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Journalists have to be seekers of truth, not activists

Ask a group of young journalists, be it in Nairobi, Kenya or in the German port city of Hamburg, known for its abundance of media houses, why they chose a profession that pays badly and puts them in the firing line, and the majority will respond: that they want to make the world a better place. 

There’s nothing wrong with that. We all want less armed conflict, tribal tension, hunger, populism and corruption. The decisive question is how one defines one’s own role in the media: whether one lets oneself be driven by one’s political or religious convictions, or by the search for truth. There is also the urge to offer direction in a world that seems to be spiralling out of control faster every day. 

The pandemic has shown the importance of having an ethical compass as a journalist. And Covid-19 has underlined the importance of verifying news from different sources, of checking the “facts”. It has demonstrated how important it is to be a journalist who knows what she is talking about. You may be a good anchor, but can’t necessarily explain a flu in a comprehensive manner. Or one may be a good health journalist, whose salary is being funded by an American philanthropist, who sees journalism only as a tool for fighting Malaria and Ebola. But unless journalism is holistic and includes aspects such as politics and business, even the best health journalism won’t cut the mustard in the long run. 

The reading and listening public might be unaware that journalists who take their work seriously have to make choices all the time. They have to decide day in and day out which news to put on the front page, which lead to follow and how to comment on a political development. Ideally they ask themselves on a daily basis if they were just reflecting the opinions of the people they wrote about or if they followed first of all their convictions. 

Journalists are no better human beings than the rest of us, but they carry a bigger responsibility than others. Their reports can influence opinions and even elections; they can raise tensions and cause havoc. Their choices often affect people’s lives in an existential manner. 

There was for instance a German reporter who covered the killings in Rwanda during the genocide. As he drove slowly into the lush hills near the Congolese border, against a stream of people fleeing in a cloud that reeked of fear and death, a man held his tiny baby through the open car window and begged the reporter to save his child. The journalist couldn’t and didn’t. Not only was he moving towards the epicenter of the carnage, from which the child had to be protected, he also had to report on the killings still taking place. Through his reporting on German Public Radio hundreds of thousands of peoples heard the story unfolding. 

Certainly any journalist should ideally have compassion and empathy. And the German reporter still wonders today what became out of that baby, which must be in its mid-twenties by now — that is, if it survived. 

The chief executive of Axel Springer publishing house, Mathias Doepfner, a former journalist himself, recently accused many media people of being driven by their subjective preferences, rather than by the search for truth. He said if journalism couldn’t be differentiated from activism anymore, this demarcates its end. 

What Doepfner describes can be adapted to anywhere in the world. We are witnessing more and more journalism that only reacts to events, rather than journalism that reflects, journalism that initiates debates. Increasingly, journalism tends to confirm the supposed opinions of its readers, viewers and listeners. There is a growing culture of impunity among media people, as the attitude prevails that the nonsense they write today will probably be forgotten tomorrow. You find these kinds of journalists in Europe and in Africa, and there are surely many examples elsewhere. This culture not only undermines the credibility of journalism, it affects societies that need critical media, where uneasy questions are asked and alternatives to the status quo are discussed.  

Of course there are those journalists, according to media entrepreneurs in the DRC and in Ethiopia, who chose journalism because they want to become famous and they have pretty faces. An Ethiopian publisher friend says he doesn’t hire from journalism schools in his country; he prefers young people who have seen and experienced real life. There is, for instance, a young Ethiopian woman who was previously a lawyer but she chose to become a reporter, as she discovered that justice can also be achieved outside of the courtroom.  

In Southern Africa, we witness developments that make one wonder if journalists have lost their way. When writers who call themselves investigative journalists go through the rubbish bins of political leaders whom they dislike, and discover used condoms and champagne bottles, the question arises: so what? Doesn’t this say more about the writer than the person who disposed of those items in the rubbish bin?

Yet, there are impressive examples on the African continent, where, despite repression,  media houses stick to their journalistic beliefs of impartiality. The Premium Times in Nigeria reported the killings of peaceful Anti-SARS (Special Anti-Robbery Squad) protesters in a matter-of-fact way, without showing any signs of rage. And on the other side of the continent, the Swahili website JamiiForums in Tanzania covered the (rigged) elections of late October accurately and calmly, giving voice to the incumbent as well as the opposition, reporting the arrests of MPs and others in a responsible manner, no matter what the author might have felt himself. 

Good and credible journalism cannot be propaganda. And journalists cannot be activists, no matter how noble the cause they feel for may be. Should credible journalism survive, the activists out there — in newsrooms and on TV screens — have to stop pretending that they are reporters working for the common good. 

Christoph Plate is the director of media programmes for sub-Saharan Africa at the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung

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Christoph Plate
Christoph Plate, a long-time Africa correspondent for German media, is director of KAS Media Africa of the German Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung in Johannesburg.

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