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Opinions of Sunday, 9 March 2014

Columnist: Ansah, Kofi

Hearsay journalism

By Dr Kofi Ansah

It is a daily ritual that millions of men and women the world over engage in. But when word got out that a couple couldn’t disengage after taking part in this mundane act one afternoon in Sunyani, the Ghanaian media went berserk, unable to hold back their editorial craving to indulge their audiences with this salacious news (“Two lovers stuck in sex in Sunyani” GNA 20 Feb).

The coverage typifies much of what needs to improve in news reporting in Ghana, where the media routinely make wild claims with little or no supporting evidence.

Having chanced on a not-to-be-missed opportunity to tell a once-in-a-blue-moon tale, restraint was not an option. Almost every media outlet picked up the story, which had originated in the Ghana News Agency. Not to be outdone, Graphic Online spiced up the tale of the two sweeties with a silhouetted image of a couple doing their own thing. That wasn’t too surprising. What disappointed me, though, was that one of the few newspapers I respect in the country, The Ghanaian Chronicle, also got in on the act, attributing the story, as the others did, to the GNA.

While its newsworthiness is debatable, there is little doubt the story received so much coverage for its sensational value. But amidst the hullabaloo, none of the media outlets paused to question its authenticity and the fact that the original news report left many questions unanswered. Maybe the incident is a hoax. Maybe it is true that it happened. In any case, the medical profession tells us that getting stuck during sexual intercourse can happen, even if rarely. But the GNA report lacks the kind of journalistic detail, transparency and thoroughness in its information gathering and reporting that allow readers to make their own assessment of the incident.

So, did it happen or not? Of course, Ghana’s premier newswire caught part of the action, or so it wants us to believe. “When the GNA got to the scene at 1430 hours … some police personnel moved in, put the two inseparable lovers in a vehicle and drove them away,” claims the GNA. Where did the police take the two lovers to? To the police station or to a medical centre? And why police and not ambulanced paramedics or both? Did the couple commit a crime and therefore had to be taken away by agents of law enforcement? Important as these questions are, they are not addressed in any of the news reports.

And we have an unnamed witness interviewed by an unidentified reporter. We don’t know whether the attendant who saw the “lovers” in their copulatory distress in a room in the guesthouse was a ghost or a human as he had talked to the GNA “on condition of anonymity”. That is despite the fact that it was this same attendant who had found it expedient to tell some market traders at the Nana Bosoma Market about what was going on and invited them to be his peeping Tom partners. And because the GNA is one faceless monolithic reporter, we had to make do with “eyewitnesses told the GNA” and “when the GNA got to the scene”. As a newswire, it can dispense with bylines. Isn’t that convenient! So, did the GNA actually send someone with flesh and blood to the scene? Was it Tom, Dick, or Harry? We can only guess.

The GNA report doesn’t add up and Ghanaians are entitled to question the integrity of the nation’s wire service. Was the GNA more interested in breaking a story about this rare event than trying to get to the bottom of it? Was the newswire conned or did it try to con its readers? The news agency reported the incident as an unqualified fact. No caveats were used; not even the usual “allege”. The imaginary GNA reporter could have taken a number of basic steps to remove any doubts from the minds of its readers, including talking to the local police and the staff of the local medical centre, even if their response was “we don’t know” or “no comment”. The GNA—and the other media that jumped onto the story train—failed in one of the basic principles of journalism: verification of information; the key process of testing claims in order to convey a reliable account of events.

Because the narrative doesn’t add up, it employs other methods to try to convince the sceptics. The story’s plot dovetails neatly into a subplot that is already embedded in the Ghanaian psyche: superstition. Is it a mere coincidence that some witnesses were reported to have viewed the incident as “a curse placed either on the man or the woman” and that “rituals had to be performed before they could be separated?” The media believe we are a superstitious people and such tales will resonate with us. Maybe they are right.

In an article published last year (“Peddling ungodly merchandise: the media and the ecclesiastical black market” 23 Mar 2013), I drew attention to a report by the GNA that claimed a pastor in Kumasi had performed miracles in which “the lame walked and the blind saw” ("Pastor Kumuyi performs miracles in Kumasi" GNA 4 February 2013). Here, the GNA recounted the narrative that some people in the pastor’s congregation had spoon-fed it. It didn’t witness the miracles, neither did it try to locate the lucky eye and leg patients nor talk to the pastor-turned-ophthalmologist cum podiatrist. The supposed miracles were reported as having a basis in fact, with no qualifications made. In the end, the news reporting was little more than an exercise in publicity for the Nigerian pastor, using Ghanaian taxpayers’ money.

Myths such as those made up by the GNA always find a fertile ground, because in Ghana, we don’t need evidence to believe what we are told. “Yesee, yesee” (hearsay) is enough for us to believe what may or may not have happened. That’s why Ghana’s mainstream media and religion are good bedfellows. And that’s why we are prepared to harm or even kill our family members because a pastor or a juju man tells us they are using their witchcraft to destroy us or prevent us from having kids.

Let’s assume the reported incident actually took place. That begs the question as to whether the story is of public interest. It doesn’t sound like the GNA’s “unique role of mobilizing the citizens for nation building, economic and social development, national unity and integration”. The GNA is funded by taxpayers and I can’t see how tax payers can get any value for their money for what I consider to be tabloid reporting. But that is another topic for the future.

When the boundaries between fact and fiction collapse in news reporting, truth and accuracy are the casualties. And the lack of accountability in much of the Ghanaian media means these cardinal journalistic principles will continue to be trampled upon with impunity.

Dr Kofi Ansah Australian Capital Territory March 2014