Let me appreciate the leadership of the NUJ in Kogi State for inviting me to speak on this very important topic. I believe it is matter of the moment in Nigeria, not just for journalists in the traditional media, but also for those in digital media, particularly the social media variant. It is also a crucial matter for those who have elected to be citizens journalists, who share information far and wide on platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc.
General elections are less than 200 days away in our country. And how the media reports between now and then will have great impact on how things turn out. Peaceful? Free and fair? Violent? Just or flawed? Will the 2019 polls lead to the enthronement of the best hands in different positions at all levels? Will the country remain one entity, or be further divided by the polls? A lot would depend on how the media acquits itself.
One thing the media needs to be alert to is the influx of fake news, and the impact on the outcome of elections. Fake news is made-up information, concocted, without any authentication. It is fiction masquerading as news.
We have seen many of such in Nigeria. While our President had his health challenge last year (something common to every mortal), mischief makers, hateful people, were already circulating mendacious information, and backing it up with visuals, which were fabricated by some fecund but devilish minds.
Just two days ago, fake news wafted out from the mischief factory, when information began to circulate that President Buhari had written the National Assembly to extend his current holiday by eleven days. The unwary fell for it, not knowing that it was a rehash of a press statement issued by the Presidency in February, last year.
There are many other examples of fake news that rocked the polity, which we can cite.
America went to the polls in November 2016. That was an election in which fake news played major role, either to the advantage or detriment of the candidates.
Statistics show that there were over 10.6 million shares, reactions, comments on fake news about the American election on Facebook alone in 2016. This development, which straddled all social media platforms, went a long way to shape the outcome of the election.
There are some people in our country, who are forsworn to shape the outcome of the 2019 polls through fake news. And they will use the media, both traditional and digital. And journalists will also be involved in the fray, in fact, right in the middle of it. Will you allow yourselves to be pawns on such chessboard? Shortly, we will delve into how journalists can report fairly in an election year.
Very close to the phenomenon of fake news is hate speech. In fact, the two are like Siamese twins. The intention of fake news is often to generate hate, demean, demonize and de-market.
Wikipedia, the global online encyclopaedia, defines hate speech as “speech that attacks a person or group on the basis of attributes such as race, religion or non-religion, ethnic origin, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity.”
By the time fake news and hate speech team up, a huge bomb is waiting to explode. It can consume a nation, as we have seen in places like Rwanda, Kenya, and many others. The Nigerian journalist must be wary of this deadly duo, as we approach national elections.
WHAT TO DO
How then can the Nigerian media shun the road to Kigali, which the combination of fake news and hate speech inexorably is? How do we walk the minefield, which an election season has become in our country?
But really, the Nigerian media is not expected to reinvent the wheel. Rather, journalists should only seek to be ethical. They should practice the profession according to time-tested requirements, called ethics. If they do, walking the middle of the road, not veering to the left or right, they can successfully navigate a minefield, without being blown sky-high, or sending the country into a tailspin.
WHAT ARE ETHICS?
By ethics, we mean standards or principles designed to help professionals conduct business honestly and with integrity.
The Code of Ethics is that document that outlines the mission and values of a business or organization, how professionals should approach problems, and ethical principles based on core values and standard in which the profession will be held.
Any profession worth its salt will have ethics. Hence you have standards guiding legal practice, accounting, medicine, professional soccer, journalism etc. it is said there is honor even among thieves. In a way, thieves even have their standards, as despicable as it may be.
Code of Ethics lays out rules for behavior and provides a preemptive warning.
ETHICS OF JOURNALISM
There are global principles that guide journalism, and these are common to the profession the world over, with just slight variations here and there. Then, within the general principles, some things are specifically highlighted by different media houses as their own in-house irreducible minimum. All are towards engendering standards of good practice.
The Code of Ethics (also called Canons of Journalism) has general standards like:
Truthfulness(Truth is the cornerstone of journalism. As the saying goes, “Truth is the highest virtue in a man’s keeping.” ) And particularly more so for journalists. Without truth, there can’t be trust, and without public trust, there is no worthy journalism.
Accuracy. Get your facts right. If there is anytime you need to factcheck, possibly over and over, it is now. You can’t afford to push out unverified or unsubstantiated information. The consequences may be too dire.
Objectivity. Don’t bend the facts to suit a pre-determined position.
Impartiality. Give all sides fair hearing and treatment
Fairness. Don’t deal anybody a bad hand. That would be malicious. There is presumption of innocence for even a man caught in a heinous crime, till he is found guilty
Public Accountability. The media is responsible to the public. Don’t do what will disrupt societal equilibrium.
Limitation of harm. Withhold details that can further traumatize victims of crime and evil, particularly when they are minors.
These codes are universal, and they are for self-monitoring and self-correction of journalists. They are mainly to help in times of ethical dilemmas.
There are codes for election coverage that have been developed by media stakeholders. Every good journalist must have a copy, and internalize the content.
ETHICS IN NIGERIAN JOURNALISM
Having seen the global principles, let us now zero in on the code, as ratified by the Nigerian Press Organization (NPO), the umbrella body of the Nigerian Union of Journalists, the Nigerian Guild of Editors, and the Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria.
The first Code of Ethics came into use in 1979, and was reviewed and adopted at the Ilorin Forum in 1998. A further review is in process now, but the 1998 code is the extant one for now.
What are the provisions of this code?
1. Editorial independence. Decisions on the content of news must be the responsibility of only a professional journalist
2.Accuracy and fairness. Reports must be accurate and balanced, and where mendacity has been established, there must be retraction, correction and apology. Right of reply is a cardinal rule of practice. Facts must always be separated from conjectures
3. Privacy. Respect the privacy of individuals unless it affects public interest. You can breach privacy to expose crime, anti-social conduct, to protect public health, morality and safety etc
4. Privilege/Non-disclosure. A journalist should never reveal the source of privileged information, neither should he breach an ‘off the record’ understanding
5. Decency. Comport yourself well, don’t use vulgar language, no lurid details of sex, rape, violence etc
Discrimination. No reference to ethnicity, religion, sex, physical or mental illness, or handicap, in a pejorative manner
7. Reward and gratification. Never take a gift to suppress or publish information. Don’t also accept payment to publish news as it compromises accuracy and unbiased reportage
8. Don’t glorify violence, obscene display of wealth, and other anti-social acts
9. Protect children and minors
10. Access to information. Use only fair means, except when public interest is at stake
11. Public interest. Always enhance national interest and public good
12. Social Responsibility. Promote issues like human rights, good governance, justice, equity, peace, international understanding etc
13. Plagiarism. Always attribute when quoting another source
14. Uphold Press Freedom and Responsibility at all times
If all these principles are there to guide our media professionals, why are we not keeping to them?
Some sections of the media are seen as promoting, if not actively participating in the rot in the country. But you can choose to be an ethical journalist, and be different.
Journalists of all hues and descriptions must practice the profession according to the rules. That is the only safeguard for the profession and the country in an election year. Those who play on the digital/ social media, either as professionals or citizens journalists must remember that facts are sacred. Don’t push out toxic, unsubstantiated information. Don’t share falsehood. Factcheck before you share. And when in doubt, leave out. It is safe for our country, for her people, and for the reputation of journalism.
Thank you for listening.
. Being the presentation by Femi Adesina, Special Adviser on Media and Publicity to President Muhammadu Buhari, as part of activities marking the Nigeria Union of Journalists Week in Kogi State on August 16, 2018.