and that their art is appreciated within wider society. They may also identify skills gaps and future training needs. A free press is indeed a blessing in any developing country but it is only the start of the process of reform. Journalists must take advantage their position to ensure that they become trusted sources if impartial information rather than merely mouthpieces for politicians. This means keeping their skills up to date. Richard Payne is a skills trainer, lecturer and writer living and working in the United Kingdom. Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.

Richard Payne
Richard Payne, © 2006

The author has 1 publications published on Modern Ghana. Column Page: RichardPayne

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