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Enter adversarial journalism


The Covid-91 pandemic has spawned a new kind of journalism in Zimbabwe which fits snugly into the definition of what is called “adversarial journalism”. This kind of journalism is hardly new in the global context, historians saying it predates even the American Revolution. But in Zimbabwe it emerged most prominently at the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic when journalists sought to expose corruption in the procurement of medicines and medical accessories.

According to Oxford Reference website, adversarial journalism is, “A model of reporting in which the journalist’s role involves adopting a stance of opposition and a combative style in order to expose perceived wrongdoings.”

Others define it simply as, “the official term for investigative reporting done in an antagonistic way.”

Zimbabwe has always had problems with its journalism. In the past two decades the media in Zimbabwe was woefully polarised to the extent that consumers began to doubt the gravitas of whatever information newspapers carried. The polarisation was on the wane in recent times but appears to be on the rise again as political temperatures begin to rise as the 2023 elections approach.

Polarisation, and now adversarial journalism, are increasingly upstaging proper journalism which is grounded on the codified ethics of the trade. Proponents or practitioners of adversarial journalism quickly become very popular shooting to rock-star status globally.

This is because they expose scandals which the ordinary people would never have known had it not been for them. In Zimbabwe, for instance, the Drax Scandal may not have come onto the public domain the way it did had it not been for adversarial journalism.

Its advocates, therefore, argue that it is right for journalists to be antagonistic to the establishment so as to expose the dishonesty that would otherwise go unreported by mainstream journalists who always seek balance before they publish anything, thereby protecting wrongdoers who are not always forthcoming with their side of the story.

This week on May 3, the world marked International Press Freedom Day whose theme was, “Information as a Public Good”. Was the information revealed in the scandals that accompanied the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic “a public good”? The answer must surely be in the affirmative.

But discerning Zimbabweans also got to know the dangers of adversarial journalism. Often it turns vindictive and divisive and may destroy innocent people in its wake. The reason this happens is simple: Once a journalist defines his/her stance on issues, he/she becomes a fierce political animal that disregards objectivity and begins to push an agenda that often forces him/her to minimise facts or omit them altogether. He/she crosses the thin line between journalism and political activism.

The fight against corruption is almost always the driver of adversarial journalism. There is too much opaqueness in the way the government handles information on how it is going about it. Journalists become frustrated and quickly become antagonistic. The way to avoid this adversity is to be open about it and to show probity in the way those caught on the wrong side of the law are treated. The impression governments, including our own, give is that they’re half-hearted in the fight against graft and, where they show a semblance of seriousness it in the end turns out to be a smoke-and-mirrors affair, hence the coining of the phrase “catch-and-release”.

Most journalists in Zimbabwe wish to continue to be guided by the codified professional ethics of journalism, namely accuracy, impartiality and fairness. Only that way can they provide reliable information for responsible public debate and enable the electorate to make informed decisions. But this is aided in no small way by an open government.

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