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Garba Shehu, Interpretative Journalism And The Rest Of Us

A few days ago, precisely, July 29, Mr. Garba Shehu, Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, engaged in his favorite pastime of trying to not only excoriate journalists, but to once again behave like the typical headmaster that believes all others know little or nothing.

For the fact that Shehu is a respected member of the Fourth Estate before taking his presidential aide job does not confer on him any more informed knowledge that gives him the privilege to often talk down on members of the pen fraternity.

In a statement announcing the long overdue deployment of security forces to the troubled Zamfara state, Shehu stopped shorting of censoring the media.

“We therefore appeal to members of the Nigerian media to avoid unhelpful and deleterious sensationalism in the coverage of events that border on national security.

“The media should under no circumstances make the bandits or terrorists feel like super stars because doing so could hurt all of us.

“Terrorists seek to achieve maximum publicity and they do so by launching large scale attacks on soft targets and the media must resist every attempt to play into their hands unwittingly,” the spokesperson said.

This was not the first, and given the predilection of those serving the presidency to always indulge in “this is what and how you should do it,” it will certainly not be the last.

It will be recalled that on November 3, 2017, Shehu, summoned correspondents covering the State House and gave them a dressing down over their reports on the altercation between the Chief of Staff to the President, Abba Kyari and Head of Service of the Federation, Mrs. Winifred Oyo-Ita.

Nigerians were treated to a spectacle at the Federal Executive Council meeting prior Wednesday at the Council Chambers as the two top appointees of President Muhammadu Buhari engaged in an apparent verbal tirade before Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, while the National Security Adviser, Babagana Monguno, watched and tried to calm the frenzied Oyo-Ita, who later stormed off to her seat with VP Osinbajo left aghast.

But all of these were not reality in the Journalism School of Shehu’s lecture to correspondents.

The globally respected Christiane Amanpour, CNN chief international correspondent, at the 2016 International Press Freedom Awards put to lie some of the issues in which Shehu tried to hang on journalists as to glamourizing terrorists, bandits and their likes.

One will imagine that the presidential aide should have been more concerned of the failure of the regime he serves that has failed in living Section 14 of the constitution in guaranteeing the welfare and security of Nigerians.

Aware of the common red herring by governments across the world, Amanpour said: “And as all the international journalists in this room who we honor tonight know only too well, and who we honor every single year: first the media is accused of inciting, then sympathizing, then associating–and then suddenly they find themselves accused of being full-fledged terrorists and subversives. And then, they end up in handcuffs, in cages, in kangaroo courts, in prisons–and then who knows what?

‘I learned a long, long time ago, when I was covering genocide and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, never to equate victim and aggressor, never to create a false moral or factual equivalence, because then, if you do, particularly in situations like that, you are party and accomplice to the most unspeakable crimes and consequences, so I believe in being truthful, not neutral.

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“I believe in being truthful, not neutral. I believe we must stop banalizing the truth.”

There it is – TRUTH!

Now, there are some half-truths and fallacies in the presidential aide’s claims and dressing down. Being a journalist is not enough reason to assume you know all or better. As a spokesperson of the government, it is only natural for Shehu’s perspective to be coloured by regime’s assumptions of how and what transpired. The second matter is the wrong notion that media organisations send their best reporters to the State House.

The reason for my intervention on this issue is owing to the fact that I had raised the matter that Shehu said journalists are irresponsible and my colleagues like Mr. Yomi Odunuga, FCT Bureau Chief of the Nation Newspapers, and Mr. Oota Andrew, media aide to the Clerk of the National Assembly, had accused me of taking Shehu’s comment out of context and it bothers on the mischievous.

This is Shehu in his own words before State House Correspondents: “By tradition, the media organizations send their best reporters to the State House. This should reflect, at all times on the quality of reporting.

“I am a journalist myself, and in journalism, you are not supposed to report anything other than the facts of what you heard or observed directly, or what you were told by a firsthand or authoritative eyewitness.

“You cannot add two and two to make twenty-two and present it to the public as news.

“People can debate and argue over issues, but to suggest that there was a feud, a fight or a clash was to take matters beyond what they were.”

To give meat to the conversation, it is important to understand some concepts one of which is interpretative and descriptive journalism.

T.E. Patterson in: The United States: News in a free-market society: Democracy and the Media. A Comparative Perspective, argues that “the interpretive style empowers journalists by giving them more control over the news message. […] The descriptive style places the journalist in the role of an observer. The interpretive style requires the journalist to act also as an analyst. The journalist is thus positioned to give shape to the news in a way the descriptive style does not allow.”

Also, the Department Chair and Professor in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, Rodney Benson, and Daniel Hallin, who is professor of journalism, political communication, and comparative analysis of media systems, on the other hand distinguish between four main journalistic functions: reporting current facts or statements, giving background information, giving interpretation, and giving opinion. To them, ‘interpretation is a kind of empirical discourse, but goes beyond current facts, setting or historical context to speculate on such things as significance, outcomes and motives’, while ‘giving opinion’ refers to journalists’ ‘exercise of judgment, either normative (what is good or bad) or empirical (what is true or false)’.

With this, hopefully, settled, Shehu’s assumption that media organisations send only their “best” to the State House leaves one with the notion that all other beats are left with the dregs of journalism which is farther from the truth.

A rundown of global media organisations and those who have won some of the journalism best prizes are not necessarily those assigned to cover State Houses. Using Nigeria as a yardstick, a cursory look at those who have won prizes in journalism deals a fatal blow to Garba Shehu’s conclusion. There is Mojeed Musikilu, Solomon Adebayo, Shola Fabiyi, Betty Abah, Emeka Anuforu, and a host of those that have won prizes in journalism and have not covered the State House. Reasons abound why correspondents are sent to various beats which is not the intent of this piece.

To the kernel of the issue which led to Shehu’s supercilious assumptions, the journalists at the council chambers were witnesses to the quarrel, however the presidential aide wants to colour the hot exchange. While they might not have been privy to the exact nature of the heated arguement, the fury and the manner in which Oyo-Ita walked out of Osinbajo is enough for deductions to be made by the discerning.

If as a journalist, Shehu’s time working for the government has not given him the latitude to keep up with emerging trends in the profession, they are those who are in tune with the new trends and demands. State House correspondents are allowed to analyse current facts or statements, giving background information, give interpretation, and give opinion. And these they have acquitted themselves well, not minding the attempt at red herring and inquisition by the presidential aide.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Whistler NG

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