Book review : Derailed: When Common Sense Eludes a Nation


Book review

Title: Derailed: When Common Sense Eludes a Nation

Author: Solomon Mensah

Publisher(s): Wrenco Publications

Year of Publication: 2022

Number of Pages: 196

Reviewer: Manasseh Azure Awuni (Editor-in-Chief, The Fourth Estate)

In many Ghanaian folktales, the bravery of the hunter is often laced with spirituality. Some animals and trees the hunter encounters are portrayed as spiritual beings and they either impede or enhance his exploits in those stories. Such animals and trees speak the language of humans and how the hunter heeds or ignores their instructions or admonition often determines how successful he becomes.

In most cases, however, the hunter lives to hunt another night by knowing when to keep his mouth shut. He does not reveal everything he hears in the forest lest the spirits of the forest strike him dead or prevent him from returning home during his next hunting expedition.

The work of the journalist is akin to the discreet hunter. No journalist worth their calling publishes everything they know or hear. Some things are meant for only the ears of the journalist. Sources might risk losing their jobs or even lives if some information is traced to them. So, like the hunter, the success of a journalist depends largely on how they treat the raw materials of their trade — information.

Beyond classified information meant only for the hearer, however, the average journalist often reports less than they know from a given assignment. A press conference that lasts an hour can be reduced to a three-minute news item on television or radio, or summarised into a five-minute read in newspaper or online publication.

The off-the-record comments at press conferences, the question-and-answer sessions that give more explanation, as well as comments that are made by organisers of events at the coffee table may provide more information that may not make it to the story. Time and space are precious commodities in the newsroom.

There is another thing that is also often missing from news stories – the perspective of the journalist. One basic principle that is taught in a journalism class is that the journalist should not mix his/ her opinion with facts when reporting the news. For this reason, the work of some journalists in very conservative newsrooms is not different from those of programmed robots. They are conveyor belts that transfer what the newsmaker says or thinks — even if it’s plain stupidity — to the audience without his opinion or insights.

Some enterprising journalists go out of their way to provide facts that contradict or put the news sources’ information in the right context. However, that’s not all that is available to the journalist.

The principle that enjoins journalists not to mix opinion with facts and present them as they are, does not ban journalists from expressing their opinions. They can publish their opinions separately. Not many journalists are, however, able to take up this privilege and the reasons are not difficult to find.

Some journalists are lazy ― too lazy to write. Some cannot bear the attacks or negative reactions from audiences who may disagree with their opinion. This has worsened in the era of social media when politically-motivated and well-coordinated social media attack dogs are sometimes unleashed on persons whose opinions hurt the popularity of a government or political party. However, what keeps many journalists from exercising their right to opinion is the simple fact that they cannot write.

Writing is not easy. It takes hard work. It takes commitment and discipline. And above all, it takes a lot of courage to dare to write. I must say Solomon Mensah is one of the few hard-working, committed and courageous journalists I know. His book and its content give a better testimony to these attributes than I can say with words.

Someone once said that journalism is the ‘first rough draft of history’. I dare say “Derailed: When Common Sense Eludes a Nation”, is a polished draft of history within the period covered by Solomon’s writings. The book provides insightful perspectives in the areas of politics, security, sanitation, health, inspiration and a mixed basket of socio-economic issues whose existence and persistence assail the sensibilities of the right-thinking people in Ghana.

In this book, Solomon provides facts, interviews and critical analysis of the subjects and topics he writes about. He transports the reader back to the mood at the National Democratic Congress (NDC) headquarters, when the recalcitrant three were jailed by the Supreme Court for contempt and to the giant neem tree under which the Togolese family had spent about a decade of their lives. He takes you to the dying embers of the John Mahama administration and crosses you over the borderless era of the Akufo-Addo presidency when nothing appeared to have changed after the people voted for change.

In January 2016, Amaniampong – the cobbler at the Ghana Institute of Journalism (GIJ) – was a dreamer who saw his work as a stepping stone to his more ambitious dreams. At the time of publishing this book, Amaniampong has, indeed, moved on and his place has been taken by someone else.

DJ Switch has become an international icon who has performed for presidents on the global stage before her teenage. However, the person who gave her the initial push in her rise to stardom must not be discarded like leftover jollof rice at a funeral.

The variety of issues, the simplicity and depth of the writing as well as the timelessness of the topics make Solomon’s book intriguing and entertaining to the reader. To journalists and journalism students, it should serve as an inspiration and invitation to move beyond being just reporters of what others say or think. The journalist has a voice. And Solomon has shown just that.

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