The Muckracker

Truth v. Objectivity – The case of The Post
 by mazuba mwiinga

Tell the truth, nothing else but the truth, so help me my sources. Brilliant is it? Tell the truth because only the truth shall set you free; another trite banner; trite and dangerous because so often, the truth can incarcerate you.

Truth whether tangible or not, no knows no boundaries. Whether hidden or tattered, it knows no shape because in it lies one core feature; the truth. And this is the base of all journalism. To tell the truth nothing else but the truth at all times and at all cost. At least that’s what our journalism textbooks demand of us to do.

But can the truth be told at the expense of objectivity? Can the truth alone vindicate me from the sores of being dishonest? Telling the truth as a journalist is one thing, and writing an objective story is another; and this is the challenge scribes have in this year’s general elections in Zambia.

This country has a smart journalistic history. Evelyn Hone College used to be a regional journalism trainer catering countries like Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Malawi. The fruits that came from here were sweeter than the college structures themselves.

The country is also endowed with such highly skilled and talented scribes, but what pokes my mind today is why these men and women of letters subscribe to principles they never came out with from their training.

I for one, young as I may be, have been around in the circles of pen-pushing. During the advent of a return of Multi-Partism in the 1990s, media pluralism which was a chicken’s horn before, was revitalised by the forming of the then Weekly Post newspaper, officially launched in July, 1991.

There was no better thing than having a copy of a newspaper full of sense, hope, humour, hard and fast news stories, under cover well researched investigative pieces, hot columns and objective editorials. The 90s were a time when we felt real journalism at play; to the level of America’s Washington Post, New York Times, you name it. The 90s saw the Weekly Post win numerous international awards, not just for its courage and resilience but, also for its objectivity in its reportage.

Today, I sit back; take a copy of the now The Post, and shudder with wonder. I don’t need anyone to tell me that something wrong has evaded the The Post newsroom or editorial policy. I have gone back to its website, but every time I do so, I still find the same editorial principle on which the Weekly Post was founded, is the one still being used even today. Then I ask myself; what is the matter then?

Does The Post publish truthful stories? This I have no doubt, yes it does. But why then should I be so concerned with them? Reason, they have betrayed what they started. They have sidelined the core principle of journalism – objectivity and toll the line of yellow journalism. This is the kind of journalism that presents little or no legitimate well-researched news and instead uses eye-catching headlines to sell more newspapers. Techniques may include exaggerations of news events, scandal-mongering, or sensationalism; treating news in an unprofessional or unethical fashion.

Check the word objectivity from any aspect of use and you will still find one core stand – being uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices with your reporting; In simple lay man’s understanding; having a story with two or more views over an issue. If you have an accuser, let the accused have a right to reply in the same story or don’t publish it. Subjectivity; the opposite of objectivity, is having a one sided story.

In more detail, objectivity is having a story that is fair, disinterested, factual, and non-partisan. An objective media will not show which political party it stands for; or which politician it prefers. An objective media, brings as much information as it can lay its hands on about all the political players of the nation; analysing them truthfully, factually and objectively for the people to judge for themselves. An objective media does not suggest to the people which political party is better or which politician is good; because an objective media’s role in political matters is objectivity which is synonymous with neutrality.

The media sets an agenda for the people and that agenda must be objective; that’s to mean it must use a method of acquiring knowledge by reasoning, only based on the facts of reality and in accordance with the laws of logic.

The Post of the 90s is a pure shadow of its current image. The millennium came with a totally ‘chameleoned’ Post whose duty today is to act as a PR flyer for politicians it once castigated in full-paged objective editorials; today its either George Mpombo or Micheal Sata on its front page banner. There is nothing wrong off course to write about them; but the stories are long pieces of prose without any substance to call news. This is laziness and lack of creativity and resourcefulness on the part of the newsroom staff. The Post today has stood as a catalogue for swangwapo and not as a 90s reliable source of information. What went wrong?

Reporting the truth of what someone said is not journalism at all. Anyone, even a grade 7 pupil can write a composition based on facts. We go for journalism schools to learn the tricks of the trade; how to dig out that which is hidden and report it as it is. That’s what happened during the 90s; the time of Jowie Mwiinga, Matsauso Phiri, Joe Chilaizya, Goodson Machona, Birght Mwape, Sheike Chifuwe, Sam Mujuda, Mukalya Nampito, Lucy Sichone, Kunda Mwila, Joe Kaunda, the real Fred Mmembe then and many other behind the scene staff. Today The Post is as good as reading the Zambia Daily Mail, Times of Zambia or watching ZNBC. Where is the paper that digs deeper?

In my training I was taught that you cannot write an editorial based on a story that you haven’t published, or on a story that is not headline story. But The Post has ignored the rules of the game. Sata headlines the paper, but an editorial, talks about something else, meaning the issue in the editorial is the one which is important, and hence deserved to be the Paper’s top story. Putting a different top story other than the one highlighted in the editorial means, the top story is just an advert to sway popular opinion and that is not acceptable in journalism.

Reporting the truth and yet lacking objectivity is the same as telling a half truth; and telling a half truth we are often told, is actually as good as telling a whole lie.

Ethical reporting in Zambia - a Charade
 by mazuba mwiinga

Are you asking what a Journalist’s Codes are? Forget it! You won’t find them under our beds, or in our lockers or drawers. Not even in our ink from our pens or in our note books or micro-phones.

A doctor, lawyer and accountant must pass exams to be licensed, and they have regulatory bodies to enforce proper conduct. Journalism does not. Why? It’s the name of the game my brother. We call it free press. The power to license or regulate us is the power to censor. And I tell you, we hate censorship.

So as free a people as we claim to be, should we ride our horses any how, anywhere?

Look at a medical doctor who prescribes an illegal medicine; he could lose his license. A lawyer who misleads a client, or an accountant who knowingly misrepresents a company's financial statement, may be guilty of violating a code of ethics. But me a journalist who poses as a policeman to get private phone records may win a Pulitzer Prize award. What an exciting career!

This isn’t fun; but that’s the reality of things as they fly. This year’s local theme for World Press Freedom day celebrations in Zambia was “Ethical Reporting, for a free and peaceful electoral process”. How catchy! But how do I report ethically when I do not have a principle that guides me to behave in some acceptable way?

Let’s face it and shame some fool pretenders guys. Two of the defining characteristics of a profession are its mandatory code of behaviour and the enforcement of that code. Journalism has neither. You become a journalist when you declare that you are one, and you remain one as long as you keep declaring it. Period! As the old adage goes; print it and let the reader be damned!

Journalists may feel responsible to the public, but thats a lie because we are not responsible to the public. Our readers do not elect us and cannot fire us. The government does not license us or set standards for behaviour for us. We are not responsible to other journalists either. We are responsible only to ourselves and our employers. That’s why we say that we are self-regulated!

Have you heard of the phrase; "swampland where eerie mists of judgment hang low over a boggy terrain." That’s the reason newspaper work has been described that way. So when you read your favourite daily and you find stories just supporting one political candidate, don’t get fussed up because that’s how it works; this theme is just a mist shadow to blind you from seeing the clear picture of what happens behind the editorial room.

To serve its face and stand strong protecting its power, the State was very clever. It sat quietly and peacefully with its trickery mind and we were amused it’s spending so much tax payers’ money and we allowed it to come up with a Statute Criminal Code. To our ignorance it indirectly regulated journalism. According to the Penal Code, Section 53, if in the opinion of the President, a publication is bad in the so called public interest, the President has powers to ban it and free press tag claimed by the journalist will not serve the publication from collapse.

Section 67 of the Penal Code warns the journalist from reporting what is called false news in which case a journalist if convicted of publishing false news with intent to cause public alarm can be jailed for a minimum of three years. Where is the free press for us? And if the journalist defames the President section 69 of the Penal Code will allow for the conviction of the journalist for a minimum of three years; and you call this career un-regulated? If a journalist published what is termed as seditious material section 61 of the Penal Code will take him to jail as well.

But what happens in the newsroom is different from what happens in the editorial room. In the newsroom, there are placards on walls displaying hard and fast rules for a real journalist:

Seek truth and report it fully; inform yourself continually. Be honest, fair and courageous in gathering and reporting the news. Give voice to the voiceless, and hold the powerful accountable. Seek out and disseminate competing perspectives without being unduly influenced by those who would use their power counter to public interest. Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise your integrity or damage your credibility.

Minimize harm. Be compassionate of those affected by your actions. Treat sources, subjects and colleagues with respect, not as means to an end. Do not lie, pose or misrepresent yourself. Don't report on any group or organization to which you belong. Avoid active involvement in partisan causes, politics, community affairs, social actions or demonstrations.

Don't write about someone related by blood or marriage, or someone with whom you have a personal or financial relationship. Don't use your position to seek benefit or advantage in business, financial or commercial transactions. Don't take freebies.

All this is total nonsense because no one journalist seems to learn to adhere to it. For what anyway, when one knows the moment the story reaches the Editor-in-chief it is no-longer the truth but some damn ‘self-regulated’ opinions to suit the editorial policy and not the matter-of-fact? Free and peaceful electoral process through ethical reporting – over my dead body! Not in Zambia.