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Public media journalists a liability

By Tendai Mbofana

ONCE upon a time, the public media could be regarded as one of the main pillars holding up a nation, and the scaffolding in nation-building. They played a pivotal role of educating and info

rming the entire nation.

In fact, it could be considered a part of the education system.

Unfortunately, the same no longer applies to the public media in Zimbabwe today. To borrow one of their clichés from their seemingly unending reserves, I would say professional media is now a thing of the past.

For any media house to serve its professional purpose adequately there is the obvious need for thorough research. Alternatively, one can go and interview a few trusted analysts, experts, commentators or relevant authorities and that easily passes for research.

There is no doubt that effective teachers have to be deeply knowledgeable about the subjects they teach. Other reference material such as books and experts are vital for additional information.

The same applies to the modern-day journalists. For them to serve their purpose competently it is imperative that they become very knowledgeable about the topics they tackle.

Experts, analysts and commentators are there only for additional information. However, what we notice with our journalists is the glaring ignorance they exhibit in their interviews and stories, especially on television.

Gross naïvete laces their questions such that one cannot help but wonder whether the journalists know anything — beyond the basics — about the topic under discussion. One can actually sense that the interviewees are asking the same. To make matters worse, they proceed to gulp hook, line and sinker (another one of their clichés) whatever the interviewees would have said, without delving deeper into the issues.

Journalists should be the representatives of the viewers and/or readers. Therefore, their interviews and stories must provide answers to the whole cross-section of society — from the less-informed to the well-informed — and only knowledgeable scribes can accomplish this.

It is even more embarrassing when interviewing someone whom they consider an antagonist. Anyone watching can be excused for thinking that it is a well-rehearsed comedy show, to fulfil the entertainment role of the media.

When making their own analysis of issues, journalists must first get accurate information. They should not disguise their own viewpoints as those of analysts or experts, because the frivolity of their comments leaves viewers or readers wondering exactly where they found these analysts or experts — kindergarten, perhaps?

Interviews and stories are there to inform and educate, not to expose the journalists’ ignorance. It has now become difficult to differentiate between an untrained KidzNet presenter and a trained Newsnet journalist.

Political, business, social and other leaders should rely on the media for advice and innovative ideas on how to improve the country. How then is the media going to achieve this when all they say or write are repetitions of the leaders’ own ideas?

Well-informed journalists act as partners — and not parrots — to leaders in nation-building. They should be assets to the leaders not liabilities. Leaders should gratefully accept advice given knowledgeably, thereby rendering journalists a vital part in policy formulation.

Uninformed journalists become parrots and lose focus; getting entangled in issues they do not fully understand, thereby harming the very leaders they purport to be supporting.

If parents need their children to learn good English, then the public media in Zimbabwe is rated NN (no, no). It is essential for journalism schools in the country to place special emphasis on the proper use of English in the media. Here I have singled out English because it is the widely used language of communication in the media.

To say that the usage of English in the public media is poor is an understatement. To pinpoint the various areas that need improving will need the publishing of an entire book. It would be much better for the journalists to go back to school.

Television and newspaper content requires urgent improving. Again, the issue of research and investigation comes into play.

Whenever one watches television, there is either someone being interviewed, a report on an event that took place recently (if not, a yesteryear documentary), music, drama or a sporting event.

I would not want to believe that without any of these, there would be no programming! There could be some consolation if the programmes were produced competently.

As far as news content is concerned, there is no more to it than just shallow interviews, and poor coverage of events and speeches. There is need for journalists to have what my former journalism lecturer was fond of calling “the nose for news”.

By the way, what ever happened to the transient nature of television productions? Repeating the same news stories on every bulletin round the clock — not to mention some football reports on every football programme for an entire week — smacks of sluggishness on the part of the news teams.

Issues such as news writing and reporting style, editorials, video and news editing, headlines, design and visual appearance, camera work and a whole lot more require immediate attention. Public media journalists appear to be chronically relaxed. A little hard work and dedication to duty never hurt anybody!

After everything has been said and done, can public media journalists confidently claim that they are achieving their stated communication objectives? I doubt it!

*Tendai Mbofana is a media and public relations consultant with MediaLink.

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