Being the text of a speech delivered on Tuesday 11th June, 2013 at the Responsibility to Report Seminar, organised by dRPC, NRN, Femke van Zeijl and supported by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
Bad news is good business. As a journalist you know this. Your editor knows this. You did not become reporter of the month in February and last year in May because you reported about those buying plots of water in Eko Atlantic City or how a Nigerian was CNN journalist of the year. In February, you happened to be in Maiduguri when the soldiers shot at those civilians in the street and you got good pictures. Your cheap plaque still stands in the reception area of your office even though it is May.
Your source in Maiduguri tells you something big has happened. Bigger than just thirty civilians killed in the middle of the streets. Bigger than terrorist kingpins being arrested. Bigger than a lawmaker with bribe money in his long cap. They tell you a whole village, gone, not a soul left, only burnt out cinder. You run with it. As usual your editor trusts you. These are the things you must remember:
You hate to say it but you know that people have the attention spans of gold fish. Your goal is to catch as many people as possible, as early as possible. Remember also that evil contraption called smart phones. The smart phone is built to make life hard for you, the hustling journalist, tricking people into constantly scrolling and surfing with its myriad cool facilities. There is Twitter, Facebook, push email, blogs, instant messengers all struggling for the attention of your audience. Your goal is to stand out. Exaggerate your headline as much as you can. If more than five persons die, you can say that “scores perished”. By the time the reader realizes you mean six persons, they will have clicked already. Your job will have been done.
You need to publish your story as soon as possible, before Linda Ikeji puts it up on her blog and drags all the traffic to her site. To do that you cannot afford to be sloppy and wait for crucial facts to become clear. It is easy to deal with a report that is inchoate, just publish that generic phrase that cures all defects of incompleteness: ‘details to follow shortly’.
Twitter is a dangerous thing, slower only than the speed of light and subject only to the speed of your internet connection. If you can’t compete with them I say, quote them. Stalk Twitter and get sources from there. Send tweets or direct messages that ask simply, ‘are you sure?’ then proceed to report. What good is a media house that is the last to report the news? If you make a mistake, you must never fear the wrath of the people, for with Nigerians, while they may not instantly forgive, they are sure to shortly forget. And really, who needs forgiveness when people can forget?
You do not need any serious attribution. It is enough to say your paper ‘has learnt’ that 4,000 houses were destroyed. There is no need to send someone there or actually verify information from your source (who is also your ex-girlfriend from university and supplier of Maiduguri incense). Go to press.
Carefully vetted truth is a luxury that stopped being available in the 90’s before we got the internet. They will tell you in journalism school that your profession is about conscious, scrupulous information gathering, processing and scrutiny. But they lied. Because they didn’t see those millions who have social media threatening to snatch food from your mouth. They didn’t see those meddlesome interlopers called citizen journalists who are there where the news happens, tweeting it real time with pictures of fire and mangled bodies and blown up buildings. They didn’t know nosy bloggers. Anyone who expects you do snail reporting is an enemy of progress and you must treat such person as a child treats a cold bucket of water in the morning. You must keep up, because the world treats the second to break news like the last. There is neither forgiveness nor forgetting for the one who comes second.
One of your sacred duties as a Nigerian government official is to amend the figures of fatalities. Nigerians are bad with numbers and they have bad tempers. If you give them the real figures of how many Muslims or Christians or Igbos or Hausas were killed they will go and start another round of killing. So when 500 people are killed in that village, you must report the official figure of sixteen. It is better.
As a government official you know the score. There is only one default answer when bad news happens. Deny. Deny. Deny. The key word being, Deny. Deny that it happened all together. Say that the video that shows a girl being gang raped is an attempt to discredit your leadership. Because after all, that is the chief job of your enemies working for your downfall, through means both physical and metaphysical. When in doubt, never say you will find out or investigate until you are absolutely certain that it has happened. Again, you can deny knowledge of the event if its occurrence has become too notorious to deny.
Government is big and complex so no one should expect government agencies to come up with a consistent narrative of the tragedy. Anyone who criticizes different agencies for giving different figures of casualties has no idea how government works. You must not bother with these people. It is important in the long run if you admit that the bad incident has happened to take your time to react. You are not like the latter day journalists who are struggling to keep up with the speed of social media. Your job is to create balance in the world, to slow things down.
In case however, you meet a really persistent, overzealous journalist who has cornered you and you know you cannot escape, it will be helpful if you teach them a lesson or two about the importance of a pecking order. The journalist should be made to see the folly of directing serious questions to someone who has an oga at the top. How do they expect you to speak out of turn in a matter of such grave importance? If however you ARE the oga at the top, you can then assure them that as you speak a high-powered committee has just been set up with eminent Nigerians to ‘look into’ the problem. Done.
Whatever your job, government official or journalist, bad news can be good news, depending on how you handle it. God sees your heart and will bless all your hustle. And in the end, that is really all that matters.