Whose Report Shall We Believe?
Thoughts on the media and our role in influencing unbiased news
Back in the 80s, the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) was the main source of entertainment, news, and information. Programming would start by 4pm and news broadcasts would air at 7pm with an extended broadcast at 9pm. It was taboo to change the channel whenever the news was on, what station would one have changed it to anyway? There were also state TV stations but they didn’t appear to have as much influence as the NTA which had the widest reach. It was the most prominent TV network until new-generation TV stations such as DBN TV, Minaj TV, Channels TV, and Clapperboard TV started transmission in the early 90s.
NTA news typically featured what the government of the day was doing, and business and social interest stories. In some aspects, it might as well have been a propaganda machine, after all, the government was footing the bills. Channels TV came onto the scene with a wider perspective in their news reporting. At some point, they partnered with the Cable News Network (CNN) in broadcasting their international news during the day. Not a lot of people had cable TV back then so this was a big deal as the ordinary person with free-to-air TV could watch news reports from around the world.
From the 90s when the media landscape started becoming more diverse till date, numerous media houses have been established in Nigeria, not just in TV but also radio, print, and digital media. Thanks to the internet, we are also connected to an innumerable amount of news sources from around the world. Indeed, information has largely been democratised as most people can access diverse media sources in some way. As consumers, we have become the ultimate beneficiaries as we are now spoilt for choice in determining which media we get our information from.
With the democratisation of news has also come increased participation from ordinary citizens in the sourcing, reporting, analysis, and distribution of news. This has been an age-long practice but the impact of social media has made it more prominent. Participation in the media dissemination process thus confers the role of citizen journalists on those who choose to provide information to or share information with and from media houses. The reality is that most people are unaware of this role and the inherent expectations, and they couldn’t care less about ensuring proper verification of news before sharing.
The media is powerful and the role they play in society is a delicate one. One would expect media houses to be neutral and unbiased so that consumers can form independent opinions about the events they report. With the bias that many media houses exhibit these days, it is often clear that they are primed to influence the way many people think by crowding their minds with opinions that align with their bias. It may not be obvious at first but usually, with sustained consumption, it is often easy to determine whether a media house is aligned with certain interests or maintains a neutral stance. It is sometimes obvious when the media houses choose to either amplify or reduce the focus on particular personalities or issues.
The piper very often dictates the tune in the news media business as it is a costly venture. Working conditions for many journalists are quite poor which means that they have to fend for themselves to survive hence the “brown envelope” situation. We the people end up suffering for this when the news maintains bias. Does this absolve the journalists though? Not in the least. Some journalists have been encouraged to go independent so that they can stay true to their core objectives but supporting themselves is usually tough. Some media houses also strive to remain neutral but it usually comes at some cost to them.
Social media hasn’t helped the media industry either. Seeing as every Tomi, Dike, and Haruna has access to the internet, it is very easy to share news that is either unverified or deliberately fashioned to negatively influence the audience. Social media offers virality to news like no other media and this has contributed towards the spread of fake news. From Twitter, Facebook, or any other social media platform, the news would usually filter to WhatsApp where it takes a life of its own. I cannot count how many times someone shares something in a group and ask “Is this true?” I often wonder why they didn’t bother to fact-check first before sharing. But then, you also find traditional media houses supporting their reportage with unverified news from social media. The cycle continues.
Sometimes, some aspects of the information may be genuine but could be misrepresented to portray a person or an issue in a different light. Take, for example, cutting select parts of a person’s TV interview where they have said something that aligns with the narrative to be pushed. Without watching the full interview, one may not realise the context in which the shortened clip was said. Consider also sharing images that may be factually correct but presented at a time when such images could be misunderstood. We have seen these scenarios reflected in several recent events in Nigeria, such as the current political events and the #endsars protests. And let us not even start with the proliferation of deep fakes which is a looming menace in our society.
The competition to announce breaking news is also a serious problem. Journalism requires that media sources verify the information they receive and share only confirmed facts. However, in this fast-paced world, it often seems like the mantra has evolved to “break news now, apologise later” with the amount of misinformation available. From traditional journalists to bloggers, influencers and eye-witnesses, and social media content dispatchers, everyone wants to be credited as the first to share.
How then do we verify that the media we consume is genuine and contains as little bias as possible if we cannot entirely trust traditional media or social media? One could conduct personal investigations. Review the information you receive against other media sources and historical information where available. Broaden your sources of news and strive to identify bias when you see it. Mute media sources with a high level of bias or at worst, consume them selectively. Test any news with trusted contacts. Those who question every piece of information they receive and seek to be objective irrespective of the matter at stake. Chances are high that one would have been able to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Fake news is a real and present danger as many people have been unknowingly misled and/ or weaponised simply because they failed to test the information they had been exposed to. I believe that credible news must tell all the sides of a story, favouring none, and the consumer must be left to form their opinions rather than being pushed towards unhealthy agenda. The way the media interacts with consumers is constantly changing but we all have a responsibility to ensure we stop fake news when we see it; this is the way I see things today.