Sunday, August 3, 2008

Was it a Story?

The class had just ended and a student was waiting for me outside the language laboratory in which I teach my students at Chancellor College every Friday.

Sir, she said, I want to ask you a few questions. She is, as she later said, a philosophy student. "Why hasn’t Nation carried any stories on the pornographic pictures?" Then, Nation had not carried any story on the issue that was all over Malawi. I told her I am not Nation and would not know why we didn’t publish a story. "Instead," I said, "I will tell you my professional view of the whole issue."

Did the media need to break the story that there were pictures in town? I don’t think so. The reasons are several. One everybody else had known about and seen the pictures and there was no need to put the story in official media outlets.

Two, ethically, telling people there are pictures was not good for our national psyche. Some stories are better left to grapevine than told in the media. Once the story was in the paper, we invited more ethical questions: How do we treat the pictures? Do we put them in the newspapers? In what form? Do we manipulate them?

All these, I think, were unnecessary questions because, in the first place, the story was unnecessary. The Nation carried—and I was happy with this—Police reaction.

It was just a story that Police were investigating pornography pictures in town. It was not a description of the pictures as would have been the case in a story that breaks a scandal. I am still grappling with the question of media effects: What did the story, not the pictures, do to our society?

This is an important question now when information is flowing freely 24/7. The question of ethics is even more important now than ever before because information can be a powerful force that builds or destroys.

Unfortunately, not many journalists are reading journalism books and this is dangerous because we are practising without theory which is like looking at midday, summer sun with naked eyes. Theory is like a filter to practice. In fact, theory is mother of all practice. I know lawyers are reading, accountants are reading, the clergy are reading. But few journalists are reading journalism or any other books.

Is it surprising that sometimes we publish stories that should not be published? The pornographic pictures story was just one of them. But I have wondered for months now, what stories on rape, defilement and suicide do to society.

Don’t the stories sometimes give people a way of getting rid of life. Take the example of suicide. Sometimes it is like people have agreed to end their lives. One kills himself in Mulanje today, another does so in Machinga tomorrow, while another commits suicide in Kasungu two days later. And we report all these events. Does the media link people with similar problems and offer a ‘solution’ of suicide by reporting that a man killed himself because he tested HIV positive, for example? For my fellow journalists the question is: What is the foundation of our practice?

Finally, we discussed my personal view on the pornographic pictures. I told the student that the pictures were a shame, of course. In fact, you cannot begin to imagine if it were your father or mother or spouse. But the people in the pictures are not a shame. They are human beings whose life must go on.

And I was happy their church was praying for them. Their families are supposed to stand by them which is what I hear is happening. We need each other in such trying times.

As a man of letters, I enjoy reading the Bible which some Christians believe to be the Word of God. The Bible is full of poetry and prose. In fact, the writers were great journalists who could tell a whole day’s event in a sentence. On that Friday, after the student left me alone, I chanced over Isaiah 1-18: "Come now, and let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be as red like crimson, they shall be as wool."

My plain view is that while all of us were busy mocking Grey Nkungula and Tapiwa Msiska, God and his angels were beckoning them, "Come our children". God was not mocking them, not at all. He was, instead, offering comfort to the two and their families. It was a kind of comfort that cannot come from anywhere else.

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