Musings of a budding journalist


By Mary Chumbow

Communications Intern

In a journalism ethics class last year, the lecturer posed a question the sat back and let us debate the answer for a while since, as she pointed out, she was sure it would not be an easy one to resolve.

“If teenagers were involved in a murder and you were assigned to cover the murder trial, would you see it fit to take photos of these children and post them as part of your story, thus exposing their identity, or would you use aliases with your story?” She asked.

The question was informed by a 1993 incident in the UK in which two 10-year-old boys on a murder charge had their photos splashed all over the media. What followed in class was a very heated debate as each student weighed in on the issue. Opinion was divided almost right in the middle. Some students felt it would be unethical to use aliases in the interest of the children and their families. Others argued that to do so would be unethical and would amount to protecting the juveniles with the attendant risk that they could carry on with their criminal behavior once released.

Needless to say, the debate ended with a divided class and that was exactly what the lecturer was hoping for, a stalemate, otherwise called, an ethical dilemma in journalism. But how do we overcome these dilemmas and still maintain our credibility as journalists?

Being credible is one thing but to prove credibility is another, and this is the point at which, I dare say, a major part of the African media is. I get the feeling that the African audience has lost confidence in its media and find international media more believable.

As a journalism student, who could be referred to as a baby taking her first steps in the industry, I feel a little bit entitled and always want to speak up for journalists when others are criticizing them. However, even I find that difficult at times am persuaded to agree, as accusatory as this may sound, with the public perception of journalists as integrity-deficient biased puppets of vested interests.

Nurturing a discipline of compliance with journalistic ethical standards is a continuing challenge for many in the profession and as as Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta once stated, the country, and Africa, can simply not afford to accommodate unqualified journalists or those who do not observe the highest ethical standards of the profession. The President was speaking at Kenyatta International Convention Centre during a regional forum organized by the Media Council of Kenya as part of preparations for the World Press Freedom Day celebrations of May 3, 2014.

Undoubtedly,the African media has been in a perennial struggle with the ruling class over press freedom. Many journalists and media personalities have been heard to speak out against oppression of the press by presidents and/or governments. For a journalist in a country such as Cameroon, I would like to think that our first worry would be the lack of quality facilities or resources.

However, in countries like Kenya, the media has had to face opposition from not only the government but the public as well. Nowhere is this assault on media more vicious and sustained than on social media. In a sense, the media has itself to blame for this for publishing, for instance, one-sided stories loaded with innuendos with little evidence of verification of what comes through as outlandish claims and allegations, misplaced comments and outright bias.

Media credibility can only be renewed by the journalists themselves. Apart from qualifications acquired in journalism schools that allow us to practise the trade, journalists need to maintain a persona that is beyond reproach. Neutrality is key, and I feel that this is what is mostly lacking in the profession. The moment a reader or viewer notices bias or questions the timeliness of one’s story, a seed of doubt is planted and credibility is lost.

The Media Council of Kenya’s Deputy CEO and programmes manager, Victor Bwire, was spot on in an article published in January 18, 2016 issue of the Standard Digital Media, when he wrote: “Media regulation is not going to be done through external means by non-media organizations creating some laws and administrative codes, but by journalists themselves, through a conducive legal regime that accepts that journalism is a profession and not a craft.” (See article here).

By treating journalism as the profession that it is, journalists will be able to retain that respect and credibility that is so much needed. This is what will bring a change to the face and voice of the media.

As a budding journalist, I would like to believe that this is actually possible. However, as I was told once by those already in the profession (and as I am sure you, the reader, might be thinking), reality is quite different from class work. “Once you’re in the real world, you’ll soon come to realize that all is not as it seems,” I was told in an almost hectoring manner.

A time should come when journalism students will not have to defend those who preceded them in the field and on the way, possibly become disillusioned. We need the best African brains working in the media, to tell the African story, in the best way possible.

Is it at this point that I should say I have a dream? Well… yes, I have a dream. That said, anyone looking to hire a freshly minted journalist with great ideas on how to better tell the African story?