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Sonala Olumhense: How your newspaper front page may be lying to you


Sonala Olumhense: How your newspaper front page may be lying to you

by Sonala Olumhense

“True journalism, especially in a context such as Nigeria’s, should constantly and consistently expose the various dimensions of our national malfeasance, and follow up on those stories.”

THE front pages of the press are a wonderful classroom.  Pay close attention, and they open your eyes to this moment in time.  It is when you turn the page that you largely encounter the sundry gremlins who seek to interpret the front page.

In a chaotic carnival such as Nigeria, it is important to be mindful of those interpreters, for they can poison your soul.  They can tell you what to think or how to rethink what you thought you had thought through.

But you know all that, and so you stick with reading the front page news, which is by implication a summary of the most important stories.

But are you really reading the lead stories?  That is, are you reading the front page you should be reading, or are you reading the front page someone is trying to persuade you to accept?

In an ideal situation, the front page is the editor’s proudest and most profound professional summary of the moment.  His signature and the date on the product affirm that for History.

But what if the editor and his signature are lying?  What if that front page was manufactured for convenience?

Let me provide one proof that this is sometimes—may be, often— the case: not simply that the front page does not always tell the truth, but that in Nigeria, it may be a perpetual, even habitual liar, with grievous consequences for our country.

For my argument, I am going to examine a powerful story-telling tool known through History as the follow-up.  Moms and Dads, Grandpas and Grandmas have used it since the Garden of Eden, the objective being not simply to hold the attention of restless children, but to answer the question, “What happened then?”

In principle, the editor chooses the stories for his front page based on his professional judgment that they are the most important for the reporting period.  By making those choices, and then writing—or causing to be written in his name—headlines that draw attention to them, the editor also affirms that those stories have important implications, and a shelf life beyond the facts as known at that time.

That, then, is the territory, and necessity, for a follow-up, or several of them, to educate the public of significant subsequent developments of public interest.

In journalism, it is a debt owed to the reader.  In Nigerian journalism, however, it is often treated as a favour or an option.

A big story appears on the front page, covered with massive fonts and screeching verbs, and readers are falling all over themselves to buy copies of the publication:

Emperor Indicted!

50 Human Heads Found Under Bed of Governor’s Wife!

Governmemnt Budgets for 8-Lane Expressway

Billion Dollars Traced to Former Leader’s Bank Account!

Government Gives N500 To Fire Victims!

Emperor Promises 1000 Buses To Ease Transportation!

We see them all the time.  In a country as tortured as Nigeria, every news publisher can find stories of this nature with very little effort.

That explains why they are so common on the front pages.  You can tell the time by them.  The trouble happens the following day, and the day after that: there is a new story being marketed, a new headline screaming for attention.  Yesterday’s headline is…yesterday’s news, and forgotten.

In Nigeria, you rarely learn what became of the Emperor’s indictment or those 50 heads that were reported to have been bleeding under the bed of the governor’s wife as she slept.  The editor does not get back to you with the billion dollars in the bank account of the former leader, nor does he seem to care about the delivery of those 1000 buses or their deployment or whether a single fire victim ever saw a kobo in relief assistance.

Instead, the public will be assailed with a fresh batch of mind-boggling stories, or maybe the journal would simply report society stories or quote from speeches:

“Oga Has Said…”

“Oga’s Wife On Trip to London…”

“Deputy Oga To Buy Private Jet…”

“Lawmaker Says Do As I Didn’t…”

Abdicating responsibility for follow-up stories is how the press in Nigeria helps the connected, the rich and the powerful hide in the headlines.  The truth about our country lies in those abandoned stories, with many journals pretending to be merely forgetful.

Anyone can peddle stories that make government officials and politicians happy, but that is called public relations, not journalism.  True journalism, especially in a context such as Nigeria’s, should constantly and consistently expose the various dimensions of our national malfeasance, and follow up on those stories.

The lack of critical follow-up in many journals may be somebody’s incompetence or inexperience.  But when it becomes the character of that journal, it amounts to complicity, which yields the impunity that now runs our lives.

The failure of otherwise reputable journals to do whatever it takes to ensure that a story big enough to garner screaming headlines is adequately and persistently followed up has become part of our culture of poor governance, which is partly traceable to complicit journalism.  It is journalism looking the other way and permitting the camel to pass through the eye of the needle.

That is how your front page news may be lying to you, and why some of Nigeria’s worst seeds have become the Iroko trees we worship.

Some stories may not be so obvious, such as how we have managed to award parallel contracts for the same roads for 30 years—across several governments and through many Ministers—each contract with a different completion date, but it is there.

Some stories may be screaming for attention, but if an editor is looking the other way, he will never see it.

Why would an editor be looking elsewhere?  For the same reason that before the very eyes of our front pages and headlines, our nation’s worst criminals and saboteurs have continued to ‘progress’ into positions of power, influence and affluence.   That is not despite the power of the front pages, but with their approval and collusion.  When the headlines blink or pretend to be distracted, that is what happens.

As we speak, Nigeria is rife with rumours of looters, indicted persons, 419-ers, former governors with atrocious records, former Ministers who never did a thing in public office, and sundry weaklings and liars who cannot point to one electoral campaign commitment they have ever fulfilled, preparing to run for public office two years from now.

The front pages will be alive with exciting asterisks when they make their announcements; we have seen them all before as they boisterously reported electoral promises.  They are never there to report whether those promises were fulfilled, or point out where.

In other words, contrary to what I said at the beginning, it is really not when you turn the front pages that you run into interpreters and commentators.  In the end, the front pages are the ultimate commentator.  What are yours saying, or not saying?  Are they telling the truth?

Is the front page in your hands a part of the problem?

– This  Best Outside Opinion was first published in The Guardian

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