What do we look for in good journalism? How would the public rate the performance of the media? What are the challenges in the practice of journalism in Liberia? These are issues that I have attempted to review in this analysis of how three newspapers reported a public occurrence from last Friday, March 2, 2012.
In my respective roles in media development and my membership with the Media Complaints Committee of the Press Union of Liberia, I am easily involved with determining what is right or wrong in the reportage done by media from time to time. The error we come forth with is the fact that we await complaints before coming down with verdicts. Of course, it is not possible to monitor all of the media daily, so it is difficult to know whether there are infringements until someone tells us.
But given that my other role involves training, I think it is but fair to periodically come forth with commentaries and advisories on media if and when we come upon issues that really project the wrong. This thought is being fed from the perspective of a regular occurrence in Liberian society and the knee jerk response that journalists provide in their quest to bring out the news. Often, this is done with little effort to bring forth the good in journalism. As a result, the issues that are brought forth are plainly informative that may, at times, be tinged by falsehood, given that little effort is made to make the work one of good journalism.
As much as I insist that the news is more about informing than impressing, I also insist that the news must be about in-depth information, limiting the quest for the reader to be left in a state of confusion. The newspaper man has an obligation to ensure that the reader is well informed after reading a news item. Mind you, we are in a huge state of citizen media, and information from such occurrences are known to spread out much faster than the professional news media can afford. But guess what? Citizen journalists will not have the capacity to follow up at the police station, or at the hospital or at the Ministry of Education or other facilities or institutions where better sourced information may be available. Sure, we will have the pictures clouding through our phones, hosted on facebook and so, but the real journalistic part will not be available without real-time journalism outlining the who, what, where, when and how of any situation.
In the Friday situation involving a police vehicle and a motor bike, the stories provided by the three newspapers I reviewed could be really different, but they were in effect referring to the same situation. The purpose of this analysis is thus to show how three separate papers - Daily Observer, Insight and The Inquirer –provided various levels of information and non-information to the public than were expected. At the close of the day, the reader leaves all three papers more confused about the Friday incident than informed. To an extent, the reader is in no way better than those who stayed at home and got information only through the rumor vines.
The following discussion of what was reported or not reported in each of the papers puts the issue to point:
b. Daily Observer Newspaper
The emphasis of the story was from the assertion that a police vehicle hit and killed 2 motorcyclists instantly. The reference number of the police car was not provided, neither was the name of the concerned police officer. The paper also did not indicate what effort was made to name the victims. This continued from Friday of the incident until the paper went to print on Monday. The paper carried a headline about the death of two persons, but showed no confirmation of death, whether from Police or medical sources.
Additionally, the paper vaguely refers to "two motorcyclists," without clarifying whether there were two motorbikes or a motorbike with two riders.
No clarifications sought: The paper reported that 3 senior police officers - Darlington George, Mickey Gray and George Bardue – came on the scene, yet provided no information about whether the reporter spoke to them or what was their official disposition on the incident. This would not be the truth, but the nature of their investigation is important in this matter.
While that was an action that took several hours, and with the paper’s reference to seeing senior police officers on the scene and taking action to quell the ensuing riots, the only photograph was one showing "arrested rioters" in the back of police car.
A major shortcoming of the report is reflected in "identities of the victims had not been established up to press time yesterday," though the accident occurred on Friday. There has also been no information on whether the paper followed up to confirm the death and how the bodies were disposed of. The publication was made on Monday. What happened on Saturday or Sunday is still unanswered.
c. Insight Newspaper
This paper wrote the story from the perspective of a clash between motorbike riders and police following an accident involving a Police vehicle and a motorbike. The paper reported that the Police drove on excessive speed on the opposite lane and hit motorbike, injuring driver and rider. The paper also reported a riot that followed the accident, the response of the concerned police man in firing teargas in self defense as offended bike riders tried to take justice in their hands, and the intervention of the police authority (Darlington George, Mekey Gray) to engage the disaffected motor bike riders and calm the situation.
This story reported rumor of death and followed up with reports from the hospital were the injured biker and his passenger were taken. Additionally, the story named the police officer, the bike rider and the passenger.
Though the paper provided photograph of the victims at the hospital, no comments were gathered from hospital sources about the condition of the victims. Other photos showed the riot scenes and the intervention of the police.
The paper named eye witnesses they spoke with, brought in comments from the police about an ongoing investigation, and comments from the bike rider association, in which they welcomed investigations by the police.
Comments: Some elements are missing, but the multiplicity of sources and follow-up of claims makes this story more credible.
d . The Inquirer Newspaper
This story emphasized a clash between motorcyclists and Police, which led "activities… to standstill," following "death" of a motorcyclist by a police car. No further information is given about the police officer. The story later speaks of rioting motorcyclists destroying 2 cars, including a police car. No information is provided about the other victim – i.e.- description of car or owner.
The next line in the story references rampaging motorcyclists "demanding explanation from the police over the untimely demise of their colleague," is followed by a sentence which more or less contradicts – "though the actual demand … was not really clear."
While the story speaks of PSU pursuing and dismantling the checkpoints the rioters set up, no information (or clarification) is made about any arrests.
Finally, there are no clarifications or confirmation from Police, hospital, the Motorbike Association about the motorcyclist who was "reportedly killed instantly."
Comments: No sources are cited in the entire story, though there are many unanswered claims within the story.
e. Parting Comments
A lot of information was not provided in one, two or all of the papers, and various actors, victims and circumstances were either ignored or not followed. The sources of some of the information provided were very limited, though credible and reliable sources were readily available. Additionally, the management of two of the papers – The Inquirer and Daily Observer did not do much to confirm issues or simply put facts to the issues. And after an entire weekend the stories came out with more questions than answers. The final analysis showed that the papers slipped off basic tenets of journalism and ultimately provided incomplete and in some instances false information. To make matters worse, the papers made no effort to make corrections at least on the next day (Tuesday), when it was clear that the information they provided was not true.