NOWADAYS, especially in Nigeria, many factors have conspired to frustrate journalists’ attempt to pursue the ultimate pride of the profession – Investigative Journalism.
The major victim of the unbridled quest for materialism, and the desire for extravagant living, is that imaginative instinct that ignites, sustains, and emboldens the spirit of investigation in journalists.
In spite of the belief that “the public service character of journalism is manifested in investigative journalism,” not many a journalist is willing to tread that path presently.
The socio-economic character of media owners and managers, where emphasis is placed on profit and maintenance of machine at the expense of labour, is not even helping matters.
Yet investigation, declared Professor Lai Oso, “is the aspect of journalism that best serves the citizens to know the facts someone wants to keep secret.” Not only that, “it demonstrates the power of the press as the bastion of democracy. It is journalism’s own instrument to restrain the abuse of political and economic power.”
Oso spoke recently at a workshop organized by the coordinators of the Wole Soyinka Investigative Reporting Award, whose third edition is due for presentation, October this year.
Entitled, Structuring A Model Guidebook As A Resource Support for Investigative Journalism in Nigeria: The Critical Factors to Consider, the scholar of Mass Communication at Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ago-Iwoye, Ogun State, lamented that, “though there have been cases of investigative reporting in the Nigerian press, such cases are few and far in between.” But he was quick to add that “the reasons for this are not far fetched.”
They, he listed, included inadequate material resources for sustained research or investigation, hostile political environment, absence of legal frameworks that compel the filing of public documents and authorise public access to such documents, inadequate journalistic skills, poor ethical standard, among others.
While he believed that “a guidebook is expected to address the problem of inadequate journalistic skills for investigative journalism, Oso however admonished that due attention should be paid to the political economy within which journalism is practised and produced.
Why? “The issues of the ownership and control, and the material context of news production are crucial in determining the type of journalism we could have. However well trained the practitioners are, they work within the limit set by the socio-economic environment and the historical circumstances prevailing at a particular time within the society.”
He corroborated his view with the submission of another scholar of Mass Communication, Silvio Waisbord, who prefers the term ‘watchdog journalism’ to ‘investigative journalism’, as “Watchdogs do not bite their owners … nor … do they chomp neighbours with whom they have amiable relationships.”
Although the campaign to ensure that the Freedom of Information Act is enacted, is hot and on-going, and when promulgated, it might take care of the absence of legal requirements that would have empowered the journalists to have access to public records, Oso however argued that “the existence of a constitutional provision for freedom of the press does not necessarily translate to a free press.”
He added that the existing political climate, the climate of public opinion, public morality and ethical standard among the professionals were equally germane.
On the thematic focus of his presentation, structuring a guide book for investigative journalism, and factors to be considered, Oso, formerly, a senior lecturer at the School of Communication, Lagos State University noted, “as at now, most departments of Mass Communication in the country teach investigative reporting at the 300 or 400 Level. This is presumably after the students must have acquired some training and skills in news writing and reporting, journalism ethics etc.
“The course content usually includes: definition of investigative reporting, purpose of investigative reporting, issues for investigative reporting, process of investigative reporting, strategies and techniques of investigative reporting and ethical implication of investigative reporting. Students are also expected to do some investigative reports as the practical component to the course.”
But two points need special attention, according to him and he mentioned “the practical aspect of the course, as well as the professional competence of the lecturers.
“With the large number of students, many lecturers find it difficult to give the required number of assignments. For instance, how many stories are expected from a student during the duration of the course? How thorough is the assessment of such stories by the lecturer?”
He explained further, “with the insistence of the National Universities Commission (NUC) on Ph.D. as the minimum teaching qualification in the universities, we may be approaching a situation where those who teach professional skill courses in our universities will be those with no professional experience or qualification.
“Imagine someone teaching News Reporting who has never seen the inside of a newsroom, or a lecturer in accountancy who has never balanced a ledger, or a lecturer in architecture who has never supervised the construction of a one-bedroom bungalow.
“The point is that an organisation like the Wole Soyinka Investigative Reporting Award must fashion out a programme for the training and re-training of journalism lecturers. We must bridge the gap between the classroom and the newsroom. This calls for active collaboration among the working journalists, news organisations and departments of Mass Communication in our higher institutions,” he counseled.
And in drawing the guide book, Oso would like “the fact that investigative journalism needs a lot of resources which many of our news organisation may not be able to provide,” be stressed.
He continued, “In this case, we need to consider how enterprising journalists/news organisations could have access to fund and some special skills that may be required. There is no doubt that adequate provision of material and economic resources is a prerequisite for good investigative journalism.
“Most successful investigative reports come from team work. The Guidebook must provide a framework for building such a team within and if possible across news organisations. If our experience with guerrilla journalism during the Babangida and Abacha days was anything to go by, we must also consider how to build and sustain civil society support.
“The media need information which must often come from sources in diverse places and situations. How do we identify, develop, cultivate and use such sources?
“The sociology of news sources suggests to us that those who come to the media as sources have diverse interests, some of which sometimes may not be noble. The recognition of this fact is crucial in investigative journalism where leaks about official wrongdoings most often stem from intra-elite disagreement where information is leaked by a party in order to harm the other.
“Hence, it is important to provide the mechanism and strategies for evaluating the motives of sources and the information they provide. For example, we must examine how reporters are to handle off-the-record information and anonymous sources. We must also consider how to protect the identity of all sources.”
Equally important, the communication expert insisted, was the need to consider the methods, strategies or approaches to investigative journalism.
“Different situations will demand different strategies and approaches. Of recent, one of the country’s news magazines has used visuals to provide ‘evidences’ of wrongdoings against some public office holders.
“In other places where access to public records and documents are much easier to obtain, reporters have relied on the painstaking analysis of such records and documents. But in a situation like ours, where almost everything in a government file is stamped ‘secret’, care must be taken not to run foul of the Official Secrets Act.
“Reporters have also relied on recordings of conversations. With the advent of ICTs, it is becoming easier to tape such conversations. But this also raises a lot of ethical questions. Tapes can be edited, and pictures can be rearranged. In other words, it has become easier for journalists to manipulate and manufacture the facts in making the news. The ethical and legal implications of such practices and the use of technology in news gathering must be critically discussed.”
Reference was also made to the revolution brought about by the advent of Internet facility as Oso argued, “with access to the Internet, it is now possible to obtain information from almost anywhere in the world without any barrier. Computer-assisted-reporting has no doubt taken away some of the difficulties reporters encounter in gathering the news.
“But it is important to consider the authenticity of the materials sourced from the net. We have to consider their legal status. We should also consider the possibilities offered by the net in creating alternative spaces for investigative journalism.
“The mainstream commercial media may be unwilling to engage in this type of journalism which may jeopardise their commercial and political interests. Any approach or strategy must also be able to strike the right balance between individual’s right to privacy and the public’s right to information.”
Critical to issue under review is ethics, and he said, “without doubt, investigative journalism, because it deals in the main, with potential scandal, could easily slip into muckraking, sensationalism and advocacy.
“But it is an area of journalism that we must allow the facts to speak for themselves. It is an area where interpretation must be placed in proper context. For investigative journalism to have the required impact, the credibility of the journalists and their organisation must be jealously guided. We must provide for how to ensure fairness to all parties. Though a level of moral indignation must inform the practice of investigative journalism, the journalist must avoid being judgemental. The journalist is neither a judge nor a prosecutor.”
Another requirement, he highlighted, was the need for the media organizations “to keep the forces of the state and the market at some reasonable distance.”
He supported this view with the remark of the media scholar and columnist, Tunji Dare, who described the inability to maintain a social distance from the men (and women) of power as a major problem of the Nigerian media.
“Investigative journalism cannot thrive under a situation where media organisations, proprietors or journalists wine and dine with those in power. How do we ensure such a social distance?” Oso wondered, insisting that, “the Guidebook should not just be about techniques and professional skills, but should also put some emphases on norms and values which underpin the practice of journalism.”
He canvassed the need “for general knowledge and continuing intellectual development among journalists.” This, he believed, would aid the development of critical thinking, ability to comprehend, analyse, synthesise and evaluate complex social issues that journalism deals with everyday.
“Journalists need a basic understanding of how to evaluate evidence. They need to know about research methods and how to conduct investigations. One thing is to have the materials and the evidence, another is to know how to present a well articulated argument to the public. The ability to write clearly and coherently is very crucial in this regard,” Oso concluded.
* Source: The Guardian Newspapers