Free lessons in surviving the Gutter Press

Late in the 19th century, some newspaper publishers in the US discovered a new way to increase circulation. They invented what was to become known as "Yellow journalism".

Late in the 19th century, some newspaper publishers in the US discovered a new way to increase circulation. They invented what was to become known as "Yellow journalism".

The race to win over peoples’ hearts and coins was triggered by two publishers whose names ironically today are synonymous with journalistic integrity. Anyone who takes this business seriously is familiar with the names of John Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst

Pulitzer published The New York World while Hearst ran The New York Journal. The story goes that in a bid to snare readership among the lower class, Pulitzer devised the novel idea of giving them the story in a simple manner that did not need to burden the brain.

He hired an artist named Robert Outcault to draw a cartoon strip for the paper. Circulation shot up when the cartoon known as "The Yellow Kid" hit the streets.

A new kind of special smear-proof yellow ink was used on the comic strip to bring colour the drab look of the newspapers of the day. The Yellow Kid became very popular.

When Hearst saw that his rival’s sales were booming, he lured the cartoonist away to his own paper to produce the same strip.

Pulitzer hired another cartoonist to fill the void and so the battle lines were drawn in what came to be regarded as the darkest era in US media’s history.

The so-called "Yellow press" outsold the more honest, unbiased papers. It did not bother about ethics but delved on the publishers’ greed. Sensationalism and outright fabrication of stories to suit particular agendas were the order of the day.

This new practice took the newspaper industry in the US by storm but put the last nail in the ethics coffin. This was an era of distorted stories, misleading images and headlines, just for the sake of boosting newspaper sales and preying on a gullible public opinion.

That was over a hundred years ago, and as always, we lag behind the West in all things. Hearst and Pulitzer would be proud of Rwanda today that we have finally inherited their brand of journalism.

There is a time when I wake in the morning and wonder whether I am not actually in the wrong business.

These kinds of feelings are usually fuelled by what I would term as "attention seeking antics" by some section of the Rwandan media who are succeeding in sowing seeds of doubt in my self esteem.

Speaking for myself, it is difficult to term what is "elaborately laid" (avoiding using the word spewed) in some of our papers as any form of journalism I know. They either don’t deserve the name or one of us is in the wrong trade.

Either some of my colleagues have no fear of our judiciary or their compartment upstairs is hollow. Freedom of the press does not mean freedom to slander or to fabricate news. It is limited by laws.

I personally see no pride in being associated with the Gutter Press, leave alone one of the yellow kind. It has always been said that the majority of Rwandan journalists are in dire need of a push up the competence ladder but that can only be done for those willing to turn a new leaf.

So they might as well profit from these free lessons; the first duty of a good journalist is to the people. They should seek the TRUTH and report it, MINIMISE harm, be ACCOUNTABLE and ACT independently.

This free lesson can be continued on the website run by the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ). If they can overcome their fear of the unknown, successfully manoeuvre through the complicated maze of the website, and click somewhere with the words ‘Code of Ethics’, they will be on the right track.

If they can manage this simple exercise without help, they will find out that the motto of SPJ is "Improving and Protecting Journalism", a chapter that I can swear my friends missed in school.

One thing that helped save America from the clutches of lie-mongers we discussed earlier was a no-nonsense legal system. A slip of the pen and you would be ruined forever.

The hefty damages awarded by their courts for libel makes every journalist tread carefully. So maybe that is what we need in Rwanda to save my job and stop those early morning ideas of being in the wrong place.

The day my good friends learn to fear the law and learn to respect other people and stop calling them "dogs"-as Umuco did to a prominent Kigali businessman- they will have given the Gutter Press a decent burial.


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