Ethics in Election Reporting: Looking into the Future, by Nosa Owens-Ibie


SA Media, Mr. Femi Adesina presenting the book
SA Media, Mr. Femi Adesina presenting the book

In the run-up to arguably the most intense and expensive electioneering campaign in Nigeria, the former Governor Babangida Aliyu of Niger State while inaugurating the campaign committee of his party early January declared that morality and honesty have no place in politics, and advocated for “modern morality” as the realistic option for winning elections. His was a bold admission of a fact in what has become practical politics of institutional proportion. The issues of modern morality appear to ring familiar bells in journalism too.

The 21st century is emerging as the century of the chatter with a communication process rapidly redefining journalism as was and a public sphere offering new vistas for democratic conversations. Questions arise on ethics as a concept rooted in ideals and its interpretations within a prism that is both professional, political, economic, social, cultural and philosophical. But is there anything peculiarly Nigerian in the debate or given the logics of globalisation; are we witnessing a downloadable version weakened by material conditions?

Ethics is in retreat and unspeakable tumult and the logic of ethical universals remains threatened by both undercurrents and crosscurrents in the public and private spheres which defy description. The other day, a journalist was cursing his publisher for what in my interpretation translated to the triple trouble of feeding the demon of unethical practices by staff, insensitivity and greed. That is a scenario of practice at a time when the logic of mediatization suggest an impactful interface between journalism and media and electoral and political processes. Lanre Arogundade once admitted the tremendous intimidation journalists suffer from the coalition of publishers, politicians and security agencies in the course of reporting electoral conflicts. This is against the background of limitations in the environments of operation which my findings in a study among print journalists’ years ago showed as tilted towards the journalism of convenience especially given non-payment of regular salaries in some media organizations and the recourse to moonlighting and reliance on news sources for financial lifelines.
Examples from Without

When Frog Books published a pamphlet – “The Rape of News” in February 2003 following the decision of The Times of India to market editorial space in its newspapers and based on the concern about what therefore translated to the newspapers tacit endorsement of the erosion of ethical values, Frederick Noronha interviewed Sunil Poolani, editor of Frog who admitted that the trend of news for those who have an interest to protect and can afford it was thriving. That The Times took the lead meant that the joiners lined up though not as blatantly as the pioneer.

The rise of “Brand Journalism” has also considerably blended the predictable domain of good old advertorials, “special projects” and the general rubric of advertising with the more sophisticated and incremental consolidation of the private drivers of the economy and political space as determinants of the news we read as emanating from the professional mill. Brand building using credible journalistic sources to shape profiles is a blue-chip industry which now assures website hits and possibly what or who could trend, including political office holders and aspirants.

David Deacon, John Downey, James Stanyer and Dominic Wring’s assessment of news media performance in the 2015 General Elections in the United Kingdom highlighted the bias of news media in favour of the Conservatives and the issues they canvassed and hostility to other political parties and leaders while television coverage tilted in favour of “three main party leaders” and “two main parties”. There was according to them a deficit of attention to substantive issues.

The Home Front

One of the defining features of the consolidation of this phase of Nigeria’s transition is the discernible building blocks to the emerging media to which various stakeholders are making subtle and visible inputs. There is a growing body of data that is taking the discussion beyond the realm of the anecdotal. The collaboration between the International Press Centre (IPC) and the Nigerian Press Council (NPC) monitoring 22 newspapers, four online media and three social media platforms between November 2014 and April 2015 on the reportage of the 2015 elections produced definitive insights, including on the primacy of issues of ethics as a core of journalistic practice. The Nigerian Democratic Report provide critical information for an assessment of levels of subscription to ethical principles in the electoral process by the media

The baseline survey of six newspapers ahead of the 2015 elections found that politicians actually set the agenda on the coverage of electoral issues and that reports lacked investigation, relying more on publicity materials from politicians. The monthly monitoring reports showed that ethical breaches had a direct relationship with the contest for political power with a variable performance showing general restraint by regional newspapers from publishing inciting, non-conflict sensitive headlines, hate speech and reports with stereotype even in the heat of the campaigns while virtually all the reports of infractions in this domain were by national newspapers. Political advertorials were used in attacking opponents. Online media and social media platforms tended like the regional papers to have been more conflict-sensitive with no record of hate speech, sensational headlines or stereotype expression until March 2015. By April when the elections had ended there was no report on hate speech or stereotype in either national or regional newspapers.

Ayo Oluwatosin’s assessment of the marketing of parties, candidates and issues in the 2015 elections at the 8th edition of the empowerment series of the Association of Communication Scholars & Professionals of Nigeria (ACSPN) highlighted the fact that the election was a money spinner for the Nigerian Press with their January to April 12, 2015 revenues roughly equivalent to what they made cumulatively in the previous 24 months with some newspapers averaging a daily income of N30 million. The temptation to make hay was enormous with a variable scorecard of breaches due to financial considerations and a pandering to other primordial sentiments, especially based on ethnicity and religion. It was not just a case of the end justifying the means; the means in all cases of infraction of ethics appeared to have justified the end. The issue had apparently gone beyond the old debate on the propriety of the professionalism of the wrap-around for flagship print media to that of how far each medium was willing to go.

The “Nigerians be Warned: Life and Death” advert, the “Leopard” commercials and the disinformation campaigns, promoted by the combatants, among others, and echoed by the media pushed the barriers of propaganda. Probably the irony was the justification by at least two of the criticised electronic media in this adventure, one stating that they are in business to make money and offer a right to reply while the other didn’t consider their station’s performance to have contravened the code guiding broadcasts.

The Law, the Letter and the Spirit

Between the National Broadcasting Code (NBC), Code of Ethics for Nigerian Journalists, The Nigerian Media Code of Election Coverage, the Freedom of Information Act, the Electoral Act and the 1999 Constitution there is a comprehensive regime of expectations and specifications that ordinarily should assure the primacy of ethical considerations in election reporting. Fairness, accuracy, balance, respect of privacy and confidentiality, decency, non-solicitation or receipt of gratification in performing duties, conflict-sensitivity, non-identification of minors (under-16 years by name, picture or interviews), promotion of national unity and public interest, human rights, democracy, rule of law, respect of copyright and avoidance of plagiarism are core to the Journalists Code of Ethics. These are echoed with varying levels of emphasis including specification of sanctions in other Codes.

The Constitution prescribes for the media the responsibility to hold government accountable to its mandate in a manner which recognises Edmund Burke’s foresight in labelling the press as the fourth estate with the influence and capacity to hold the executive, legislature and judiciary accountable. The Electoral Act details provisions for ensuring fairness and discouragement of publication or broadcast of offensive materials against parties and politicians while stipulating appropriate time limits and prescribing sanctions, The Freedom of Information Act established a framework of access to public information and records consistent with the public interest, personal privacy and the protection of officials when they perform their lawful duties pursuant to this.

The October 2014 Nigerian Media Code of Election Coverage however accommodated more pertinent and current concerns including the responsibility of media organizations to parties and candidates, under-represented groups, the demands of professionalism and social responsibility including for accuracy, fairness and balance, ethical conduct including integrity and credibility, reporting of opinion polls, requirements for the endorsement of candidates and political advertisements, hate speech and incitement and conflict sensitivity. Media organizations were under the Code expected to monitor their performance relative to its stipulations.

The challenge was at the level of implementation as regulatory agencies appeared to have somewhat abdicated in implementing the letter of the codes they were supposed to enforce. The latitude exhibited by broadcast and print media confirmed this. Social media constituted the third force, uncontrolled and presumably uncontrollable with the political class deploying them to whatever use suited their aspirations. There was the occasional security intervention which was interpreted as partisan by the victims.

Journalism’s Changing Vista

This is the age of mixed-media with technology facilitating the generation of content by sources beyond the traditional domains of journalism. There is a dilution of who a journalist is and an emerging redefinition of who and what constitutes audiences while ethics has assumed an elastic frame throwing up advocacy for “radical ethics”. Gatekeeping is evolving with the era of “filters”. The Guardian (not the Nigerian) is credited with even seeing prospects for “open journalism” with new vistas for collaboration between journalists and citizens. Leif Kramp asserts that news “has become less a commodity – and more a common property that is shared by millions.” There is therefore a growing movement for non-profit journalism to drive ethical perspectives.

François Heinderyckx elaboration of what is termed “para-journalism” and its implication for ethics is that new technologies and media-driven journalism have complicated the definition of who a journalist is. There is the conflict between narratives offered by journalists who double as bloggers with the challenge of distinguishing which takes pre-eminence between the views offered in the media the journalist works for and the one on the blog. The rising profile of some blogs which position popular bloggers to become major actors in the news media scene is another concern. What is termed “self-media” or “pseudo-media” therefore take on characteristics in one breadth exhibiting features of journalism as is while on the other showing a sophistication beyond journalism traditions. The process of gathering, processing and disseminating news keeps evolving with the consequence that ethical norms meant to keep journalists and journalistic practice within boundaries of propriety are fundamentally challenged.

Road to the Future

Marianne Jennings once declared that

As an ethics professor, I have …found that those who rely most on
written codes of conduct are the most unethical among us. They want
a fancy document certifying their integrity that they can wave around,
but they do not want to be bound by it

Does that mean that codes of ethics are in reality meaningless? Certainly not, as that would amount to abdication, just as it is unreasonable to make a case for the elimination of law since society continues to harbour deviants and needs order. To align with the logic would be an invitation to chaos.

Jennings believes that journalists ought to answer the “should” question in order to make written codes of ethics meaningful, prescribing for journalist the pursuit of the core values of independence, honesty, fairness, productiveness by doing their homework and taking responsibility for action .

Stephen Ward is one of those who consider as critical the need to develop ethics guidelines which recognize differences between multiple media formats with clear demands on “everyone who publishes.” He advocates a re-examination of media ethics to factor new ecologies, multiple media and economic models, including the need for “ethics of how to use new media…, ethics of interpretation and opinion….ethics of activism…ethics of global democratic journalism.” I agree with Jennings and Ward.

So where do we go from here?

I attended a meeting involving journalists early 2015 where a number of journalists had not received copies of the October 2014 Code. The question that arose was how journalists were expected to implement what they did not have its details in a situation where some may know but may not be enthusiastic about implementing.
There is a fundamental need for introspection by the media and its stakeholders. While there is need to build specifics deriving from lessons learned from the last elections and evolving currents in the Nigerian political space into a review of ethical codes, media organizations, regulatory agencies and journalists have clear roles to play to lend meaning and substance to a re-invigorated ethics which must reflect the dynamics of media and journalistic space. These specific roles have to be clearly enunciated and comprehensively disseminated among all stakeholders. More transparent mechanisms for monitoring the implementation process is desirable.

Between 1999 and 2015 politics as a do-or-die enterprise reverberated. Emerging trends in the polity would gradually make the foot soldiers of that enterprise jobless and the refrain unfashionable as civil forces launch a sustained ground, sea and air (multi-sided) attack in pursuit of the Nigerian dream. It may look like a long road to travel given the mix of complications in the Nigerian space, but the future is bright. The ethical media is doable and a distinct possibility as the image of the journalist must move out of the pigeon-hole of “press boys” with a price tag. Insights offered by the research findings published by the Nigerian Democratic Report affirm the fundamental need for evidence and enhanced institutional and stakeholders capacities and collaboration as we progress.
As former Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon (rtd) would most likely put it – to achieve the goal of the ethical media in Nigeria is a task that must and will be done!

Thank you for your attention

Being Keynote Address delivered by Prof Nosa Owens-Ibie of Media Department, Caleb University at the Public Presentation of the book titled “Reportage of 2015 Elections – A Monitoring Scorecard of Print and Online Media”, organized by The Nigerian Press Council (NPC) and the International Press Centre (IPC) with support from UNDP/Democratic Governance for Development (DGD), Abuja, Thursday, August 13, 2015

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