By AMI CEO Eric Chinje
In a preceding segment of this series I discussed what I referred to as “the governance loop” in which media serves as the informational cord that binds government and the governed. I posed the question as to how well media in Africa plays its role within the loop and whether, in doing so, it contributes to that ultimate goal of raising the quality of life on the continent?
I contended that some in the industry would argue that these questions were irrelevant to what is essentially a business – the news business – that should have no other determinants than the quality of content and audience size, the imperatives of survival in a highly competitive environment, and making a profit for investors. There are obvious practical reasons for taking such a position but how does one not find common ground with those observers who believe that this is what accounts that “a race to the bottom” by media in Africa – one in which trash talk, celebrity gossip, political and social scandal, and sports results have become standard offerings on the media menu.
I believe the role of media in society must go beyond the justified but often mundane and the self-serving concerns of media owners and professionals. Media in 21st century Africa is the single most important instrument for engendering the social and political transformations taking place on the continent. It has, in the view of many, become the First Estate! New technologies in this digital age have strengthened both the reach and power of media, forcing all the other levers of state power to defer to it in ways hitherto unimagined in the quest for control of society.
It is important to recognize its power and to act with responsibility and foresight. There are important reasons why it must go beyond the very limited agenda of content production and delivery. Media has a duty and self-serving reasons to work with the other arms of the state to ensure society’s survival and growth.
First of all, the media industry is more likely to thrive in a society that thrives than in one that does not. Societies thrive when governments adopt and implement appropriate policies in critical sectors of national economies, and citizens are able to weigh in on the shaping of these policies. Secondly, the single most important source of what goes into media content is very often the direct consequence of government action. Understanding the whys and wherefore of such action allows media to play its role from a perspective of knowledge. That intermediation role, delivering information from government or reacting to the consequences of government action, and providing feedback from citizens, is core to what media is and does.
The prevailing school of thought within independent media in Africa is that the longer the distance from government the better the credibility of the media organization. In the corrupted socio-political environment of most countries, this makes absolute sense. The question remains, however: can a media industry that is permanently in the dark as to what goes on within the corridors of political power successfully serve its purpose vis-à-vis society? How does it intermediate when it sits only on one side of the social equation?
The purpose of media in a changing Africa commands media professionals to not only seek and gain access to where policies are made but also to understand why certain policy choices are made over others. New technologies have increased the possibility of obtaining needed access to knowledge and, in the process, redefined the profile of who the journalist should be and what he or she should be doing. It is in this regard that we will, in a next segment, look at who media managers should be looking to hire today and in what proportion. What should be the mix of professionals in a modern newsroom: techies, journalists, business managers, good writers, sociologists, political scientists, financial analysts, and so on? Which all begs another question as to whether traditional norms should still be in play in a non-traditional digital environment? Is change within the media an imperative? Are today’s media leaders up to the game? These will be examined in the next delivery in the “Purpose of Media” series.