Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Strategic Journalism

Why are Malawian journalists often called partners—and not participants—in democracy or development?

The reason is simple and within the journalists themselves. Media practitioners in Malawi have stuck to reportarial (the he or she said type) as opposed to participatory journalism (research, analysis and interpretation of events, issues and opinions).

But it is not surprising. In fact, it is historical. The one-party era didn’t help matters. Journalists were as good as copy typists, repeating what the minister or government official says.

That is still in us, so much so that we don’t go beyond the surface. That is why there is so much of “Government has said this or that” reporting in the media in Malawi.

The journalist, in this case, is like a microphone, transmitting whatever the user has said. It’s journalism, of course. But a very small fraction of a journalist’s five functions.

The first three—surveillance or information, entertainment and linkage—are obvious. These functions demand reporting that that is often event-based.

Everyday, journalists inform people. The media—especially radio, television and internet—also entertain audiences. The last two functions of interpretation and transmission of values or socialisation are difficult to satisfy.

Newsweek Internation editor Fareed Zakaria calls the satisfaction of these two functions participatory journalism. A better term is strategic journalism.

Zakaria, a former professor of political science at Harvard University, sees journalism as “a participant in world affairs” and that it’s impossible to pretend to be aloof from everyday world tears and victories.

This calls for a satisfaction of interpretation and socialisation functions which require journalists to research, analyse and write powerfully in order to persuade, for example.

In short, journalists ought to become public intellectuals because a newspaper, radio or television is a street classroom. And a teacher who comes to a class simply to read from a book is not worth the job. So is a journalist who simply quotes people without an element of reasoning.

A good professor reads a lot, does a lot of research, thinks a lot and engages students in dialogue and reasoning.

That is what journalism ought to do. Why, for example, is domestic violence happening in a way we have never heard before? A journalist ought to research, not simply sit on a desk and call people and ask questions.

The people we call need answers as well. We often rush to officials to ask about domestic violence and they often give shallow answers that cannot move a nation.

A typical example is what NGOs said on Section 65, a lot of it lacking substance, no insights, no analysis. The Human Rights Consultative Committee (HRCC) claimed President Bingu wa Mutharika is inviting civil unrest because of his actions over Section 65 and Parliament. Civil unrest?

Perhaps at gun point. Does anyone see Malawians going to the streets to demonstrate against proroguing of Parliament? Section 65 is not a matter of survival for Malawians. On the hierarchy of needs, it comes at things we can do without, meaning it is not a basic need.

Budget, on the other hand, is a basic need. It is a question of our nation’s stage on the way to its full lifespan.

But as journalists we have gone ahead to quote every NGO official without any question. That ought to change. Journalists need to read and take sources to task. A journalist who is a public intellectual would look at issues to do with Section 65 and social response to political changes.

Our newspapers need analysis and sythesis that can help change a person’s behaviour. The interpretation and socialisation functions can fight Aids and domestic violence.

That is not all. We shall also set the agenda. Agenda Setting Theory describes a very powerful influence of the media—the ability to tell people what issues are important.

This theory, better known as function, dates to as far back as 1922 when newspaper columnist Walter Lippman was concerned that the media had the power to present images to the public.

Then from 1960s Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw investigated United States presidential campaigns in 1968, 1972 and 1976.

In a research done in 1968 they focused on two elements: awareness and information. They attempted to assess the relationship between what voters in one community said were important issues and the actual content of the media messages used during the campaign.

McCombs and Shaw concluded that the mass media exerted a significant influence on what voters considered to be the major issues of the campaign.

Scholars assume that journalists do not reflect reality; they filter and shape it and concentration on a few issues and subjects leads the public to perceive those issues as more important than other issues.

“The press may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers [and listeners] what to think about,” said Bernard Cohen in 1963.

One of America’s recent greatest article was Zakaria’s 7,000 word special report: “Why They Hate Us?” which appeared in Newsweek International three weeks after 9/11. The article suggested causal factors of terrorism and it remained the source of debate for weeks, even months.

This is what Malawian journalists were supposed to do with domestic violence and the Section 65/budget saga, to go beyond reporting cases and dig deep into society to find clues to this and, of course, other puzzles.

But it’s not every journalist who can interpret news or write powerfully to transmit values and set the agenda.

It seems journalists concentrate too much on media freedom which is a myth, after all. We need media freedom but more importantly education to free our minds and the minds of our audiences.

That way, says Plato in The Republic “our job ... [becomes] to compel the best minds to attain what we have called the highest form of knowledge, and to ascend to the vision of the good.”

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