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25.03.2009 General News

Who Decides What Should Be Published?

By Amos Safo

Amos Safo

Is this still the case? Does journalism need to choose between being debased by sensationalism that sells papers or "violently unreadable" pages of government propaganda about projects, bullet-proof cars, offices for an ex-president? Certainly, the media plays an important role in social transformation and in promoting transparency and accountability in public life, than what some of the media are currently doing in Ghana.

My worry is the seemingly peripheral or unnecessary stories that get coverage over pertinent and pressing issues such as road accidents, rising cost of food prices, water and sanitation, education etc.

Two specific times in the past week- news stories that seem to me to be unimportant have gotten relatively prominent coverage from a range of news organizations. This sort of thing happens all the time, but it's really jumped out at me in the past week.

The stories about ex-president Kufuor's BMW cars and his supposed office, which even assumed tribal undertones (with the so-called GaDangbe Youth wading in to demonise the ex-president) were thrown into the public domain perhaps, based on their public appeal, not based on their newsworthiness.

The link between media agendas and public perception of what constitutes news will continue to generate debate across academic circles. Does what the media put out as news necessarily constitute what the public sees as important issues confronting them? In many parts of the world, including Ghana, what the media decide as news is what the public recognizes as news, simply because the public has grown used to relying on the media for daily doses of news, though there may be very pressing issues that need the attention of the public.

In our part of the world, what is emphasized by the media is emphasized by the public and what is amplified by the media is amplified by the public. A classic example was what was now commonly called the "Hotel Kufuor saga", involving ex-President Kufuor's son. Genuinely, did this hotel affair deserve the attention both the media and the public gave it?

Now, the whole of last week our political office holders, instead of leading the public to debate useful issues, led all of us into arguing about cars and offices, thanks to the priority the media gave these unnecessary issues. What was so important about the ex-president's cars and his office, which should be allowed to capture so much attention? If the transition between the old and new governments had gone on well, the country might have been saved the tension and bad blood the issues generated.

Equally unnecessary was the President's highly charged speech when a team of journalists visited him at the Castle. Shortly after his speech valuable airtime of the national telecommunications spectrum was wasted trying to explain who President Mills referred to when he talked tough that there was only one president in Ghana. Was he referring to ex-presidents Jerry Rawlings and John Kufuor or his keenest contestant to the Presidency, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo Addo? To me it was a no issue and much as I urge my colleague journalists to treat such political outbursts with disdain, it is the duty of politicians to set good agendas for the media to highlight.

Why President Mills chose the platform of the GJA's visit is another matter altogether, since a lot of meanings are being read into the visit. Time and again politicians have taken turns to lecture the media on how to be responsible. The question is, have they (politicians) ever thought about how they can also be 'responsible'?

As a journalist, I am always sad when we are being insulted by the very politicians who use us to achieve their political aims. But the onus is on journalists to always rise above the waters. Several factors go into achieving the kind of responsible journalists society expects of us. We have to always respect the rights of others and accept to publish rejoinders from people who feel genuinely aggrieved by the articles written about them. We should also endeavour to call a spade a spade, rather than a digging implement.

Most importantly, journalism should always try to influence, reflect and mould public opinion by acting as the voice of the voiceless and the marginalized and socially handicapped.

There is this general belief that in a developing country, a responsible press is one that is docile, almost sycophantic and uncritical and at best dinning with politicians. Far from that the media should always try to discover and publish information that replaces rumour and speculation. David Randall (The Universal Journalists) sums the role of the journalist this way "Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, providing a voice for those who cannot normally be heard in public." The contrary is what is happening in Ghana. Politicians make up 98 percent of all news in Ghana and that is why they can afford to spin worthless news.

Primarily, the editor's role is to bring us more newsworthy information on a daily basis, however, it takes more than an editor's whim to decide what's news. Newspapers in particular are run with finances in mind and the editors, along with the writers and everyone else involved, want to publish what sells, not what the public ought to be hearing about. But should we go to the extent publishing anything thrown at us by politicians even if the reports will inflame passions and tear society apart? Who then decides what should be published?

Relevant Links
* West Africa
* Ghana
* Press and Media
A responsible press in a developing country has great responsibilities beyond informing, educating and entertaining. It should be an instrument for promoting development and ensuring popular participation in the decision-making process which alone can secure the personal commitment and devotion to the development process and secure wholehearted co-operation and support.

Responsible journalism is one that accepts its watchdog role and acts as a champion of the rights of the people. The commitment should be to the truth as perceived by the journalist, no more and no less, as any deviation from this will also certainly subvert the credibility of the paper.