11 January 2013

Rwanda: Media No Longer Seeks the Truth - It's Become a Recycle Bin


I ALWAYS thought that with today's advances in information technology, the public would have easier, faster, accurate and verifiable information. But it has dawned on me that I have been thinking outside the wrong box.

The cardinal motto: "Seek the truth and report it" that was supposed to be accompanied by ethics, fairness and balance, has gone up in smoke. Vested interests have taken over.

Today, the informed - in most cases - is better informed than the informer, thanks to the World Wide Web and its offshoots, social media. Forget the hyperbole of the media being the Fourth Estate. The rate at which the media is digressing, very soon it will turn into a None Estate because it will cease to be relevant.

We, in the trade, are used to sitting on the high stool of knowledge. We set the standards of what should be regarded as the truth but we do not give our readers and audience the benefit of their intelligence. We fail to understand they are no longer a spoon-fed society.

One reason - among many - that I think we are sinking into the abyss of irrelevance is that we have become armchair journalists. We have become lazy. We no longer go out on the beat to seek news. We Google it or Wikipedia it and then we copy and paste.

Research and verification have gone to the dogs (excuse my French) and been replaced by recycling the same information; as long as it was published somewhere, then it is the biblical truth and is good to go.

That is how far we have stooped, I am afraid.

Before my trade-mates start sending missiles my way, I beg to explain while I take cover.

I once asked a colleague who works for one of the major international news agencies why his editors used to put the figure of those who died during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsis at 500,000, yet in his original dispatch, he had put the figure to over a million.

His answer was simple but very revealing about the working methods of these so called champions of the free press.

"You see", he said, "Our media house is very sophisticated. Everything is computerised to ease work. It has an automatic input of the figure, if you write any other figure, the system corrects you, and puts in 500,000". Now the figure has been "upgraded" to 800,000!

Need I say anything more? Do not ask how they came about that figure, might as well blame the computer. The Genocide had been turned into an irrelevant statistic without even bothering to seek the truth. Or maybe, by reducing the figure, they sought to influence public opinion to think that 500,000 was a "lesser" Genocide.

This in no less what is known as Yellow journalism, defined as "biased opinion masquerading as objective fact ... the practice of yellow journalism involved sensationalism, distorted stories, and misleading images for the sole purpose of boosting newspaper sales and exciting public opinion."

Yellow journalism was championed by American media icons of the 19th century; Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of The New York World and William Randolph Hearst of The New York Journal. Sensationalism was the order of the day as competition to increase circulation took centre stage. Greed was put before ethics.

Today, we are seeing a resurgence of yellow journalism where respected media houses depend on "acceptable" rumours or outright fibs. As long as the story sounds "sexy", it is publishable.

An African story that has no ingredients of violence, poverty or armed conflict will not pass. Positive stories that do not paint Africa in bad light will not go through the editorial computer; it will go straight into the trash bin. If one writes about (Democratic Republic of ) Congo and does not mention Rwanda, the computer will do it for him.

Is it not ironical that the highest honour in journalism is named after the person who was instrumental in popularising yellow journalism; the Pulitzer Prize?

The writer is an editor with The New Times

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