September 10, saw the beginning of a weeklong annual Africa media conference that kicked-off with a heated debate on “Journalism as a Profession”.
The 11th conference took place in Grahams Town, South Africa, Eastern Cape about 150kms from Port Elizabeth Airport.
It drew about 600 media experts and journalists from about forty African countries and the rest of the world. Topics of discussion varied depending on target media. Thus some sessions were closed and others open.
The annual conference regularly organized in Grahams Town by Highway Africa, a partnership between Rhodes University School of Journalism and Media Studies and the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC).
The conference also receives support from several partners, development agencies and big sponsors including ABSA, MTN, Multichoice, NiZA among others. All supporting companies and agencies are involved in the communications business both directly and indirectly.
This year’s conference evolved on the theme, “Quality and Professionalism in Journalism and the Media”, a theme indeed relevant to Rwanda’s media industry, which is largely faced with challenges in professionalism which has always been attributed to poor news reporting.
It started off with a bang, from a panel of four African media “stars”, including Robert Kabushenga of New Vision, Uganda; Charlene Deacon of Kaya FM, South Africa; Thabo Leshilo of Sowetan, South Africa; and Eugene Aw of CESTI, Senegal.
Jereny Maggs of SA (South Africa) FM coordinated the session. -----
Kabushenga broke the ice with a precise definition of Journalism, saying: “Journalism is a discipline, not a science, which involves delivering a story to the public in a fair and balanced form”.
“For that matter, he can be a Journalist as long as he/she observes the principles of writing—five-Ws [Who, What, Where, When and Why],” he added.
“The fact that I can read and speak good English doesn’t qualify me a good English teacher…the same with writing.”
One journalist who hails from Zimbabwe hit back at Kabushenga, saying, “If you claim anyone can be a journalist, then why waste time and money studying journalism in schools?
This is undermining [the] profession we strive for years and years to excel in,” a rather bold young lady articulated.
“Journalism is a diverse domain,” said Kabushenga in response. “There’s basic journalism that involves simple writing, but there’s also specialised or high-level journalism where a writer ought to have prior understanding of whatever he/she intends to write about.
“In other words, a medical scientist then becomes a good writer of health articles…. But we should be very careful to not to take professionalism in journalism for a certificate or piece of paper awarded. It is self-discipline and ethics on the basics of the profession”.
In agreement, Kaya’s Deacon gave an example of a sweeper who succeeded in writing a letter to an Editor of a big South African newspaper a fact he said could not make that sweeper a journalist.
Deacon noted that many media houses in Africa are challenged by lack of appropriate technology and skills development, “a thing that has led to poor quality of content across the media spectrum,” he said.
Deacon also challenged fellow media experts on the continent to think about setting up standards in the media industry.
“Media, the fourth estate, is critical in national building,” he said. “If accountants can have internationally accepted standards, why not us?”
He said setting up standards would certainly ensure quality control.
Sowetan’s Leshilo observed that most media institutions, especially, private, fail to strike a balance between professionalism and profit making.
“Too much desire for profits distorts professionalism,” she said. “Your company risks being compromised at the end of the day.”
Another journalist, this time from Swaziland, weighed in on this disagreement.
“Most of the time journalists violate the freedom of expression accorded to them,” he said. “We go beyond the line by engaging in personal attacks, we distort facts, we exaggerate, and all sorts of crap. We need to understand the rules of the game, and whoever doesn’t, mechanisms or standards should be in place to quit”.
He condemned journalists who are used by government agents and big companies to write what he termed “PR” (Public Relations) stories.
He noted that lack of journalistic professionalism and standards are factors contributing to low salaries. Investigative journalists decried lack of protection and government influence in disclosing scams.
‘Captains’ of the media in Grahams Town noted the big gap between the ‘communicators’ and the ‘communicated’.
That, “the communicated who are the recipients know exactly what they want to listen to, watch or even read”.
Thus, a need to always engage them through research and development (R&D) surveys to fully understand their recipients’ expectations.
“In appreciating professionalism, we need to observe first in the newsroom: how people get into the newsroom or get the story told is key to this profession,” said Eugene Aw of CESTI, Senegal.
“Management that has no experience and systems that ensure recruitment of right people in right positions, or with no internal evaluation mechanisms, is doomed.”
She urged African schools of journalism to consider copying the Asians’ path by starting up masters degree in journalism in specific fields. Asians now enrol in MBA [Masters Business Administration] programs in Journalism.
The conference, among other objectives, is a platform for Africans to debate how media evolution impacts key African projects including the African Union (AU) and New Partnership for Africa Development (NEPAD).