The decades of the 1980s and 1990s were described pejoratively, as the era of junk journalism in Nigeria. More than two decades on, the contents of Nigerian newspapers provide compelling reasons to suggest we are still well and truly tickled by the titillating stories that define the capricious life and times of pop idols. Who said we are done with junk journalism in Nigeria? That enthralling genre of journalism is not yet over. It has only undergone a makeover.
When newspaper editors are asked to explain the reasons for publishing low quality news stories that attract readers, they usually respond by alluding to news values. What are news values? To be clear, news values are not based on a measurable or computable fixed set of criteria. Like news stories, news values are what editors and journalists define them to be. That is why different newspapers carry different stories on any given day, although sometimes, the differences in news contents might be influenced by factors, such as reporters’ investigative skills, a news organisation’s innovative approaches to news reporting and news editors’ desire to be ahead of competitors.
News values are believed to be important criteria for assessing the newsworthiness of stories because they determine: (a). what news is selected; (b). how news is selected; (c). how news is reported; (d). the angle adopted in reporting news; and (e). the space or time allocated to news.
There are in general eight or more standard news values that editors and journalists use to determine stories that are interesting enough to be considered news. These include impact, conflict, prominence, proximity, currency, timeliness, unusualness, and human interest. Impact is considered the most basic criterion for assessing the newsworthiness of events. It is often said the greater the impact of an event, the greater the possibility the event will make the news.
Regardless of editors’ claims that they always uphold the canons of journalism, there remains a culture of junk journalism practice in Nigeria and other countries. When news breaks of cracks in the marriage of celebrities, or a conflict between high profile politicians, the media are quick to report on the event until it loses currency. Consider this. There are many important stories that require media attention in Nigeria. Unfortunately, those stories have been consigned to the bin tagged “pending editor’s decision”.
Other than the entertainment value of embellishing the story of the breakdown of the marriage of media star, Tiwa Savage, and her loquacious husband, Tunji Balogun, I do not see the point in newspapers giving priority attention and coverage to the unfolding spat between the couple, who are at the moment alienated.
In a profession, such as journalism in which profit motives are regarded as a barometer for success, it is not surprising that Nigerian newspapers continually and rigorously look up to the most outrageous news stories to sell, to draw in advertisers, to make profits, to remain in business in the face of challenges posed by the Internet to their revenue base (i.e., business models), and to withstand the crises that journalism is currently experiencing. These predicaments have raised questions about the future of journalism in the digital age.
When newspapers privilege shocking scandals over other more important news that affect the lives of citizens, they engage in nothing but junk journalism, that kind of journalism that celebrates sleaze. Junk journalism does not contribute to the intellectual development of readers nor do seamy stories ennoble readers in any way. The problem with junk journalism is that it is ephemeral – it tends to emphasise stories that excite readers only fleetingly.
In their book – Australia’s Commercial Media (1983) – Bill Bonney and Helen Wilson note one of the factors that ensures that the rich and the powerful dominate news is the notion of media star. They argue, “The news does not create stars, but the weddings, divorces, affairs, attempted suicides and deaths of stars are always news”. Perhaps, this explains why Nigerian newspapers have dived headlong into the sad but interesting story of the collapse of the marriage of Tiwa Savage and Tunji Balogun. Bill Bonney and Helen Wilson also point out that: “The more visible and familiar the star, the greater the degree of newsworthiness, and the greater the news coverage…” It is in this context that we must understand quite clearly why everything that Tiwa Savage and her (former) husband Tunji Balogun say or do in the public space is quickly picked up by the media and given foremost coverage.
It is not that Tiwa or Tunji have two heads and four legs. Not at all. Physically, they have everything everyone of us has. Each of them has one head, two hands and two legs, not minding that their combined IQ might indeed be just a little below that of the rest of us. Which is why they decided to launder their dirty linen in a public laundromat, as if the people they were complaining to have never had or experienced extremely difficult and troublesome marriage.
Regardless of what anyone might say, I would argue that Tiwa Savage and Tunji Balogun have demonstrated naivety in the way they have dealt with their marital problems. They did not consider the consequences of taking their case to the court of public opinion. That court is a useless arena. It does not mend problems in marriage. Tiwa and Tunji did not consider that those who pretend to be sympathisers or supporters who lend their ears to their tall tales could, in fact, aggravate rather than alleviate their marital problems. Sometimes, matters involving a husband and wife are best dealt with in private. The more marital troubles are communicated to the public via the news media, the more entrenched the warring partners will be and the fewer opportunities there will be for reconciliation.
While I acknowledge the three key roles of media are to educate, inform and entertain, I must point out that media organisations seem to accord greater priority to their entertainment role because of its potential to attract readers and advertisers and, therefore, boost profits. Media must not be obsessed with keeping a regular eye over their profit and loss ledger. Editors and journalists, who measure their achievements by the annual profit returns do not serve the interests of their society.
The high standard of professional practice that earned Nigerian journalism international repute long before the introduction of junk journalism culture has disappeared essentially because the press in particular has experienced unprecedented proliferation of daily and weekly news pamphlets that rely on the sensational and the scandalous to boost circulation and, therefore, readership.
Nigerian newspapers’ obsession with the marital transgressions and excesses of Tiwa Savage and her (former) husband Tunji Balogun – both of them prominent in the entertainment industry – shows the extent to which media pay little attention to quality news.
Across the world, news consumers have consistently expressed dissatisfaction with the quality of news presented in mainstream media. A decline in quality news directly affects the quality of democracy. Given that news media are regarded as steady pipelines of public information through which citizens gain knowledge of events in their society, an uninformed or badly informed citizen is a disaster to deliberative democracy. Editors and journalists must see decline in quality news, as a matter for serious consideration. Quality journalism is undermined when mainstream media fail to provide quality news and information that serve the public good rather than profit motives.
The entertaining coverage of Tiwa Savage’s marital saga is no different from the way a news magazine published in 2006 the nude photographs of popular artiste Anita Hogan. The photographs were widely condemned because they were tasteless. The photos exposed the natural curves of the actress who was described at the time as inexperienced. The debate that was generated by the publication of the photos pointed to the emergence of the sleazy type of journalism in 21st century Nigeria.
In criticising junk journalism in Nigeria, mention must be made of the contribution by newspaper readers to the survival of that culture. Junk journalism practice has survived and is flourishing in the country largely because newspaper readers have voted for that kind of journalism. Of course, junk journalism is thriving in Nigeria because editors and journalists are providing the kind of contents that please and amuse readers. But editors, as service providers, must reconsider the adverse impact of junk journalism on the image of the profession.
Sensational and unethical journalism practice impacts on journalists’ claim to accuracy and factual reporting. At the centre of this claim is the notion of truth. Truth is the foundation of journalism. Journalists seek to convey the truth through the medium of words or photography or both. Ethical consideration is also crucial in journalism practice, whether or not journalists consider issues relating to defamation, invasion of privacy, and taste.
In the digital age, as competition increases, journalists are placed under growing pressure to adopt unethical reporting methods. This means they are more likely to use sensational headlines and promos. Non-events are also more likely to be staged and reported as news. Whatever happens, journalists must be aware that a good reputation is hard to construct. Once damaged, a journalist’s and media organisation’s reputation becomes harder to repair.