What will it take to save journalism?

Emilly Comfort Maractho

What you need to know:

  • The challenge is, most times we make social media about those who use it to ‘gossip’ and do the most unethical things in communication, and forget the many ways it has expanded the right to communicate.

Obviously, reading the stories in Charles Onyango Obbo’s edited book on 150 years of journalism in eastern Africa, told by a talented bunch indeed, makes journalism worth saving. American Writer, Alice Walker writes, ‘that anything we love can be saved.’  The question is, what will it take to save journalism for those who love it and those who need it?

It is easy to get lost in the criticism of journalism, which can be good and pushes the bar higher, to imagine there is anything good that comes out of it.

The demands to tell the good story in miles and miles of bad stories staring one in the face, becomes a daunting task.  Despite a difficult communication landscape, the media has done some incredible things. Since everyone with access to a social platform can expressly criticize journalists unfiltered, without the proverbial ‘letter to the editor’, it is important to shine the light on the many achievements that go barely noticed and to highlight the actual role of the media in facilitating democracy and development. The starting point is to understand and appreciate the role of journalism by all – state, market and society. 

Author, Aili Mari Tripp, in ‘Museveni’s Uganda: paradoxes of power in a hybrid regime’, notes that the media has played an essential role in exposing undemocratic practices and areas where the executive had overreached. This I believe, the media continues to do and could do more.

We often forget that the media’s main role is to expose undemocratic practices and inform the public alongside entertaining of course in a quest to facilitate both democracy and development. Mari notes the importance of political parties and civil society, social movements, like the women’s movement ideally playing more critical roles in terms of response, through legislation or putting pressure on the state to create productive synergies with society in order to strengthen both state and society. 

Yet, in the absence of critical roles played by these groups, for various reasons, the media becomes the place that the public looks to, to fill the gaps. And this has often created challenges for media that portends to be critical. 

Even then, there are still Obbo’s ‘madmen and madwomen’ willing to put their necks on the line to get the job done, an often thankless job, save for a few awards that may be given by the likes of African Centre for Media Excellence. More, are turning to the digital space too. If we want the best in journalism, then we should invest in it and create the right environment for it to thrive. While this may sound normative, providing that framework is critical. 

We should invest in digitization to the extent that it facilitates news production and informing the public. It provides a lot more tools at the disposal of the journalist and the citizen alike. In scrutinizing the work and failure of journalism, we should also continuously shine the light on the ‘madness in the system’. It is indeed important, as we celebrate World Press Freedom Day, to also focus on the possibilities that digital media brings. According to Obbo ‘spotlight needs to be put on digital media, the blogging space, and the wonderful things independent journalists and communicators are doing on social media’.  

The challenge is, most times we make social media about those who use it to ‘gossip’ and do the most unethical things in communication, and forget the many ways it has expanded the right to communicate as well as the many innovative ideas that find their way to the people who need it at a small cost. People are using it to learn tailoring, baking, décor and all.

Legal reforms are desperately needed, to make sense of those possibilities, and apply them correctly. As curriculum adopts changes in the industry and offers what they believe is relevant training, our focus should also be on how legislation can provide that enabling environment. 

The push for legislation, in our context, has tended to be the punishment of those who may create harm, and forget the vast majority for whom we should be working, to ensure information reaches them. If we are in a networked society and information is the driver, then our regulation should be balanced. 

Regulation can harness the vast possibilities that digitization brings to media development and revolutionary ways in which the communicative space is expanded, beating many of the gate keeping practices that not long ago, were hostile especially to women and those with critical views of government. 

There are many positive developments, including commitment by industry players like editors to work together with other actors to save journalism. These, we have to harness. 

Ms Maractho (PhD) is the director of Africa Policy Centre and senior lecturer at Uganda Christian University.  [email protected]