Gambiana

Opinion | The media must not be deferential to authority, intolerant of contrarian views

In a democracy, trustworthy and professional journalists have a high standard of ethical responsibility, a code of conduct that fits very well with values. 

Honesty and truthfulness getting the facts right is the whole point of journalism. Professional journalists should be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting the truth, and interpreting factual information. 

Please take responsibility for fairness and balance for the accuracy of their work without embracing confirmation bias to narrow their perspective.

These are not good times for the Gambian public and private media. Most people I know have formed an irrevocable impression that it has become pusillanimous for media practitioners to set forth the principles of encouraging the highest ethical and professional performance. 

Once newspapers, radio stations boasted of challenging and exposing the government, they now flinch from doing so. Worse, when their voices are raised, it is against the government’s opponents and critics — particularly those who have the gall to question the President or senior government officials — opposition politicians, liberal academics, and avant-garde authors.

I admit things are worse on the media, notably the Gambia Radio and Television  (GRTS) national broadcaster. However, I am not the only one to sense that print is also pulling its punches and reining itself in. 

Instead of watchdogs that should growl at the authorities, even if occasionally mistakenly so, the public and private media behaves like guard dogs, who seek to protect, or pet dogs, who wish to be liked.

As someone who has spent over 30 years in journalism, I am particularly perturbed by three trends I have repeatedly noticed in the last few years. 

Now that I have taken a break from journalism, I feel a moral compunction about speaking out. Not doing so would let down the profession I love.

First, there is the way anchors choose to interview the President or State ministers, or even political party leaders. It has done with apparent deference, which leaves little opportunity to challenge or even cross-question. 

Instead of focusing on a few well-researched subjects, which are then pursued with diligence, each question changes the issue. There is no follow-up. 

Consequently, a multitude of topics is raised without any meaningful achievement. Equally importantly, the president or cabinet ministers and leaders of political parties are permitted to answer at excessive length, often rambling and frequently changing the subject and getting away with it. Even former President Donald Trump has never been interviewed this way!

Worse still is the character of the questions. Not only are awkward issues avoided, but the questions are emollient phrased and gently asked. Instead of bringing up their lapses or misjudgments, government officials are asked to hold forth on the opposition or civil society’s alleged errors. 

At no point, they questioned things that have gone wrong under their charge. The net result of most of the interviews lacks rigor. It feels like an unchallenging ride. It is the same whether you watch it or read it.

A second concern is a way some anchors behave during television discussions. Those guests who represent viewpoints they agree with are treated gently, permitted to speak frequently and at whatever length they want. 

However, woe betides the guest whose views are contrary to the anchors. They are treated like a guilty prisoner in the dock. Voices rise, language loses its restraint, and questions are fired relentlessly. 

The tone is accusatory, and a deliberate attempt is made to shame the person. They are frequently interrupted. Indeed, they are given little chance to answer one question before the next is hurled at them.

However, the object of a discussion is to give the audience a chance to hear different viewpoints articulated by other voices. 

The aim is to explore artfully and forensically and leave the audience enriched and able to judge for itself. Where fair and even-handed treatment is required, the anchor, instead, takes sides, and each time he exposes his prejudices. This can only diminish him.

You see this most often on the national broadcaster, the Gambia Radio and Television Services (GRTS), and now. Still, younger anchors on other private channels have fallen prey to this practice, presumably because they think it wins audiences and, perhaps, easy popularity. 

GRTS and the premier online televisions best reflect my third concern. After every story, the news-reader feels an urge to tell the viewer what to think or judge its content. The remarks may be pithy, but they still editorialise. 

The newspaper equivalent would be a comment by the editor at the end of every front-page storytelling the reader what to make of it. This breaches the sanctity of news. 

The viewer should be told what has happened, not how to judge or make it. The latter is an intrusion of the news-reader’s viewpoint, which is always unnecessary and, frequently, unwelcome. 

Worse, this ends up treating viewers like children. It is, therefore, also demeaning. I have enormous respect for Eye Africa television and Mamos Media television network.  

I respect and have minor complaints about it, but this irritates them very often in their broadcast. I am surprised that the channel’s editors have allowed it to continue.

Finally, the argument that what I have criticized is an illustration of new-age journalism carries no conviction. I may be old-fashioned, but even if how a story is presented alters with time and technology, its quest for the truth has to be unchanging. 

No matter how it has been delivered, good journalism stands out. On the other hand, lousy journalism cannot be disguised, leave aside forgiven, by self-serving excuses about the mood of the people or the atmosphere of our time. 

Furthermore, indeed, no attempt to make journalism popular justifies lowering standards of objectivity and fair play.

Ultimately, this is more than just about our news channels. Indeed, it goes even further than our democracy. It is about us and how we receive the unvarnished truth. If we tolerate half-truths and misrepresentation, we have only ourselves to blame. 

By Alagi Yorro Jallow

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