Be wary of ‘megaphone journalism’ in the name of ‘balanced’ reporting

Friday April 24 2020

One of the values driven into the heads of reporters and editors every day is that of balance. Every story must be balanced, we are told. This means you should give both sides of the story, carry different voices (pros and cons) on a given subject being published, and when an allegation is made about an individual or institution, you should carry their response right after that allegation.
All sounds good and responsible. Indeed media houses of repute take pride in being the most balanced newspaper, television or radio station.

The Nation Media Group (NMG) Editorial Policy Guidelines – which is available online for public reference – devotes considerable space to explaining this principle to its journalists showing its applicability across all genres of content. Thus, it is not only applicable to news stories; it should be seen in features, interviews, editorials and commentaries as well as the general choice and packaging of the products.

However, many journalists sometimes take the principle of balance literally and this ends up in misinformation and misrepresentation which may lead to unnecessary litigation.
This is usually because they have considered one value above other values, notably the cardinal requirement to verify information before publishing or airing it out, even if someone has said it “on the record”.
A famous quotation attributed to retired American journalism professor, Jonathan Foster, perhaps best illustrates the folly of pursuing balance literally.
He said: “If someone says it’s raining and another person says it’s dry, it’s not your job to quote them both. It’s your job to look out the window and find out which is true.”

Thus, if you simply publish the two perspectives of the weather and dust yourself that you have published a balanced story, you have done no better than a megaphone that picks whatever sound and amplified it!
So, Verify! Verify! Verify!

In the pursuit of verification, in this case on the weather obtaining outside, if we follow Prof Forster’s quote, a reporter or editor will have to make a decision of whether what they have found out is worthy news to be published or its “no news” and should therefore be dropped altogether. So what if it is raining or dry?
Sometimes the temptation is to publish both allegations in the name of “balance” and fill the newspaper column inches or television bulletin as dropping it altogether will mean one must find another story to fill the space and beat the deadline! So we end up with a “megaphone story” of he said, she said and the reader asking “so what?”
Megaphone journalism therefore arises from the failure to verify, literal pursuit of balance or the inclination to simply fill space and go home. Some people have referred to this as lazy journalism and it undermines credibility of media trust of the audiences.

Editors and reporters are therefore better off investing a little more effort in ensuring stories tick most of the journalism values, rather than hoping to get away with artificial balance.

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READERS HAVE YOUR SAY
Tibaijuka K. Ateenyi: Thank you for your article last week on the media and its dog analogy (“If Uganda media is not a watchdog, what dog is it?” Daily Monitor, April 17). Consciously or unconsciously, you missed out on the gutter press where, in my view, tabloids fall.
Incidentally, I have noticed with horror the establishment by part of our mainstream media of a section that publishes separate weekly tabloids. Using the dog analogy, would you not categorise the gutter press practitioners as blood hounds?
Public Editor: Thanks for this feedback. Yes the gutter press practitioners are bloodhounds thriving on scandal (real and ‘manufactured’). This is often described as “yellow journalism”. Yes the entry of yellow journalism into mainstream media houses should worry us. It is driven by “market journalism” that seeks to produce what can excite and presumably sell at the least cost. This approach may provide short term gains but in the long run, it takes media further down the drain.

@Cecilia97N: They [NTV] are slowly losing it. I have been too loyal to their station but I am quitting. They need to rebrand and phase off some programmes on their station.
Julius Mukiiza @JMukiza: NTV graphics have remained the same forages. The station needs a revamp and a rebrand; a fresh look. Some of the graphics have been there since 2006 when it first went on air! There is also need for rejuvenation of the current shows and new innovative shows.
Public Editor: Thanks for the candid feedback. These and other feedback shared on this Twitter thread shall be shared with management and the editorial board to guide their interventions.

Send your feedback/complaints to public-editor@ug.nationmedia.com
or call/text on +256 776 500725

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