Poor journalists, weak media, poor democracy


“It cannot be right, no matter where in the world, that journalists are physically attacked or prevented from doing their work. Once that happens, it is an attack on media freedom – and it must be roundly condemned by all.” – President Akufo-Addo

Recent developments in the media environment of Ghana call for a second look at the work and ideologies of media organisations, and poor working conditions of journalistsm, visa-vis the ethics and standards of journalism. One key concern is that apart from the poor working conditions, some journalists may lack adequate capacity to appreciate the nuances of their profession/vocation.

Consolidation of ownership

Ghana’s National Media Policy upholds the notion that pluralism of the media needs to be safeguarded and encouraged. It states that media ownership needs to be distributed and regulated such that state monopoly is not replaced by other monopolies. This should be true, vertically, with respect to the number of media organisations owned by any individual or entity, and horizontally with respect to cross-media ownership.

The policy further states that while non-Ghanaian participation in the media industry can be desirable, the principle of the media as a public good that serves the national interest necessitates majority ownership and decision-making control by Ghanaians. A significant trend in the development of mass communications in Ghana is the consolidation of traditional media, especially radio and television, in the hands of a few businessmen and politicians.

According to the Media Ownership Monitor Ghana, one-third of all media outlets in the country are owned by politicians or people affiliated with the dominant political parties.  Of course, the media concentration has been attributed to the huge capital required to invest in a radio or television station, which effectively rules out ordinary people from owning radio and television stations.  As a result, the media owned by these powerful people tend to frame news within the ideologies or philosophies of their owners; thus making it difficult for divergent news to be heard.

Commercialisation of news

An additional concern is the increasing trend in commercialisation of news and other media content. The debates and counter-claims of commercialisation of news are almost as old as the practice of making money by selling news. Scholars describe the commercialisation of news as any action that interferes with a journalist’s or news organisation’s effort to promote shared understanding of issues and events with the aim of making profit.

Concerns over commercialisation of news suggests that profit-seeking news media and their journalists can and do often act against the public interest. There is a general notion among media researchers that there can be no proper discussion on the evolution of journalism without taking economics into account; especially during technological developments such as the Internet. Internet-based media have provided another platform for some journalists and emerging citizen-journalists to indulge in peddling fake news and other unethical journalistic practices. In this new era of dual communication, scholars argue that new social media and systematic news coverage present a powerful challenge to the journalistic profession and its established codes of conduct.

Journalism and democracy

Several studies have proved journalism to be the driving force behind the proper functioning of democracy through information dissemination. Ideally, the professional journalist draws on professional practices and ethical codes to source, sort and produce political news. Thus, the professionalism of journalists is expected to be the platform to ‘speak truth to power’ and hold public officials and elected representatives to account.

But this critical role of the journalist is under increasing threat by the commercialisation of news, the political ideologies of media owners – and the political or personal orientations of journalists themselves. Like other professions or vocations, some journalists now go into the job with the aim to get rich quickly. With this mindset, such journalists will do any/everything – including appending themselves with politicians to achieve their aims.

One notion of this debate describes the changing media landscape as fuelling journalistic cynicism and common neglect of the watchdog role. This explains why, in Ghana, a radio station can pre-arrange with anonymous people to call into their programme to pour cold water on an inclusive educational policy like the Free Senior High School. Once the callers did not identify themselves, it became difficult for anyone to authenticate their allegations. In the absence of verification, such journalism can be seen as nothing short of carelessness, politicisation, pettiness, cynicism and rent-seeking.  Besides, significant technological developments are altering the relationship between media, the institutions, and processes of democratic governance.

News as public good

Ideally, professional journalistic content should pass as what is popularly called the ‘public good’. Previously, education, health and water and sanitation were referred to as public goods because of their positive or negative impact on the citizens. Positive impact in the sense of when all citizens have a near-universal access to them; and negative in the sense of when a majority of citizens lack them. Now, UNESCO has added ‘information’ to the list of public goods. In the context of development, ‘public goods’ are things to which stakeholders – government, charities and civil society organisations, journalists and citizens – contribute to, and which carry the meaning of need and social purpose. These social, political and economic needs are often the catalysts for public action.

Public action means the purposive and collective action for either public or private ends. Thus, the need for public action defines the arena for a public sphere where citizens and their representatives (Parliament) articulate their concerns through the media. This means that given their role as watchdogs, the media and journalists are mandated to provide objective, well-researched and unbiased reports for the citizens and their representatives to take action. Therefore, when journalists’ reports are laden with hatred, cynicism and insensitivity, people who react will be doing so based on misinformation and disinformation. That is aside from the fact that journalistic codes and standards across the globe underline the principle of objectivity and fairness.

Promoting journalistic integrity

The issue of objectivity and fairness continues to dominate reviews of journalism practice across the globe. During the recent conference in Accra held by the Federation of African Journalists, President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo urged African journalists not to sacrifice integrity and the future of society on the altar of an instant scoop. Rather, the media should focus on reporting the facts and not become willing tools to be used in destroying the reputation of others.

The president urged journalists to address the phenomena of misinformation and disinformation campaigns and fake news, which are unfortunately filtering into the news portals of some mainstream media. He further reminded journalists they must endeavour to report both sides of a story, promote truth and avoid passing judgement in their reportage.

Challenges to media freedom

President Akufo-Addo was unhappy about what he described as “emerging challenges to media freedom”.

“It cannot be right, no matter where in the world, that journalists are physically attacked or prevented from doing their work. Once that happens, it is an attack on media freedom – and it must be roundly condemned by all,” he added.

President Akufo-Addo argued the notion among the public that critiquing journalistic content amounts to an attack on press freedom is untenable. He urged the media to embrace the fact that having the freedom to criticise and oppose comes with an equal responsibility to accept public criticism of their work. “That, for me, is one of the surest ways of improving the public discourse,” the president said. He however noted that a vibrant and unfettered media remains the most effective way of holding governments and society to standards of honesty, self-discipline and delivery.

Most importantly, President Akufo-Addo underscored the significant power wielded by the media and urged African journalists to be reminded of their responsibility, first, to their societies. Mr. Ahmed Salah, a representative of the African Union, reminded African journalists to focus on development and positive stories about the continent, rather on than negative stories such as conflicts.

 Poor working conditions

One key challenge that is negatively impacting the development of journalism and mass communication in Africa is the low wages, if any, of many journalists. Small wonder that the issue of poor conditions of service was high on the agenda. The President of the GJA, Mr. Affail Monney, noted that the biggest threat to African democracy is the poor working conditions – and in many instances the absence of remuneration for several journalists. According to him, while some of the “slave wages for journalists are in arrears”, other journalists work without any form of pay…which is sufficient ground for journalists to underperform or compromise their objectivity and independence.

Underpaid and under-resourced

As far back 2012, IREX – a media rights organisation – reported on the precarious working conditions of Ghanaian journalists.  The report noted that many private media companies are ‘poorly capitalised’ and are mostly run by one-man investors – in which case the proprietor is often also a pseudo-politician. In some cases, the proprietor also doubles as the editor-in-chief, sub-editor, and business and financial manager. The IREX report states that the 2012 findings remain true in 2021. In the current newspaper, the newsroom set-ups of radio or television stations load a single journalist with three different roles: anchor, reporter and producer-in-one. Aside from business and sports reporters, very few journalists are afforded a chance to become subject matter specialists.

In addition to being poor and under-resourced, Ghanaian journalists are also often underpaid, says the IREX report. Journalists have reported instances wherein salaries are delayed for months without explanation, and social security contributions of journalists are never paid by some media organisations. Others complain about struggling to pay rent, transportation and surviving a month on their salaries.

While wages are generally low in the media industry, the small number of female journalists are paid far less than their male counterparts, besides facing the pressure of external and internal sexual harassment. This notwithstanding, in its recent report UNESCO has raised the issue of encouraging gender balance in journalism and media work.

Solidarity and soft control

As a result of low wages, several journalists tend to depend on inducements such as ‘soli’ – industry jargon for a ‘solidarity’ payment news sources make to reporters for publicity. Underpaid journalists also adopt several means to survive the terrain. The alternatives often include using the media platform as a public relations tool for private companies.  Under these conditions, ‘business journalism’ becomes an extension of corporate marketing, corporate social responsibility and branding activities. In the end, some journalists are effectively doubling as public relations officials for companies and individuals, rather than holding power-holders to account.

The high turnover in newsrooms across Ghana has been blamed on poor working conditions of journalists. Journalists, particularly those who manage to rise to the top, often leave after a few years for well-paying sectors. This leads to a ‘brain-drain’ of experienced journalists who would otherwise provide context, analysis and support for inexperienced journalists.

Under these circumstances, several questions come to mind: How many business-journalists will have the courage to investigate and report the corrupt or harmful dealings of a company when they have been taking ‘soli’ from these companies for years? How many political journalists will have the courage to expose corruption or scandals involving top politicians who contributed to their rent? Or how many journalists can be critical of the political party that funded their education?

However, not all journalists in the country are corrupt; and not all media houses have been captured or compromised. There are still journalists and entire newsrooms that continue to fight against corruption and nepotism in high places. More than ever, journalists and media organisations need capacity building supported by the state.

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