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11.05.2007 General News

Reporting The Reporter

A phone call from someone got me monitoring radio broadcasts on Wednesday morning with the absorption of a communications intelligence officer on duty, Jomo. The caller suggested I listen to how “amanfoo are making you journalists pasapasaa….”

I tuned in to not less than four radio stations and phone-in callers to the usual morning news review programmes and talk shows were indeed berating us, no end:

One caller said some journalists had hijacked the national agenda and were dictating how the country should be run. That is rather far-fetched, don't you think? We have elected leaders who are running the country, haven't we, Jomo?

Then there was this other caller who said some journalists had become loyal, regular and very staunch defenders of the system and the status quo. Someone else said we had become terrorists. Everyone has apparently forgotten our good works in defence of human rights and fighting corruption, Jomo.

It all had something to do with a controversial news report published in some papers: An allegation that some National Democratic Congress members of Parliament had met and plotted to hire assassins to bump off their colleague MP for Tamale South.

The MP, the Mr Harruna Iddrisu, is an exceptionally brilliant and articulate young lawyer and a rising star in his party.

The reporters who wrote the story staunchly defended the story, saying an alleged assassination plot was too serious for any responsible journalist to sleep over. They argued that they had spoken to some of the key actors in the report and done nothing that infringed the ethics of journalism.

Critics of the press were themselves criticised by one gentleman for “trying to interfere with press freedom.” Press freedom? What is press freedom? That is what I asked myself, Jomo.

On Press Freedom Day recently, I was tempted to argue that we were celebrating something that does not really exist. I revised that opinion and commented instead, that press freedom only exists in a context.

I guess having freedom generally only means that you have not been deprived of your liberty. That does not mean you could go and fetch someone a hefty one on the jaw or break his neck in exercise of that liberty, does it?

Whenever freedom of the press is being discussed, no reference is often made to its legal boundaries.

The truth, Jomo, is that the much talked about press freedom, and indeed any kind of freedom, is exercised subject to laws. No? Legal rules on court reporting, libel, defamation and innuendo laws, state secrecy acts, laws on reporting rape and crimes involving minors, laws on copy and property rights, and well, a host of other laws, place solid limits to press freedom, don't they, Jomo?

If any kind of freedom were absolute, there would be absolute chaos in society given the nature of man, don't you think?

I guess freedom of the press simply means the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of journalists to collect and disseminate information without hindrance.

Another question pops up here: Who is a journalist? I do not have the faintest idea who he is, Jomo. Do you? I bet even governments around the world do not know, and do not seem to care either, as long as any information disseminated to the public, works to their advantage!

How can you tell who a journalist is, when new advanced and highly sophisticated information technologies have broken down all the traditional frontiers of journalism, Jomo?

Now with the Internet, anyone with a computer, a camera and an appropriately configured mobile phone can publish an on-line or hard copy newspaper, with himself as Supervising, Chief, Executive, Managing Editor.

Anyone able to write is free to practise journalism. There are no laws in any democratic society in the world today, which prevent anyone from practising.

Today there are many well-educated and informed people who have had no professional training whatsoever in journalism but who write well for media or are practising journalism as a full-time occupation.

It is, however, often not too difficult to tell the difference, because journalistic writing incorporates stylistic elements which are markedly different from non-journalistic writing.

While a good journalist can make a good novelist, for example, a good writer will not necessarily make a good journalist without professional training on the universally accepted style of hard news reporting.

Although he has been acknowledged as one of the greatest novelists of all time, William Faulkner wrote such long, convoluted sentences that he would have been the news editor's ultimate nightmare, if he had been a reporter. He sometimes wrote 12-page long sentences.

Ernest Hemingway, another great novelist, also happened to have been a trained journalist. As a result, his novels were loved for their short, crisp and snappy paragraphs.

If there is any minus for hard news reporting, it is probably that some super conservative editors are still stuck with old traditional styles in spite of dynamic changes which have taken place and will insist on having every single verb in a story in the past tense. It sometimes gets really bizarre, but that is another story altogether.

The difference is also noticeable in other ways: A newspaper run by non-professionals with good writing skills may report in the very first paragraph of a front page story, that Kwame Jack went to such and such a bank, to cash some money and was subjected to verbal abuse by a rude and uncouth cashier.

In paragraph two, the reporter declares that the incident shows how incompetent, unprofessional and disrespectful staff of the bank are, and how the bank is clearly ruination bound.

Training teaches you, it is unprofessional to do that: Mixing opinions with what should be straight, unadulterated hard news reporting.

Some journalists tend to confuse this deficiency with house style and editorial policy, which are only exercised within the rules of hard news reporting.

Celebrity, leisure, entertainment, fashion and similar magazines and newspapers have ample room for limitless exploration of style, but those styles are unacceptable in hard news reporting.

As for opinions, newspapers may run them, but there are appropriate columns for those, see?

Our national energy crisis is raging on, Jomo, a grim reminder that life can be dog's miserable existence without electricity. Some people have been asking for the skulls of those whose inaction have led to the crisis, but luckily for them, no head has gone on the chopping block.

The government is importing five million dollars worth of energy-saving bulbs to help conserve what little power is being generated.

I got an e-mail from a reader of the Daily Graphic who wrote: “Energy saving bulbs contain mercury. Since the government is importing so many of them, we need information on how to safely dispose of them as mercury can cause serious environmental and health problems in future.” Well, Jomo…

Article by George Sydney Abugri