Paper presented by the Guest Presenter, Dr. Grace Nwagbara, at the International Institute of Journalism, IIJ, Portharcourt Annual Lecture Series on Friday, March 16, 2012.
Journalism is increasingly becoming interwoven with our everyday life. Nothing is spared. From domestic affairs to national matters and international issues, the effect of journalism is felt in all these areas. This trend should be expected given the extensive transformation the world experienced in the wake of industrialization. Virtually all spheres of life were affected.
Journalism practice which was once regarded as a craft meant for a select few and with no substantial effect on the society assumed a new status because better technology and adequate resources were available to organize the practice on a large scale. This led to a widespread and rapid provision of abundant information to large and diversified groups of people. It also popularized certain cultural activities and gave more people broader access to information and to participate in developmental efforts which they have come to know and appreciate through the media.
Journalism is essentially communication through the media. What information from the media does in and for the society may be difficult to quantify. The level of such effect on a society is related partly to the varied needs of that community or environment and also to how open or receptive the people in it are to information from the media. Generally, communication serves the purpose of informing, educating and entertaining the public. Each society has a set of rules and norms governing good conduct within their setup. Knowledge of these rules and norms and the enforcement of the same for compliance is a necessary process in the growth of any society. Thus, journalism provides facts, messages, comments and opinions that people need to be able to understand and react knowledgeably to their environment.
Journalism and the Society
The place of journalism in the society can never be overemphasized. In fact, for a society to thrive, certain basic requirements must be in place. One of which is communication.
Communication is the life wire of human existence. Every activity revolves round it. Unfortunately in the past, its value was not really recognized. Communication was regarded as an “isolated phenomenon within society, related essentially to technology, divorced from other aspects of society. Its place in the political system, its convergence with social structures and its dependence upon cultural life were seldom given adequate thought” (UNESCO 1980, p.1 6). All these have changed considerably. People do now appreciate the fact that communication can activate, socialize, homogenize and even adapt people to their culture.
It is for this reason that journalists have been sometimes described as watchdogs of the society, crusaders of some sort for the masses and the eyes and nose of the society. Journalists are merchants of information, the type required for people to operate as effective members of the various places in which they reside and carry out their daily activities. This common pool of knowledge provided by the mass media can help foster unity and promote mutual co-existence among the diverse groups in the society.
In performing their duties, journalists survey the environment searching for information that will benefit the public. For instance, the public could be alerted to beware of certain current and even impending events that could pose serious threats to their existence. Occurrences such as natural/man-made disasters, threats of war or real war situations, outbreak of diseases, political unrest and everyday concerns like fashion are some of the issues the media report about. Members of the public cannot sufficiently monitor their environment on their own, journalists or the media do that for them. In other words, media practitioners go to where ordinary citizens may never attempt to in search of information. Thus, they become the eyes, legs and extensions of the public.
Although journalists may not have acquired all that is needed for this enormous task of surveillance, the size of the machinery used for now in Nigeria is encouraging. There are more 60 Nigerian Television Authority stations in the country, more than 30 state-owned television stations, about ten privately-owned televisions and close to 100 radio stations with diverse ownership.
Magazines and newspapers representing various interests are also much in number. Nigeria may not have as many media houses as some western countries do, but we are definitely somewhere and there is still room for improvement.
Journalists do not just report events, they give interpretations to complex issues, provide meaning and significance to those events. Not everything that happens in the world on a particular day from major highlights in the media. Journalists choose from the many cues available to them what to give prominence to. By this action, they (media) tend to dictate what the public should know and even what aspects of the issues they should know. In other words, the media determine the salient issues and pictures in the environment that must be highlighted to the public. For the public to really appreciate these issues, it is important for them, to understand the idea of media framing. The world as we know it is actually a sum total of the different kinds of frames we receive from media depictions of events. Audiences are constrained to base their interpretation of issues on them (Little john and Foss, 2008).
In addition to offering interpretation to events, journalists are able to bring together the different parts of the society by showcasing what they have in common. The link can be as little as food or as big as state mailers. Government officials try to establish a link between them and those they govern by using the media to inform the people about the achievements and workings of government.
The citizens in turn could present their needs and what they expect government to do for them through the media. People who share common interests such as culture, an outbreak of a particular disease or a cure for it or any other societal problem for which a solution is sought are linked by the media in that direction. The society is fraught with such situations and issues that affect peoples’ lives generally. It may not be out of place to find those who think their experiences are peculiar until the media draw attention to people in similar circumstances thereby creating that desired link between them.
The mass media have a way of highlighting those values our society holds so dearly and would want transmitted from one generation to another. As individual members of society expose themselves to media cues, they get to learn what behavior and values are important and acceptable in their environment and subsequently adopt them. It is in realization of this fact that the media do not hesitate to condemn those they consider deviants or outlaws. Value transmission through the media helps stabilize the society and create common bonds among its members (Dominick, 2009).
Another important aspect of media use in the society is in the area of entertainment. Very often the reality of everyday existence can be so overwhelming that anything that could bring some level of recreation and enjoyment will be most welcome. The media transmit programmes such as drama presentations, dance, music, sports and games meant to entertain audience members. These act as a source of diversion from the problems and frustrations of day-to-day living. Better still, they can be a good source of relaxation.
The mass media have become an integral part of the society. Their presence has brought such widespread changes that without them the world would return to the dark ages.
Journalism and Mass mobilization
So far we have seen how indispensable the job of the journalists is to the society. He gives people information about every aspect of their lives, educates them on every conceivable issue and entertains them by providing contents that help them deal with boredom, pressures and problems of every day life. The idea of mobilizing the masses for a cause is for the media dealing with familiar terrain. History is replete with stories of how the media were used at various times by different societies to mobilize people for several causes. A case in point is the revolution that swept through North Africa, particularly Egypt. Eltantwany and Wiest (2011) argue that if it were not for the way the social media network was put to use in Egypt, the revolution that took place would not have succeeded.
In Nigeria, we have also witnessed how the mass media were used by government and different agencies of government to undertake campaigns aimed at sensitizing and or mobilizing people towards health matters, social issues, economic and political matters among others. Because the media can play a significant role in providing a collective experience for members of the society, their ability to influence people towards a cause is undeniable.
When the Boko Haram saga first gained prominence in the Nigerian media, many people thought it was just one of those many socio-religious groups with extremist tendencies likely to fade away with time. Recent events have disproved that. The killing of eight persons four of whom were policemenon May 27, 2011 in Darnboa, Bomo State, marked the beginning of Boko Haram terror attacks that have become more of an albatross in Nigeria.
Terror attacks are not particularly new in the world. They have been around as long as man has existed. But modern day terrorism dates back to the early 1 970s when a Palestinian terrorist group Black September held the Israeli contingent hostage at the Olympic village, during the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich (Post 2003). This action captured enormous international rnedia attention and gained wide audience followership demonstrating the powerful role the media can play in influencing public opinion.
No country or community experiences terrorism and remains the same. Its effect on collective and individual psyche can be far reaching. The United States of America will never forget the September 11, 2001 terror attack. It was however not the first of such attacks on the country. But the collapse of the World Trade Center and the loss of more than 3,000 lives seared the nation’s psyche in a manner no other terrorist attack has done. Countries like Britain, Kenya, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, among others have also experienced terror attacks at some point. Each of those attacks left several persons dead.
Since the first case of Boko Haram assault in Nigeria, about 18 more have taken place in different parts of the country. Several hundreds of people have died and many others injured. An unfortunate trend in these attacks is the fact that innocent worshippers in churches are now prime targets of the assault. When Saint Theresa Catholic Church Madalla in Niger State was attacked on December 25, 2011, many people thought it was a mistake. Forty-two church members died on that day. Nigerians had hardly recovered from the shock of the attack when on February 26, 2012 another church was attacked. This time it was the headquarters of the Church of Christ in Nigeria, Jos, where the Governor of Plateau State (Jonah Jang) worships. Eight persons died and 35 others were injured. Barely two weeks after (March 11,2012), Saint Finbarrs Catholic church Rayfield, los where the former Deputy Governor of Plateau State, Mrs. Pauline Tallen worships, was equally attacked leaving 19 persons dead.
The worst of all the attacks took place on January 20, 2012 when Kano 128 witnessed a series of bomb attacks and shootings in which more than 4 persons died. Eight police stations comprising a state and a Regional Headquarters and an Immigration Office were part of the places bombed. Acts of terror, whether perpetrated by a few or by many people would normally fall under one of these categories: right wing, nationa1separatist, social revolutionary and religious fundamentalist terrorists.
Terrorist groups can be a powerful political force in any system. They are often dissatisfied with the status quo and thus try to fight it. They do so through unconventional means hoping that the desired change they are targeting would come. Ultimately, terrorists hope they could intimidate the society into succumbing to their demands. Indeed for them, the end justifies the means.
One aspect that is sometimes neglected or overlooked while discussing terrorism is the fact that, it is a product of its own place and time. Al Qaeda, Boko Haram or any other terrorist group have specific targets and what it want to achieve based on its goal and mission. Therefore each act of terrorism must be considered in its own political, historical and cultural context. It is only when that is done that tackling terrorism can become easier.
An essential feature of contemporary terrorism involves the use of media (Schaefer, 2005). Sometimes terrorists may wish to keep their individual identities secret but want their goals, mission and messages to be given very wide publicity because they know by so doing they might win public sympathy or gain popularity. Instead of seeing them as deviants or nuisance to the society, they will be seen more as heroes or martyrs who died for a worthy or justified cause. There is no gainsaying the fact that the media can bring information whether important or not to our door step. Because they can confer status on public issues and enforce social norms, the media in Nigeria have what it takes to mobilize the citizens towards taking informed decisions about the issue.
Nigerian Media and Boko Haram
So far the Nigerian media have not lagged behind in creating awareness, sensitizing and calling for action on a cause they believe is worth all the time and effort they have given it. The reports on Boko Haram have generally been in three categories. The ones meant to inform, for instance most stories that appeared in the major newspapers across the country early this week (12-16 March, 2012) shortly after the last bomb attack in Jos. Another set of stories are those meant to educate. These are the ones that provide more indepth interpretation and analysis of the events. Investigative reporting, news analysis and commentaries, documentaries and magazine programmes. The last kinds of stories are the ones that will make you laugh while handling very serious issues. Cartoons, satires, drama presentations fall in this category. There is this cartoon in the Sunday edition of the Nation of February 26, 2012, that highlights the need to take a decisive action against the menace.
The question is not whether a story is meant to educate, inform or entertain but how much does it achieve what it set out to do? Has it played its role to the point that it has moved people towards saying no to terrorism and to Boko Haram in particular. In writing stories, whether for print or broadcast, the major consideration for the journalist should be how much the story achieves at the end of the day. Have the audience members for whom the story is meant shared meaning with you? In other words, write so that you make the public take the kind of step you want them to.