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Response to allegations of 'Media landscape stuck in the stone age'

By Paul T. Shipale
My confrere Alfredo-Tjiurimo Hengari, a columnist at the Namibian daily newspaper, said in his 'Post-Scriptum' column last week that "weak and bad journalism has the potential to undermine democratic debate and development.."

and lamented the absence of professional skills with which to foster 'a Socratic ethic of discussion' to occupy the terrain of ideas fully, including 'measuring public opinion through polls and special publications'.

I could not agree more with him, including when he suggested to media owners, editors and journalists that to turn things around, they should do a deep introspection and an auto-critique and invest in quality journalism by concentrating on skill development and innovation.

However, I disagree with him when he went on to castigate the 'intellectual laziness' of our media saying that it has "no searing political analysis and p h i l o s o p h i c a l debates…capable of holding substantive debates with academics and politicians". I find this 'observation' arrogant due to its prescriptive nature with a miraculous curative pill followed by a catalogue of remedies to what he termed the 'calamitous state of the media' in the country and yet he does not explain to the readers how he came to this conclusion, instead he is vague and acting like a GP who prescribes all sorts of medication without telling the patients what the diagnosis of the ailment is.

According to Nadège Broustau and Florence Le Cam, a Canadian and a French 'PhDs fellows' respectively, in their 'Enlightening Induction in Journalism Studies; A Perspective for Researchers and Research'; researchers in journalism studies are always confronted with difficulties of emempirical studies. What the works of Broustau and Le Cam make clear is that using induction in journalism studies helps the media and journalism by taking into account new tendencies in media history, professional sociology and argumentative media analysis.

Broustau and Le Cam further admitted that journalism is facing particular challenges, especially with blogs, converged journalism, citizen journalism etc. These changes raise philosophical issues, based on ethical questions about the nature of journalism and of information but using induction enables researchers to analyze and to justify their thoughts (epistemology) or choices (methodology) and also to explain the process of production of the knowlknowledge they can bring to their colleagues or the actors of the field.

In the common sense, "induction refers to any kind of inference in which we move from a finite set of observations about an 'object' or a 'concept' to a conclusion that is a general description of the object or the concept" (McCreath, 1999: 23). This is in contrast with deduction.

By placing in question the very terms "journalist" and "journalism", and by undermining its image, people like Hengari weaken the professional journalistic group identity and its historical specificity by using logic of abduction without knowing it.

For this purpose, the 'PhDs fellows' of Broustau and Le Cam have both used an inductive perspective as an epistemological position as well as a methodological concern, especially now that the social role of the media and the social perception of journalists and journalism have been transformed by the convergence of economical property and of journalistic practices in the media.

I understand why Hengari at times feels like we should have a Sept sur Sept, Envoyé Special and the Café Philos kind of programmes as they have them in France, similar to our NBC's 'One on One' and others but he should just come down from his ivory tower or is it the Eiffel tower now? and accept that Namibia is a third world country with the majority of its population living in rural areas and in shanty towns with no access to the media except the one provided by the State. He should also not forget that the role of the media is not just to engage in endless philosophical debates at Cafés as he seems to think but also to inform, entertain and educate.

To fully comprehend the development and role of the media, I suggest we first look at Louis L. Snyder from the City College of New York; at the brief historic of what journalism is all about to hopefully understand the challenges faced by the profession today.

Snyder says Journalism is defined as the collection and periodical dissemination of current news and events, or, more strictly, the business of managing, editing, or writing for journals or newspapers. The usage of the term has broadened to include news reporting and commentaries on radio and television, and, to a lesser extent, motion pictures. Despite the increasing importance of these new fields, Snyder asserts, the daily newspaper, which uniquely combines the virtues of up-to-datedness with the relative permanency of the printed page, is still the basic news medium.

There are no hard and fast rules separating journalism from other communications activities. In general, newspapers emphasize current news while magazines deal more with background materials. However, in addition to editorials, newspapers offer columnists, whose essays range far and wide in subject matter and approach. Newspapers, too, usually have special features intended to entertain more than to inform. This is perhaps what Hengari forgets or does not want to admit. Journalism in the modern sense is one of the younger professions.

If one has to go into the history of journalism, the first prototype of the modern newspaper was the series of public announcements, known during the Roman Empire as Acta Diurna and later in Venice as the Gazzetta. Similar official reports were made in China, where the earliest newspaper, the Tching-pao, or News of the Palace, began its daily appearance in Peking in the middle of the 8th century A.D. Until the invention of printing, however, the dissemination of news was largely dependent upon private correspondence or word of mouth. The invention of printing from movable type by Johann Gutenberg in Mainz about 1450 revolutionized the spreading of news and according to one tradition; the first printed newssheet appeared at Nuremberg in 1457.

Closely associated with the rise of early journalism was a long and eventually successful battle for freedom of the press. A distinguishing feature of 19th century journalism was the emergence of a series of great editorial molders of public opinion, men whose influence often matched or surpassed that of leading political figures. These great editors succeeded in lifting a profession once held in ill repute to a new level of dignity and independence.

I agree with Hengari that the media should return to that era and occupy the terrain of ideas fully unlike the modern muckrakers or gossip columnists and sensationalism of the so-called "yellow press" and tabloid newspapers which feverish form of journalism is conducted with little sense of responsibility or verification and uses lavish "scareheads," dramatic photographs, and questionable methods, pandering to the lowest tastes by emphasizing scandals and murder. To some extent this type of journalism is a vestigial remainder from the early days, when journalism accented brutality and vulgarity and maintained a disgraceful relationship with bribery and blackmail. Perhaps this is what Hengari is alluding to but the question is; how frequent is that to warrant Namibia's Media landscape to be labeled as stuck in the Stone Age, being clerical, rudimentary and finding itself in provincialism? Since the turn of the century there has been a debate on the method of training professional journalists. One view holds that the most satisfactory school of journalism is the newspaper office, since the techniques can be acquired best through actual experience. Another view believes that the journalist is prepared best for his profession by a special course of study at a school of journalism.

In this regard, the first school of journalism, equal in rank with other schools of the university, was founded at the University of Missouri in 1908 by Walter Williams. Many schools of journalism today offer training in the special techniques of radio and television. In addition to a foundation in the liberal arts and perhaps a specialty, such as a science, a student interested in a career in journalism should select courses in techniques and practices. Some of the courses offered on campuses include: news writing, reporting, television and radio news, photojournalism, news editing, reporting public affairs, editorial writing, newspaper editorial management, history of journalism, press rights and responsibilities, magazine editing and publishing, structure of the mass media, government and mass communication, and international press practices and concepts.

Contemporary journalism is recognized as an ethical and dignified profession still plagued by faults. Excellent investigative reports are not uncommon, but there are also many instances of journalists getting it wrong or even fabricating reports to grab headlines.

Prof. Keeble remarks that although there is a need for good investigations there is also the unavoidable fact with the 'commodification theory' of journalism and that the appetite for investigative journalism has been affected by the changes the way media organizations are financed. Increasingly over the years, media generated more and more revenue from advertising. Today this is big business. The focus of today's media is therefore to appeal to the masses with short turn-around stories that generate readership and therefore the audience for advertisers.

This affects investigative journalism in particular and journalism in general in two ways: firstly, those media organizations often do not want the overhead of long investigations, and secondly, they do not wish to alienate their corporate sponsors just as Hengari does not bite the hand that feeds him since he never writes anything wrong about them. Another factor hindering investigative journalism would be fear of the law with the official Secrets Act now which are appearing and not only that but the Anti-terrorism Act also are threatening and impeding journalists investigations.

On a lesser extent, according to Paul Hersey and Kenneth H. Blanchard's situational leadership model, the best way to influence group members, depends on the readiness level of group members. Readiness here is defined as the extent to which a group member has the ability, that is, the knowledge, experience, and skill required and willingness that is confidence, commitment and motivation to accomplish a specific task. As group readiness increases, leaders are supposed to rely more on relationship behavior and less on task behavior. Instead Hengari is advocating that editors should always stay behind their journalists to push them by rigorous judgment and exigent demands. Not that I disagree with that, but by far I dispute any leadership's style that de-motivates group members by treating them as first grades' infants.

Sadly, the problem is that only a small proportion of society really appreciates investigative journalism. Journalists, often referred as the 'Fourth Estate', provide a public service keeping governments and organisations in check and not allowing any abuse. There has been much evidence to show how a good investigative report has brought about social change, including here in Namibia. Society as a whole needs to be educated about the role that journalism plays. That said; journalists also need to be accountable and Namibia needs the type of journalism that is probing, audacious and which set the political and economic agenda with a well remunerated and well skilled workforce sans doute.

Provided the media does not just target and single out some politicians and used to attack others. In the main, people do not only buy newspapers for their in-depth journalistic investigative stories, including 'the searing political analysis and philosophical debates' as suggested by Hengari because now the most popular papers are tabloids that people buy.

What is clear is that Journalism is part of everyday life and everybody seems to have something to say about it, including Hengari. Adopting an inductive perspective helps researchers to understand the 'everyday life' of journalists and media in general and avoid applying popular beliefs in their researches by pushing preconceived ideas aside, such as those advanced by Hengari, and letting the meaning emerge from the data. Hengari should stop day dreaming and building castles in the air with his Cafés and utopist philosophical debates. If he wants to suggest something to the editors, he should just go and talk to them without dragging the media in the mud.

Disclaimer: These views do not necessarily represent the views of my employer nor am I paid to write them.


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