Local media must not be hostage to politics

THE question of leadership is a critical issue across sectors, a hot point across the globe.

But because the media sits at the centre of other activities and is crucial to understanding what is happening daily in politics, in business and finance, in industry and commerce, in entertainment, education, health, science and technology, in social life and culture, the media requires leadership with greater skills than we generally appreciate or believe.

These are skills that go beyond, but can be built on, sound academic education and technical training, to include a judicious temperament and disposition and a strong commitment to ethics and public accountability.

The challenge for Zimbabwe is to build a media leadership with a “Triple A” rating of great Aptitude, great Attitude and great Application in terms of knowledge, skill and ethics.

A study of Zimbabwe over the last 15 years shows that its journalism has unfortunately been caught between four Ss — sunshine and sycophantic journalism and shrill and sensational reporting, all driven by politics.

In the midst of a fierce political contest, the mainstream media industry has struggled to operate around two other ideal Ss — sober and sensitive reporting, grounded on a factual, fair and balanced approach to issues.

There are many people who argue that the media has been emotional in its approach to the Zimbabwe story, obsessively focused on partisan politics at the expense of other issues, with editors and their masters deciding almost dictatorially what the public must read or not read, hear or not hear, see and not see!

The question is how do we get a balance, and develop a system that serves democracy?

I take it that the concept of democracy in its broad sense is now universally accepted except by the most patronising or those who want to qualify it for reasons of partisan politics.

The media serves democracy when its leadership — its editors — are aware and awake to their responsibility of providing news and information that help the people to make choices.

It is nothing new, and I would like to highlight this point through this quotation:

“The world is too big for us.

Too much is going on.

Too many crimes.

Too much violence and excitement.

Try as you will, you get behind in the race in spite of yourself. It’s a constant strain to keep pace — and still you lose ground.
Science empties its discoveries on you so fast that you stagger beneath them in hopeless bewilderment.

The political world now changes so rapidly you’re out of breath trying to keep pace with who’s in and who’s out. Everything is high pressure. Human nature can’t endure much more!”

This is a quotation from an article in the Atlantic Journal of June 16 1833, more than 180 years ago. It captures the despair of a people who felt overwhelmed by the high speed of social, economic, legal, technological and political developments around their lives, a roller-coaster pace of bad and good things unfolding before them.

It highlights the fact that every generation faces and must find life around the challenges and opportunities of its time.

The leaders in Zimbabwe’s media industry must be skilled enough to deal with political and business pressure, with “masters of spin” dominating the sector and with the dangers of “chequebook or khaki envelope journalism”.

It is given that they need skills to lead their newsrooms — which can be developed in a Media Leadership Institute which the industry can establish in good time — but also require the professionalism to embrace new media platforms while defending the primacy of journalism.

While social media has shifted the locus of power of news corporations, industry studies and surveys suggest that ordinary people still rely on the traditional or mainstream media for interpretation of politics, business and financial news.

People have a right to diverse forms of news and information on what is going on around them, what is not happening and why, policies, plans and programmes around their lives.

The media has a responsibility to meet this right, and that responsibility becomes almost mandatory in a country where the media industry is small, and national hopes and expectations have been undermined by both politics and the press.

That responsibility is greater on a media sector which, for years, had become hostage to politics, and it is also greater on newsmakers and generators who are in other social fields.

There is more happening around us than the talking heads we meet in the newspapers, on radio, TV and the websites.

Responsible media leaders are able to separate seed from chaff, they are thought leaders and professionals of high conviction who can help the public to understand and appreciate various fields.
Their mediums are the various forms and platforms that they use to convey news and information to the public.

The role of the media and its leadership includes acting as a watchdog, reflecting the concerns of the people and creating informed public opinion through objective presentation of facts.

Like other fields of industry, media leaders can be nurtured, and the best are both natural and nurtured and are those who have a greater appreciation of their responsibility to the larger public.

For the late Chakaodza, the challenge for the media leadership is to recognise that, and I quote Chakaodza — “the public is tired of insults and accusations being traded by different groups of equally unethical and unprincipled politicians who have no ideas beyond spreading despondency”.

I picked up that quotation from Chakaodza at a workshop of the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ) where we were discussing the state of our journalism.

Chakaodza believed in political freedom, a free media, good governance and public accountability.

He saw no contradiction in these values.

As a founding member of the VMCZ, Chakaodza devoted his time and energy in the council in promoting professionalism in the media, in training programmes to help achieve higher standards in journalism and in holding journalists accountable to the public for their work.

He firmly believed in voluntary regulation of the media — and if you wanted to provoke a burst of “four-letter-word” responses from Chakaodza, all you did was to quote critics suggesting that journalism was not a decent profession.

Chakaodza believed it was professional for journalists to account voluntarily to the public over their work, and that we should find ways of making this more effective.

Following the appointment of the Zimbabwe Media Commission, his view was that the VMCZ should find a way of working with the statutory body.

Beyond questions of cost and accessibility, Chakaodza firmly believed that journalists would be showing sincerity by participating actively in a voluntary system of regulation, subjecting their work and knowledge to the public.

Journalism is a key part of the knowledge industry, and its leaders must play their part and be ashamed to be associated with mediocrity.

The challenge for Zimbabwe’s media leaders and Zimbabwean journalism is to tell a full story, and failure to do so is bad journalism.

Bad journalism is failure to report accurately, fairly, comprehensively and credibly what is going on across the sectors. It is a journalism that is not creative enough to find diverse ways of conveying news and information. The net cost of bad journalism is an uninformed or ill-informed public.

But the cumulative costs are much, much higher.

Bad journalism misinforms and misinterprets. It can undermine the credibility of organisations, programmes, plans, policies and personalities; it can breed suspicion, raise anxiety, drain public support and confidence, invite unwelcome focus on trivia or secondary issues around institutions and can cost money and development.

Bad journalism can incite conflict, create misunderstandings, and exacerbate disputes.

We can go on and on, but I hope that we all get the point.
A conscious and competent media leadership can help identify the pressing issues for the public and unpack them for easy digestion.

Let me quote the late editor of the Sunday Mail Willie Musarurwa’s prescription of his ideal editor: “broadmindedness; a highly developed sense of fairness, a good grasp of the country’s history, culture, tradition, policies, economy and sociology, courage of convictions, impartiality, objectivity; consciousness of and sensitivity to national interest; a broad basis of knowledge; respect for other people’s views; wide journalistic experience; tolerance.”

Musarurwa could also have added that a pleasant personality would be helpful, but is not the only requirement for the job.
There is no doubt that Zimbabwe’s media industry will need a strong leadership to play its role.

Cris Chinaka is the vice-chairperson of the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe. He made this presentation, which has been edited, on Tuesday at the third Bornwell Chakaodza Memorial Lecture as part of the World Press Freedom Day commemorations in Harare.

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