By Yinka Fabowale
Media And COVID-19 Coverage
Now, let’s attempt an assessment of the Nigerian media performance, first in COVID-19 era, using these templates.
Yes, give it to us. We certainly did well at the onset of the pandemic: critical newspaper editorials against government’s late and shoddy response to safeguarding our airspace, when all other countries have closed their borders to control the import and spread of the virus; we also rose to the occasion with regard to public mobilization and enlightenment on prevention and safety protocols; monitoring and updating the public on trends in infection rate, treatment procedures and search for cure and vaccine.
But in the search for solutions and answers, we focussed on the West and advanced nations, took our cues from there and gave scanty attention to and were cynical of possibilities and claims of options, even by experts in our local environment.
As if the West could always be right or that nothing good can come out of Africa.
See how Melinda Gates and popular CNN talk show anchor/analyst, Fareed Khan, and other Western stereotype views and predictions as to how the pandemic was going to affect Africa causing unprecedented massive infections, deaths, economic misery, political upheavals and social unrest were proved wrong.
I didn’t see much of big investigative stories exposing the effort of our local scientists or alternative health practitioners, either to prove or disprove their claims, after Abuja seemed to have rested the matter, following the usual jamboree of having some of them submit their works for verification.
The consequence of this has been that we, perhaps, lost a chance to help sufferers, not only in the country, but also all over the world.
Related to this is the missed chance to make money and a name for the country. We have since had to humiliatingly wait with a beggar’s bowl for donations from other countries and donor agencies for vaccine supplies that barely catered for a quarter of our 180 million population.
Yet, we soon must dip into our already depleted treasury for money to augment the shortfall!
The media also shone bright in exposing the deplorable state of our health care system, which spurred government to take urgent remedial measures.
But who is monitoring the spending of the funds earmarked for the provision of equipment, rehabilitation and uplift of hospitals and health facilities to ensure they were judiciously spent for the purpose, and not misappropriated, as is usually the case in Nigeria?
Thousands, including public figures, have died and are still dying or being infected, still many Nigerians still believe it is a ruse and do not feel the danger or probability of contracting it. Yet, we seem to have gone to sleep in keeping the fact of the risks and danger in public consciousness.
The duty seems to have been ceded to the surviving victims, who gave personal accounts and testimonies of their agonizing experiences online that made associates begin to take caution.
Instead, many online media and journalists took delight in purveying and spreading false, ridiculous and dangerous claims flying all around the place as COVID-19 cure, without bothering to cross-check or verify the facts. It was ‘copy and paste’ all the way. The more absurd and sensational, the greater the appeal, with scant or no regard whatsoever for the implication on the health of their audience.
I have not bothered to include in the range of my censure what some may view as undue emphasis on and sensational coverage of discovery of COVID-19 palliatives by the masses during the #EndSARS protests in which the poor besieged and looted warehouses, private homes and other places where palliatives materials including foodstuffs were purportedly diverted and hoarded by politicians and officials charged with distributing them, because I am aware faulting the media’s news judgment and exercise of its discretion on what to hype and harp on, given the underlying public disenchantment with the political class over alleged duplicity, neglect and insensitivity and so on, is quite a debatable issue.
While it may be justified to highlight the incidents as expose and commentary on our politicians’ hypocrisy and, corrupt tendencies, does the way many radio stations and TV channels, especially fielded video reports about them as if there is no worthier news for their bulletins and the way the print and online media also tried to outdo one another flooding their pages with stories and pictures of the ‘masses’ revolt not amount to playing to the gallery? The people saw the politicians as corrupt and wanted them hung. Should the media pander to base instinct and unwittingly or surreptitiously resort to blackmail?
Who, I ask, should set the agenda? From whom should the media take dictations or directions? Those are questions we may need to chew on.
You are free to disagree with me, but this is what I consider the score sheet of the media with respect to COVID-19.
Now, let’s see how well the media fared, in my view, on reporting insecurity ravaging Nigeria.
I observe the same general shortcomings noticed with regard to media coverage of COVID-19 pandemic apply here also, probably in worst form.
Here, one sees a media that appears pliable and seems to have lost its independence, abdicated its responsibility and pandering to parochial interests in total breach of professional ideals and values of sacredness of facts, truths, objectivity, balance and fairness; both in news and even opinions.
In a media industry with lack of job security, where journalists are poorly paid, where many had been laid off and made to do the same work as stringers, it is probably understandable, even if regrettable, that some compromise professional ethics – running errands for and doing the bidding of people of influence or just anybody who wish to and have the money or other resources to exploit their platforms.
The crisis in the industry has been compounded by the fact that many of the young ones flooding into the profession, apart from lacking the requisite passion, training and skills for the job, sheer zeal to positively impact the society; are driven by love of money, material gratification and pleasures.
Consequently, rigour in research, facts, truths, balance, fairness have nosedived, if not ultimately jettisoned with sections of the press.
Let’s do a quick rundown of some cases. Try and do a content analysis of newspapers and online publications and you would notice the metamorphosis the names of the hoodlums terrorizing Nigerians had undergone in the last few years. It started from ‘gunmen in the Middle Belt states and Boko Haram insurgents in the North East. The appellations soon switched to ‘killer herdsmen’ and later again ‘bandits and kidnappers’ and then ‘Fulani killer-herdsmen’. Sometimes, the terms were interchange for the other.
If you read them carefully and critically, however, you will discover that most of the stories were based on hearsay, with no serious leg work or investigation to establish the facts and identities of the anonymous attackers. They were simply so labelled based on the information the sources, who may in most cases and for some reasons, be prejudiced, volunteered to the reporter, or news organization. The information may thus be false, or distorted.
And according to their whims and caprices or relationship to the sources/victims/suspected attackers, the reporter and editor without much ado, air or publish the suspect information.
You can only appreciate the comical, but at the same time, tragic absurdity of what I’m saying when you compare the published reports of say, a South-based newspaper and its Northern counterpart on the same incident. Honestly, you will not know whether to cry or laugh.
So, what has happened to rigorous research, to doing the necessary leg work towards establishing the truth in such cases and boldly call a spade a spade, and where it is in doubt to leave out, as we say?
By its compromise, timidity and sloppy handling of its duties, the media has created a situation in which it appears hamstrung by the blackmail not to promote ‘ethnic profiling’ so as not to fuel national discord and crisis.
Even, the character and content of the issue of insecurity feature in the media as defined by vested interests within government and security circles or those who feel underserved by perceived lopsided configuration of the nation’s security apparatus and its seemingly weak or lethargic official efforts at protecting their lives and assets.
If the Federal Government describes ongoing killings and premeditated attacks and sacking of communities by unknown gunmen across the country as a result of herders-farmers clash and later attributes the mayhem to the influx of remnants of Libyan fighters and terrorists from the Sahel, then, it is simply so. No further interrogation, no painstaking and tenacious diagnosis of the obvious contradiction that could assist in finding sincere and viable solutions to the problem.
Amidst these contradictions and dubious narratives, how much did the press do to check or recheck to establish the truth, vis-a-vis counter-narratives and even preponderance of evidence, circumstantial and otherwise, linking some criminal elements among a particular ethnic group, and rightly or wrongly, purported official complicity in the heists allegedly being perpetrated in furtherance of purported Islamization and Fulanization agenda?
A time there was in our history when no official secret vaults, even under military regime, is too steely or formidable to be busted and truths in public interest therein revealed by Nigerian journalists.
But, these days, under a democratic government, the media depend on press statements from the PR departments of government and corporate agencies, or wait for a Natural Security Adviser, NSA, to squeal his frustration and suspicion of sleaze in an arms purchase contract in which he was probably side-lined.
Where are the investigative reporters? Do we even have credible and authoritative sources who can be depended upon to give incontrovertible information only because he wanted to help the nation and not necessarily to push some selfish or ulterior agenda? How reliable are our so-called sources? How genuine is the information they give? Many do a disservice to the public by surrendering their power and offering their platforms, which are supposed to offer saturating education, insightful enlightenment and resolution of controversial issues, to charlatans to peddle falsehood, propaganda and insult public sensibilities. They embarrassingly allow such people escape scrutiny by either asking them drab and patronizing questions or failing to grill them further when they parry hard-hitting and penetrating ones!
Now, the security crisis has snowballed such that we now have not just bandits, insurgents, kidnappers or other shades of criminals on our hands to fear, but threat of a looming bloody conflict arising from agitation for self-determination by various ethnic groupings in different parts of the country over government’s seeming reluctance, inability or helplessness in ending the carnage
The nation is a trust, and in times like these, everybody looks up to the press for rescue. But are we at our duty posts? Who will rescue and restore our compass, so, we can help save the drifting ship of state from shipwrecking?
It is probably symbolic that many of our leading lights in the profession, icons and models, who provided good examples of patriotism, selfless service, diligence, excellence, forthrightness in the use of press power to advance our nation, have been leaving us in the last few years. This year alone we have lost former Information Minister, Prince Tony Momoh and Alhaji Lateef Jakande, who left within the space of two weeks of each other’s demise barely a month ago.