Tuesday, 17 December 2013

(84): Online journalism and the ethical question in the Nigerian media (I)

It will take a political storm like the one released from Ota farm by former President Olusegun Obasanjo to displace the series of events marking the death of Nelson Mandela from the pages of Nigerian newspapers. The storm was so powerful it has arguably created the hottest debate in the polity and overshadowed other stories.

In this specific contribution my interest is not in the letter itself, but the debate it has generated among various media organisations within Nigeria, particularly the acknowledgement of sources, which I believe has an implication in both the theory and practice of journalism. I hope students are following the debate with keen interest because I could see a lot of areas for postgraduate research which if pursued could contribute greatly in enhancing the quality of journalism in Nigeria.

Of particular interest in the debate is the exchange between Premium Times, an online news outlet, which got the scoop and breaks the story to the world, and newspapers like the Punch, an old timer in the field of traditional journalism, and Leadership, another newspaper that is gaining ground in Nigerian journalism.

Before discussing the issue of attribution which created the hot exchange between various newspapers, let me discuss some of the issues observed which would help us in understanding the underlying issues which contributed in the allegations and counter allegations between the various news outfits.  

The first observation highlighted by the cold war between these newspapers is the challenge that online journalism is posing against traditional media. This challenge should not be seen in a negative way. While newspapers around the world continue to increase their online presence, the need to satisfy their audiences who rely on traditional means of communication still consumes their energy.

Online journalists are dealing with a set of new audiences who are hungry for news, prefer to access information from the internet and enjoy the interactive nature of the online news media. Despite the attempt of the online news outlets to break stories and give their contribution to journalism, there is still skepticism about the quality of journalism produced on the internet. That skepticism could partially explain the resistance of the traditional media to acknowledge stories they sourced from the internet.

I do not think the challenge posed by the online media will overtake the influence of traditional newspapers, it will simply require the traditional outlets to change their business models, which some are doing well, while others are still trying to adapt. This point was aptly captured by the French newspaper Lemonde Diplomatique, “that in the history of communications the introduction of new media has never succeeded in chasing out the preceding technologies”.

There are two key noticeable issues which need to be settled in this debate; lack of aknowledgement of sources and sometimes outright plagiarism, and secondly how far can you go in acknowledging the sources of the original story. Ethically speaking all sources of information should be attributed, and this is in the interest of anyone who lifts a story from a secondary source. The attribution enhances the credibility of the medium, but it also protects it from falling into legal disputes should the story be a fabrication or contains libel or defamation. 

On the other hand when a story breaks, as many journalists know, serious media organisations would always make an effort to explore other angles from the story in order to make their own mark, but at the same time to outdo their competitors. Certainly some media organisations would have done that on the “storm from Ota farm”. I do not see any conflict here, its simply part of basic ethics to acknowledge the source of the story, and the same is expected from the media organisation that break the story to acknowledge its competitor, should it quote a different angle from its competitor. 

With all its shortcomings journalism in Nigeria remains one of the most vibrant in Africa, at least the media is relatively free to bring such issues of national importance to public domain.

To be continued



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