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Feature Article of Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Columnist: Akugre, Ayamga Prosper

Little Drops of Media Irresponsibility Can Break a Nation

Story by: Akugre Ayamga Prosper

Responsible Journalism could be said to be one of the strongest pillars of a peaceful and democratic society: irresponsible media reportage have plunged nations and institutions into horrific agony and threaten the peace and security of many others. But, many as there may be media reportage which raises questions on the consciousness of some media houses in the country of the responsibility expected of them, I do not intend to bore you with a tall list containing examples of acts of irresponsible Journalism. On the contrary, I simply want to refer you to a recent action by one of the “most powerful” media houses in the country which gives a course for worry when one thinks about the peace and security of this country against the back drop that a media house of the stature could afford to throw professional ethics to the dogs for reasons best known to them only.

Many followers of news on the internet might have read a story with the headlines: Abongo, the man from Bongo, must head Upper East: Youth Group; published on myjoyonline.com, on Tuesday January 8th, 2013. The seemly harmless story is arguably one of the political stories of the year which just like a little drop of rain contributing to make a mighty ocean could set communities on war path with the persons behind the publication taking little or no responsibility.
The story whose content is not my subject of discussion is related to “political support grouping” a phenomenon that has come to characterise politics and political contests in recent times in Ghana. Here again I must add that the objective of this article is not to discuss “political support grouping” however I want to make a few observations relating to the subject to drum home my message. Indeed political support grouping has brought a lot of steam into politics in Ghana in the past few years, but I sense this development holds something more dangerous for the nation besides the bitter rivalry that some of the groups have succeeded in planting in our politics.
My fears have to do with the creation of imaginary support groups by some politicians. One may ask what is imaginary support group and how could such a group be dangerous to our peace and development? Indeed an imaginary support group simply put, a support group that does not exist on the ground, under normal circumstance should not have any potential danger: after all if a politician chooses to tickle him or herself and laughs how should that be a point of concern to the nation.
But, if an imaginary support group can ride on the wings of powerful news organizations just to assume the cloud of a real support group with the objective of influencing decision in high places, irrespective of the effect that it might have on society, certainly this is a point worth attention. The story I referred to earlier which appeared on myjoyonline on Tuesday January 8th, 2013 was attributed to some citizens of the Upper East Region who are said to be lobbying for the Member of Parliament for the Bongo constituency Hon. Albert Abongo to be appointed Regional Minister of the Upper East Region. The story had it that the lobbyists, a youth group made known their view in a press release.
My attention was drawn to this story when I read a publication on ghanaweb.com in which another youth group from the constituency was reacting to the story published on myjoyonline.com. The reaction of the group which carried the headline: Bongo district youth denies backing Hon. Abongo for regional minister’s post, had the youth seeking to explain their none association with the said publication on myjoyonline.com. Anyone who reads the story could see some strong sense of irresponsibility on the part of Joy FM even though the politician in the center of the affair has his share of the spoil. If you read the story you will agree with me that some fundamental gate-keeping flaws characterised the publication making one to wonder how the supposed news item found its way onto the website of a notable media house such as Joy FM.
The story which is apparently intended to catch the attention of no less a person than the President of the Republic of Ghana and some power brokers in government for the purpose of winning political favors unbelievably had no attribute. The reporter could not even afford any of the old, half-ethical phrases to indicate that the source demanded anonymity. I found it amazing that a news item on good will such as that could go dead silent on source. I cannot imagine what pressure came with the story or what pressure was on the newsroom when the story was received to have made it impossible for the (strong) hands to detect and ensure that the story passes at least the basic ethical test before it is posted for public consumption as news. I was not surprised therefore that the story was subsequently challenged by what anyone will call a more credible support group, one whose leadership were proud to sign their release.
Source, one of the basic elements of news when compromised creates problems of objectivity and credibility. Everybody, even a layman will appreciate why every news item must as much as possible have an identified source and attribution properly done. The essence of identifying news source and doing good attribution is not to make the information shared truthful or otherwise, but to make it verifiable and as such lend credibility to the reporter and the media house.
The professional ethics regarding source and attribution is fundamentally intended to constrain reporters/editors from as is sometimes the case trading gossip and their own imaginations between them and politicians and others who are desperate for power, influence, and favors and then turn round and package that information as news rather than looking for credible information. In simple terms the principle on source seeks to curtail news reports being cooked up in the newsroom. Tinkering with source is a practice often exploited by unscrupulous persons or institutions for parochial interest. Source of news should therefore be the watch word for every media house particularly crusaders of press freedom such as Joy FM. This is absolutely necessary to maintain the trust of the public. To quote Tony Burman of CBS News: “Every news organization has only its credibility and reputation to rely on” and proper attribution and appropriate disclosure of source are key to achieving credibility and good reputation.
Even though it is worth noting that the same principles that demand responsibility on the part of Journalists to identify the source of their stories empower them to protect these sources the opportunity not to disclose source have more often than not being abused and in most cases exploited by some persons and news organizations for self-interest, although I am not implying that that might be the case in this issue.
In the said story on myjoyonline.com, the reporter attributed the news to some faceless individuals presumptuously called concerned citizens whose leadership or membership in spite of fighting a presumably good course were not courageous enough to sign their petition.
Granted that the principle that empowers Journalists to protect their source is premised on grounds of safety and security concerns of the source, is it not tenable that where these concerns are none existent a Journalist’s failure to do the right thing heightens suspicion and raises fear as to what he or she seeks to achieve or hide? The big question is who takes responsibility if harm is caused by such news? In any case it will be wrong for anybody to belittle the potential harm the story carried on myjoyonline could have on the country. On the other hand, how difficult is it for the news team at Joy FM to have found somebody to attribute the story when they have citizens of the Upper East Region in their newsroom. Or is it that somebody does not know a publication whose sole intention is to influence the President to appoint the Hon. MP as Regional Minister could not be attributed to anonymous source.
As it stands, the story’s claim of support for the MP from some youth of the area is being challenged, an indication that his aspiration is undeserving in the view of his people at home. Supposing it is the MP who engineered the (no source) story in order to outwit consensus of the party in the Bongo constituency and succeeds in misleading the president with the aid of Joy FM through the publication, and other influence (on terms no one knows), the President’s decision in this way will definitely have dire consequences for his government, the future of the NDC party in the Bongo constituency, and the Upper East Region as a whole. What could be more damaging than such a development: mean while the MP and Joy FM would have achieved their aim.
False news have had their share of harm caused to society and no news organization in the world is unaware of the infamous Judith Miller of the Times claim of having access to high level sources on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction or the BBC Newsnight child abuse report. But going back to the substantive issue, many who read the story like me will disagree that any group lobbying for political appointment for their favorite candidate would prefer not to be named. What remains unclear therefore is why Joy FM’s was prepared to compromise (so to speak) their credibility by posting a story that has no concrete attribution and considering the implication of possible suspicion that the story was put together at coffee table. The suspicion the publication opens up no matter how strongly it is denied does not speak well of our budding free and democratic society.

The fact is the media in principle must at all times take into serious consideration the implications of what they publish particularly so when it is clear that by acting unethically it heightens suspicion of corruption and other diabolical intentions and exposes their lack of sense of responsibility.
As it is, I find it difficult to understand ( and I believe I am not alone) what prevents a politician who according to the story has won elections four times from mobilising a real support group who will be willing to speak publicly for him as we have seen others do but rather choose to conjure one? Could it be that he has something to hide as has been questioned? If that is the case how did he convince the reporter of the story who further convinced the editor and they all agreed to mislead the President of the Republic and the Ghanaian people to take an ill informed decision?
Certainly the story raises more questions than answers and I hope someone answers for the real source of the story, how it was formulated and how it got to the website. Ghana deserves better and responsible politicking and media reportage.
Ayamga2008@yahoo.com.

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