Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo has asked professional journalists to adhere to their code of ethics to boost investigative journalism and objectivity in news reporting. He said the coverage of the 2019 general election, and the wide circulation of fake news and unconfirmed information through social media underlined the need for journalists and media organisations to rethink the insufficient resources invested in investigative journalism. He spoke on Monday, April 8, 2019, at a workshop appropriately entitled “Legal and Ethical Issues in Investigative Journalism in Nigeria.” Osinbajo was represented by his Senior Special Assistant (Media and Publicity), Laolu Akande.
Osinbajo said the investigative journalist has an obligation to adhere to the journalism code of ethics while carrying out their duty. The duty, he said, included “observing strictly to the time-tested journalistic values of honesty, independence, accuracy, fairness, objectivity, credibility, balance and public accountability.”
Osinbajo raised a valid point when he said: “Journalists should strive to abide by the code of ethics in the practice of their profession because, without adhering to a code of ethics, investigative journalism, or any profession at all, would not thrive as much as it should. Recent events, including the past general election, where fake news and unverified information were shared by many on different media platforms and on social media, especially, have also put a spotlight on the importance of investigative journalism and why our country needs this aspect of the profession more than ever.”
While the value of investigative journalism can never be disputed, it seems to me Osinbajo has skirted the major challenges posed to modern society by social media. He made generic references to the use and abuse of social media during the 2019 general election. Surely, social media constitute a challenge to human societies, as well as to mainstream and online news media. Unlike mainstream media that are guided by a code of ethics, social media operate uninhibited in an open space in which anything is considered fair game. Everything is allowed and nothing is subject to editorial checks and control.
A professional code of ethics is largely unknown to social media content producers. In some cases, the origins of material circulating on social media are unknown. The authors are mysterious just as the locations on which some of the videos are shot. Those who contribute textual, audio, and video material to social media enjoy anonymity that has been difficult for investigative journalists to unravel.
In our digital era, social media are used as a vehicle for the dual role of disseminating patently false and accurate information. During the 2019 general election, social media circulated digitally manipulated photos and video images that supported the narratives of political parties and the sponsors of messages. Also disseminated with equal passion were genuine photos and videos that served as impeccable evidence of the massive scale of breaches of the rules that occurred during the general election.
In light of Osinbajo’s talk about journalism ethics and the government’s aversion for constraining press freedom, it is important to clarify this point. The code of ethics that guide professional journalism practice is not in general binding on all journalists, editors, and media organisations. This might sound strange but true in various parts of the world. There are sound reasons why the code of ethics is regarded in various cultures as a weak tool to check professional misconduct by journalists. One major reason is that media organisations and editors are not bound to belong to professional bodies. If they don’t belong, they feel they are logically not bound to honour the decisions of the Press Council or Media Council.
It is alright for government officials to make loose references to the need for journalists and media organisations to respect their code of ethics. However, the same government officials show palpable lack of respect for the work that journalists perform. On paper, journalists are required to respect the code of ethics that guide their professional practice. However, infringement of the code may not always attract sanctions or disciplinary measures.
I am not persuaded in any way that it is the remit of any ruling party or government officials to determine when an ethical breach has occurred or what precisely constitutes a violation of the code of ethics.
An overbearing government that is sensitive to media criticisms always refers to journalism code of ethics in its attempt to influence journalists and editors to provide favourable coverage of government activities. Any claim that a particular piece of journalism is not objective is a statement about how that report has failed to provide a truthful account of a particular event. When journalists speak about objectivity, they refer to truth, accuracy, fairness, balance, neutrality, and absence of value judgments. All these constitute the canons of journalism.
At the heart of journalism practice is the notion of truth. Unethical journalism practice has negative impact on the core values of journalism. Truth is the foundation of journalism. Journalists seek to convey truth through text, audio, video, and other channels. Ethical consideration is crucial in journalism practice, whether or not the journalist is considering issues of defamation, contempt, invasion of privacy, and taste.
Professional journalists in various countries have attested in their code of ethics the essential notion of truth as the driving inspiration in their profession. One such example is the Australian Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) code of ethics. The preamble to the code states that: “Respect for truth and the public’s right to information are fundamental principles of journalism. Journalists search, disclose, record, question, entertain, comment and remember. They inform citizens and animate democracy. They scrutinise power, but also exercise it, and should be responsible and accountable.”
There is a close connection between truth and the level of credibility enjoyed by journalists and their media organisations. For example, the extent to which a photojournalist presents truthful news photos will determine the degree of credibility the public attaches to that photojournalist and their media organisation. The reverse holds when journalists present false stories and inaccurate reports.
Press historian Francis Williams reminds us that the press is the “conveyor belt” of public information. It is trendy for senior Nigerian government officials to talk admirably about the important role that journalists play in nurturing democracy, national unity, and socioeconomic development. However, the same leaders take actions and encourage the passage of bills that limit the ability of journalists to carry out their obligations to society. While many political leaders say they support press freedom, their actions expose their contempt for the media, and their lack of support for journalists to exercise their freedom to report news without official interference, threat, or intimidation.
In every democracy, a press constrained by government laws is not a free press. Similarly, a compliant press that serves as a servant of the state is a press in chains. Ethics or not, a press in bondage makes no valuable contribution to the growth of democracy. If journalists are constrained from performing their roles by laws that infringe on press freedom, our society will be endangered. This is why press freedom in Nigeria and other African countries must be contested vigorously even if it leads to adverse relationship with the government.