20200
P
1
20100
R  E
2
2070
D   I   C
3
2050
T   I   O   N
4
2040
S   F   O   R   J
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2030
O  U  R  N  A  L
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2020
I  S  M  2  0  2  0
7

Western journalists, learn from your African peers

“This is not to suggest that media organizations in these countries have cracked the code. Instead, it’s about recognizing that there is useful knowledge about how to work under hostile regimes in African media markets.”

In late 2016 and early 2017, I wrote a couple of pieces about journalists tweeting and the illusion of objectivity that media organizations were so keen to maintain and sell to us. Three years on, I look back at those pieces with both amazement and dismay at the fact that I am about to echo those very sentiments here. But here we are: As 2019 wraps up, we are in the midst of vacuous coverage of political events in both the United States and the U.K.

In the U.S., fall 2019 saw a media consumed with concerns that the congressional testimonies lacked “pizzazz,” as if this were the Kentucky Derby. There was also the fascinating story of CBS giving airtime to an InfoWars host as if he was Johnny off the street. Not to forget CBS engaging in the worst forms of whitewashing in a story about sexual assault of a correspondent on caught on camera. In the U.K., the BBC has found itself under fire over the way it covered Brexit politics, especially in the run-up to the just concluded elections. There was also the much covered (and absolutely false) story of a politico walking into a protestor’s outstretched arm being framed, with much gusto, as him being punched.

So yes, 2019 is ending pretty much as it started, with media organizations ignoring the winds of change sweeping through the political landscape. Bob Marley captures the futility of this best in “Natural Mystic.”

While I think not much will change in 2020, I’ll take a different approach to my prediction — focusing on what I hope media organizations in the U.S. and the U.K. will do. I hope that when it comes to covering political issues, journalists and organizations tap into the global south’s expertise on how to do this work within a hostile environment.

It’s time for media organizations to realize that the terrain has shifted, and they are no longer at the pinnacle of journalism holding of political elites to account. I hope they realize the necessity of borrowing a leaf from journalists in regions such as Africa. What media organizations and journalists are going through now has been the reality for African organizations since Nnamdi Azikiwe’s West African Pilot and Thomas Mboya and Kwame Nkrumah’s elucidations of what it meant to be a postcolonial journalist.

With this in mind, perhaps they’ll seek out journalists and editors from Kenya to discuss how to provide useful political coverage, as the latter did in the 1990s and have been doing under the current regime. Or talk to Mozambican and Angolan journalists who continue to hold power to account at the risk of being jailed or killed. Why not speak to Nigerian journalists who continue to be prosecuted and persecuted? Doing so may yield better journalism rather than the current state of affairs, where the focus is on how to make serious issues (such as impeachment) more glamorous. Pizzazz has replaced explaining to audiences what congressional testimonies mean — for the American polity and for the future of this country.

This is not to suggest that media organizations in these countries have cracked the code. Instead, it’s about recognizing that there is useful knowledge about how to work under hostile regimes in African media markets. It’s about moving away from the “we are the best” bubble of journalism that has existed in American and British media for a long time. It’s about having the humility to learn from others in the pursuit of being good stewards of this thing we call democracy.

Stewardship takes more than fancy slogans about democracy dying in darkness. I would argue, based on experience and research, that democracy dies when media organizations allow themselves to be co-opted by the state in the name of access. It disappears when the media settles for short-term gratification (clicks and views) while populating coverage with highly questionable framing of political maleficence or sexual assault. It is chipped away when media insists on not calling out ills such as sexual assault and electoral shenanigans for what they are, while playing a game of footsie with disinformation.

There has to be a recognition that the hunter has learned to shoot without missing — and therefore news organizations and journalists must learn how to fly without perching.

james Wahutu is an assistant professor at NYU’s Media, Culture, and Communication.

In late 2016 and early 2017, I wrote a couple of pieces about journalists tweeting and the illusion of objectivity that media organizations were so keen to maintain and sell to us. Three years on, I look back at those pieces with both amazement and dismay at the fact that I am about to echo those very sentiments here. But here we are: As 2019 wraps up, we are in the midst of vacuous coverage of political events in both the United States and the U.K.

In the U.S., fall 2019 saw a media consumed with concerns that the congressional testimonies lacked “pizzazz,” as if this were the Kentucky Derby. There was also the fascinating story of CBS giving airtime to an InfoWars host as if he was Johnny off the street. Not to forget CBS engaging in the worst forms of whitewashing in a story about sexual assault of a correspondent on caught on camera. In the U.K., the BBC has found itself under fire over the way it covered Brexit politics, especially in the run-up to the just concluded elections. There was also the much covered (and absolutely false) story of a politico walking into a protestor’s outstretched arm being framed, with much gusto, as him being punched.

So yes, 2019 is ending pretty much as it started, with media organizations ignoring the winds of change sweeping through the political landscape. Bob Marley captures the futility of this best in “Natural Mystic.”

While I think not much will change in 2020, I’ll take a different approach to my prediction — focusing on what I hope media organizations in the U.S. and the U.K. will do. I hope that when it comes to covering political issues, journalists and organizations tap into the global south’s expertise on how to do this work within a hostile environment.

It’s time for media organizations to realize that the terrain has shifted, and they are no longer at the pinnacle of journalism holding of political elites to account. I hope they realize the necessity of borrowing a leaf from journalists in regions such as Africa. What media organizations and journalists are going through now has been the reality for African organizations since Nnamdi Azikiwe’s West African Pilot and Thomas Mboya and Kwame Nkrumah’s elucidations of what it meant to be a postcolonial journalist.

With this in mind, perhaps they’ll seek out journalists and editors from Kenya to discuss how to provide useful political coverage, as the latter did in the 1990s and have been doing under the current regime. Or talk to Mozambican and Angolan journalists who continue to hold power to account at the risk of being jailed or killed. Why not speak to Nigerian journalists who continue to be prosecuted and persecuted? Doing so may yield better journalism rather than the current state of affairs, where the focus is on how to make serious issues (such as impeachment) more glamorous. Pizzazz has replaced explaining to audiences what congressional testimonies mean — for the American polity and for the future of this country.

This is not to suggest that media organizations in these countries have cracked the code. Instead, it’s about recognizing that there is useful knowledge about how to work under hostile regimes in African media markets. It’s about moving away from the “we are the best” bubble of journalism that has existed in American and British media for a long time. It’s about having the humility to learn from others in the pursuit of being good stewards of this thing we call democracy.

Stewardship takes more than fancy slogans about democracy dying in darkness. I would argue, based on experience and research, that democracy dies when media organizations allow themselves to be co-opted by the state in the name of access. It disappears when the media settles for short-term gratification (clicks and views) while populating coverage with highly questionable framing of political maleficence or sexual assault. It is chipped away when media insists on not calling out ills such as sexual assault and electoral shenanigans for what they are, while playing a game of footsie with disinformation.

There has to be a recognition that the hunter has learned to shoot without missing — and therefore news organizations and journalists must learn how to fly without perching.

james Wahutu is an assistant professor at NYU’s Media, Culture, and Communication.

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