Getting back to the basics of journalism

EMELDA Musonda.

YESTERDAY, the Zambian media joined the rest of their colleagues across the globe to celebrate Press Freedom Day under the theme “Media for democracy: Journalism and elections in times of disinformation”.
During the Press Freedom Day the media mainly focusses on how external factors affect their practice.
Oftentimes, the media laments on how their work and rights to inform the public have been infringed upon by the powers that be and other powerful forces of society. Rarely do they focus on internal factors that have been a hindrance to their practice and growth.
While focusing on external factors is important, a holistic approach which encompasses an introspection of the media practice is more ideal.
There is need for the media to interrogate themselves on whether they have been faithful to the tenets of journalism through their practice.
It is a bare fact that the media in Zambia has been at the centre of criticism for unprofessionalism.
The media has been cited for irresponsible reporting especially during elections capable of tearing the nation apart.
Many stakeholders have lamented over biased and unbalanced reporting in the media where stories are lopsided.
Others have not been pleased by the inaccuracies and blatant falsehoods in media content.
Others still have complained over the shallow reporting in the media which has generated more questions than answers. Some stories have been left hanging due to failure by some journalists to follow up.
Many have wondered if journalists are still guided by the fundamental tenets of the profession such as truthfulness and accuracy, impartiality and fairness, accountability, independence and humanity.
The humiliating practice of journalists soliciting and accepting gratification in form of transport refunds from sources also known as ‘bulalizo’ has been an issue of concern.
One Zambian musician recently lamented on how journalists’ decision to cover events is no longer influenced by newsworthiness but assurance of transport refund.
Though many journalists were infuriated by the sentiments, there is validity in what the musician said.
Instead of rushing to throw out tantrums, the media should sober up and admit that there is a problem which needs attention.
The media has a daunting task to help save the face of the profession amid poor working conditions in most media institutions.
It cannot be business as usual when journalists personalise certain sources on account of perceived personal benefits.
When there is so much news around, why should journalists scramble for one assignment and neglect others. This is what is denting the media and taking away from its credibility.
It is no wonder certain sources treat journalists with contempt when they go to cover events because some of them have sacrificed credibility and professionalism at the altar of personal expediency.
Zambia Daily Mail acknowledges that this is indeed a historical problem which needs to be rooted out.
Through its Integrity Committee, the company is in the process of introducing a Gifts and Benefits Policy to guide the conduct of all employees, including journalists, on how to treat gifts and benefits as they interact with both internal and external stakeholders.
Certainly it does not help for the media to bury their heads in the sand, when their credibility and subsequent sustainability is under threat due to the bad practice of some journalists.
The calibre of journalism graduates churned out of colleges and universities leaves much to be desired.
Media institutions will attest that most graduates enter the newsroom very raw. This is one of the major reasons the Free Press Initiative was established; to bridge the gap between learning institutions and the media industry by offering practical training to graduates as they transition.
Due to the absence of professionalism, which is supposed to act as a uniting factor, the media in Zambia is highly polarised. The public media is on one end and private on the other.
There is also the issue of quacks infiltrating the journalism practice. There are so many people masquerading as journalists just because they can write. Journalism is more than just putting ink on paper. It requires understanding and upholding fundamental tenets and ethics that govern the profession.
It is the levels of unprofessionalism that have given rise to the debate on media regulation.
There has been a raging debate on whether the media needs to be regulated through a self-regulatory framework or statute.
While it is indisputable that the best way is self-regulation, the media has a task to inspire confidence by putting in place a mechanism by which journalists will be held accountable.
While it is acknowledged that the media has attempted to come up with self-regulatory bodies like Media Council of Zambia and Zambia Media Council, it is sad that these have not been operationalised. The media should draw lessons from past failures and come up with a robust self-media regulatory framework which will propel the fourth estate to its rightful place of influence and credibility.
It is through a strong media regulatory framework that the media and journalists will be held accountable to uphold the fundamental tenets of journalism.
It is indisputable that if the media is to distinguish itself in this technology era where everyone has become an information disseminator, there is need to get back to the basics of journalism.
Needless to say, it is only credibility and professionalism that will save the face of the media profession.
The author is Zambia Daily Mail editorials editor.

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