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Nigeria’s news negativity bias is destroying us

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Nigeria’s news negativity bias is destroying us

Over the last four years, a wave of online content has been generated about Nigeria, her people, her President — content that shapes local and global perspectives about Nigeria, and content, that is largely negative.

Let me state something central to this piece before I proceed, Buhari is not a mutant, a superhero, or a god. He is not Nigeria’s demon, nor its arch-villain. Like many out there, he is a father, a husband, a brother and lastly, human. All news should not be pro or anti-Buhari.

Over the last four years, a wave of online content has been generated about Nigeria, her people, her President — content that shapes local and global perspectives about Nigeria, and content, that is largely negative. Much of it has come out from Nigeria. Nigeria’s news platforms now play the role of ‘the bearer of bad news’.

In the ongoing events in South Africa, we have only received a wave of viral video’s showing Nigerians in scary situations, being lynched, or allegedly burnt alive. Few Nigerian news outfits have a team on the ground to ask questions, report findings, or propose concrete next steps to respond to a situation such as we are in — combining the efforts of policy experts, international relations advisers, and local voices to provide content that can aid the quelling of tensions between the two countries. More content is around President Buhari’s inefficiency — especially despite the deployment of an envoy to respond to the crisis.

There is good news, there is bad news, and there is information. What we receive as news feed across Nigeria is a curation of heart-wrenching content that contributes to festering a growing mass of the angry, anxious, dissatisfied, socially alienated, emotionally driven, and psychologically unstable population. All categorized in two types of content: news about something bad, and news about Buhari. In other words, almost all the news about Nigeria, by Nigerians, are in the category of bad news.

The eternal anti-Buhari rhetoric

Today, there seems to be an eternal throat clawing clan of opposition in one faction, and heedless social media-savvy supporters on the other, and both have become less concerned about political implications, than about political actors i.e news is largely driven by where they stand, as against where things are. There is some context to this behavior — a history of demagogues as leaders have perhaps warped Nigerians capacity to respond to good governance. People are for anything that seems to be anti-government, and media actors are feeding off this traumatic response.

In 2015, the key drivers for a change in government were centered around security, corrupt practices, and unemployment. These socio-economic drivers helped the incumbent party build emotionally engaging anti-government conversations that led to a critical mass, resulting in a change in government. The scale of the problems is clearly not the same. Local as well as international outlets have reported these indexes as becoming less steep as they were in the past, but somehow content across news platforms make Nigeria look more dangerous than when Boko-Haram was at its peak.

There is a method to this madness, and the method is obvious. Exaggeration generates attention, and attention drives content. Divisive politicians are using the media to generate enough attention to help them drive their own personal agendas. Less than 10 years ago, politicians controlled news in Nigeria. Much of the content and events around Nigeria was always somehow blended alongside politics. In other words, big-politics, big-media, and big-business lay in bed together. Post-2015 elections in Nigeria introduced one of the most heated divides of political actors, public pundits, intellectuals and media content on religious, ethnic and geographical lines.

Issues around policy, governance, education, health, security, and employment have been replaced with personal and touchy issues of politicians (in the case of Buhari’s wife), political parties, politics and politics, and politics….

What is dangerous about negative news?

As journalists, when we cover problems but do not cover responses, when we do not aid citizens into the knowledge that they can act in other ways beyond opposition and protests — we do not provide a complete picture, and thus we perpetuate misleading beliefs about reality. Knowing something is broken, doesn’t teach anyone how to fix it.

As citizens, these responses show that constructive discourse is on the decline, and political opposition is quickly masquerading as advocacy under the guise of journalism. We now see a wave of criticism replacing intellectualism, and poverty porn being passed around as national truths. The nature of the information that people receive on a daily basis is slowly priming them with negative information and grooming them for conflict.

What should be news, in many ways, is information that aids decision making: cost of energy, cost of transport, cross-border politics, changing weather conditions for farmers, innovations in education, and all the other necessary information that can actually benefit Nigerians across the country, have been replaced by ‘dog-eat-man’ headlines, emotionally crumbling video’s of violence, death polls, police inefficiency, unsolved corruption cases, and an array of curated negative content that does no direct benefit to the populace, but somehow has Buhari responsible at the end of it.

If the increasing focus on comedy by the Nigerian populace has anything to tell us, it is that news consumers are becoming wary of this religious dosage of bad news, and are no longer satisfied to be passive recipients of the day’s crisis, flashpoints, and scandals. More young Nigerians are becoming interested in finding, enlarging and strengthening what works, and many will pay for news that helps them do this.

There is a problem in this situation, but thankfully, there is also a room for social change, we can meet this need. We can speak the truth to power, we can shed light on dark happenings, we can tell stories that others would rather have us not. But we can also tell good stories. We can showcase the strength of Nigeria’s diversity and its culture, and we can go further to strengthen citizenship by informing readers about how they can apply their talents to better address social problems. Not all news has to be bad news.

Recommended read: Nigeria’s media landscape undergoes rapid change

Tahir Sherriff is a freelance writer, researcher and reporter with a focus on development and social change. He is also co-founder of W45, a media development agency.

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