What you need to know:
- How do we tell young people, that journalism is not content creation, entertainment or edutainment...?
In the recently concluded Media Festival 2022 organised by the Aga Khan University in Nairobi and hosted by Media Challenge Initiative, there was this interesting conversation on young people and news. These young people told us how there is nothing useful on radio, on television, and most definitely, not in the newspapers. They just don’t engage with it.
Some said they had not engaged with news on these platforms in the last five years. That was not to say, they are not informed. In fact, they felt very informed, because they follow some individuals who tweet on important things in our society and have other ways of knowing.
It felt like being hit with a brick or iron bar on the head, that you have to lose a bit of balance and then figure out what is happening around you. It was good for me to sit through that conversation, just understanding where our young people are coming from.
What are the issues that these young people find difficult to deal with in news? Many of them, I must say, are students or graduates of mass communication as we know it or journalism and communication as we now refer to our offering at Uganda Christian University. Many of them also work for various media houses, yet, I have probably not met a crowd with a more diminished value of news than what I saw and heard that day.
There were many things that are worth reflecting on. There were things I found very interesting but others quite disappointing. Many of these young people had some form of journalistic training and actually engaged with media in one way or another, creating content, among other things. Yet, they tended to speak of comedians as journalists, they saw their engagement with content creation as journalism and mostly, wanted news as entertainment. They also generally seemed to think, holding government to account was a terrible thing, because it taints the image of the country.
This would have been less disappointing, if such conversations happened among those with no basic journalistic training. A new conceptualisation of news is probably upon us, but how do we tell these young people, that journalism is not content creation, is not entertainment or edutainment, that public relations is still different from journalism, and that there is also a thing called development communication?
Conflating all these things, including platforms and journalism issues, pointed to more work needed in media and information literacy, because if young people with skills are confused, how great is that confusion among those who have no training.
Young people also told us, they could not possible pay for news but would pay whatever they could for entertainment. Creative content is the direction for most of them. While there is nothing wrong with entertainment and the focus on creative content, that has always had its place in the media. Just like journalism has also had its place. What is clear, is that the preference now, is that entertainment is all we want. Even news, must be entertaining.
So the question was asked, how do you make news of death or the senseless war in Ukraine poetic and interesting?
That conversation also made me reflect, what if, the newsroom and quality of journalism is not entirely the problem? What if our problem is what Niel Postman in the 1980s wrote about in ‘amusing ourselves to death?’
The expansion of various forms of media content started way back in the 1980s, at least in Western societies. Writing in 1985, Niel Postman attempted to demonstrate how, under the governance of the printing press, discourse in America was different from what it was at the time of his writing, that under the printing press, it was generally coherent, serious and rational; and under the governance of television, it had become shrivelled and absurd.
What is particularly interesting about this old piece of literature, is Postman’s argument that ‘a major new medium changes the structure of discourse; it does so by encouraging certain uses of the intellect favouring definitions of intelligence and wisdom, and by demanding a certain kind of content - a phrase, by creating new forms of truth-telling.’
Many of us in media scholarship have watched with a lot of interest the changes happening in our newsrooms, the change of taste in audiences and many more, driven by globalisation and new media. Still, sitting through a conversation like that is most sobering.
There are many things to reflect on by both the industry and academy. How do we ensure that an opinion by a group of young people, that clearly does not represent most young people in the country does not become the dominant view? How do we make these conversations more inclusive, ensuring those judging do so based on evidence and not loose talk? How do you speak of the quality of a product you haven’t even engaged with in the last five years? No answers, still many questions. We have to engage these young people more.
Ms Emilly Maractho (PhD) is the director of Africa Policy Centre and senior lecturer at Uganda Christian University.