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Opinions of Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Columnist: Thompson, Nii-Moi

Whither Ghanaian Journalism?

Author’s note: I completed this article a week ago but withheld publication as a mark of respect for Ghanaian journalists as they prepared for their annual awards ceremony, which was held on October 25, 2008. The failure of the Ghana Journalists Association (GJA) to find any journalistic work worthy of the overall Best Journalist Award only vindicates the argument of the article: That standards in Ghanaian journalism have fallen unacceptably low and need improvement. The article follows:

When I was a newspaper editor in Liberia in the early 1980s, Ghana was one country we looked to for journalistic inspiration and guidance. Indeed, the quality of journalism in Ghana was such that it was even featured extensively in a book called The African Newsroom, which I used for training in West Germany in 1982.

Today, it’s hard to look at journalism in Ghana and imagine that barely a generation ago it inspired journalists thousands of miles away. Sure, we still have some good journalists around, but the overall quality of the profession has no doubt fallen substantially. It verges on embarrassment, as some “senior journalists” have conceded.

For the print media, overall writing quality is poor, with the notable exception of wordsmiths like Daily Graphic’s Sydney Abugri, who excels both as an essayist and a reporter. Most other journalists seem content with their own badly written stories, thus repeating common mistakes in grammar and spelling and pushing the profession further down the tubes. Apart from sports writers, who often portray individual writing styles, most Ghanaian journalists have the same boring and unimaginative writing style: “The minister of so-and-so has called upon Ghanaians to do so-and-so…” And on and on they drone. Once you’ve read one, you’ve read them all.

Story development beyond headlines is often halting and fragmentary. It’s not uncommon to see a screaming headline supported by nothing more than a single introductory sentence. The rest of the story then veers off into inchoate and error-ridden prose, oftentimes laced with fabricated and nonsensical quotations. (On numerous occasions, I have been a victim of misquotation or outright fabrication of quotations).

Because our journalists seem to read so little, they easily confuse many ordinary words and in the process miseducate, rather than educate, the public. For example, we often see words like “flash” when they mean “flush”, “border” instead of “bother”, “run” instead of “ran”, “fun” instead of “fan”, “cause” instead of “course”, “whooping amount” instead of “whopping amount”, “bidding your time” instead of “biding your time,” “crush” instead of “crash”, “packed car” instead of “parked car”, “piece” instead “peace”, and many more.

Laziness seems to be at the heart of our journalistic problems. When NDC general secretary Josiah Aryeh wrote a column in the Daily Graphic in the late 1990s, he was appropriately referred to as a “scribe”, a writer. Evidently, some journalists thought “scribe” meant “general secretary” and so all general secretaries are now referred to in the media as scribes, whether they are writers or not. No one, it seems, has taken the trouble to find out what the word actually means! (Note: “Graduands” and “graduates” are not synonymous. Our journalists should stop treating them as such).

Besides poor writing quality, photo editing and headline writing, two essential elements of print journalism, have also fallen in standards over the years. In most of our newspapers, a picture is not always worth a thousand words, and so frequently we see photographs that don’t quite capture the spirit of the accompanying story; mug shots best suited for “Wanted” posters are used, instead of cheery and “relevant” portraits of newsmakers. Contrary to what is taught in journalism school, extraneous objects in photographs are not cropped but retained to compete needlessly for space and attention with the central photographic object.

Misleading headlines remain persistent and annoying, even dangerous. Recently, a screaming headline asked, “Who shot Bawumia?” Problem is, nobody shot Bawumia. He just happened to be in an area where shots were fired. Imagine the havoc this headline would have caused if his supporters had gone on a rampage in the mistaken belief that he had been shot, possibly killed. Those who believe that journalists have a role to play in ensuring peaceful elections this year should take note.

The electronic media has its own troubles and foibles. Competition in television has brought us lively and delightful alternatives to the staid and boring news-reading of yesteryear, but lack of broadcast standards in the industry means that all manner of filth – from an unfettered glorification of violence to the gleeful promotion of alcoholism and sex among the youth – is pumped into our living rooms and offices day and night.

Radio, more than any media, has helped smash the information monopoly that the state once enjoyed, and many radio hosts – such as Kojo Oppong-Nkrumah of Joy FM – are good enough to compete with the best anywhere. But there are many on air who are clearly unprepared. They range from people who barely understand the subject matter they discuss on air to those who can be so ill-prepared that they don’t even know the names of their guests.

The list of woes in Ghanaian journalism is clearly endless, but to get out of the mess we must first understand its causes. It’s been speculated that following the “revolution” of 1981/82, competent administrators and lecturers at the Ghana Institute of Journalism were replaced with “revolutionaries” with barely a clue of what journalism was. It was this cadre of revolutionaries-turned-academics who presided over the decline of standards at GIJ. This may be true, but I can’t vouch for it.

There is a more systemic explanation, which is the overall decline in educational standards that has affected virtually every profession in Ghana , journalism included. The criterion reference test in 1997, for example, found that only 6.0% of students in public primary schools had achieved “reading mastery” in the English language by the time they entered JSS. It will not be far-fetched to conclude that a lot of today’s journalists were victims of a dysfunctional education system.

Be that as it may, we must find a way to rescue Ghanaian journalism from itself. The following are but a few scatter-shot suggestions based on the problems outlined above – plus many others that were left out because of space limitations.

1. GJA should scale back the lavish and self-indulgent journalism awards and use some of the money to organize skills- and knowledge-development workshops for practicing journalists. The benefits would be greater and broader.

2. The GJA should set up a Committee for Standards that will monitor trends in journalistic quality and share the results with journalists periodically. For example, it can launch a baseline publication calledCommon Mistakes in Journalism to be updated annually. (There already exists a Dictionary of Problem Words common in most newsrooms abroad. While that dictionary is based on foreign experiences, it can nevertheless serve as a useful supplement to a locally developed one. For example, Americans and Canadians have difficulty distinguishing between “principle” and “principal”, a problem that does not exist in Ghana . But the confusion over “collaborate” and “corroborate”, or “advise” and “advice”, for example, is a universal one).

3. Every media house should develop a Newsmakers Files with two objectives: (1) Minimize the embarrassment of misspelling people’s names and having to correct them all the time. Reporters should be made diligent enough to know the difference between Dua-Agyeman(g) and Agyeman(g)-Dua; Kufuor versus Kuffuor; and Ayittey versus Aryeetey, and so on. Editors should be ready to punish reporters who are too lazy to verify; and (2) Brief bios of all major newsmakers that media houses can draw upon at a moment’s notice, if need be. When Kofi Annan ended his tenure at the U.N., the local media turned to an error-ridden biography written by a foreign journalist to tell the story of a native son.

4. In the electronic media, no one should take to the airwaves without adequate training in interviewing skills, in addition to basic reading skills. For television in particular, presenters should look presentable without distracting viewers with all manner of sartorial and fashion accoutrements. The object is to communicate, not make a fashion statement.

5. Pronunciation drills, too, must be required of all talking heads (Notice that the word is pronUnciation, not pronOUnciation, a common mistake on our airwaves and in print). Electronic journalists should also know that the “l” in words like “could, would, and should” is silent. “Debt” and “mortgage” are among the most mispronounced words on our airwaves. If English is our medium of instruction and official language, we need to do better.

6. Journalists should also familiarize themselves with honorifics and their uses. For example, only presidents and ambassadors are to be referred to as “Excellency”. The label First Lady is a title unto itself; therefore, the term “Her Excellency, The First Lady” is a tautology. The vice president is to be addressed as “Honorable,” not “His Excellency”.

7. Lastly, Ghanaian journalists should start a national debate on what kind of English to use – American or British. American dominance over computer software has Americanized our writing and spelling by default; indeed, our national constitution was written in American English, although the British variant remains official. Let journalists take the lead in resolving this linguistic confusion – for their own sake and for ours, too.

Nii Moi Thompson - Accra. (niimoi@yahoo.com)