Journalism has been playing a crucial role in Nigeria’s democracy and development process. The Nigerian society, just like every other society, needs the mass media because governance and the wellbeing of the people cannot be entrusted to politicians, the elite and the bureaucrats. This underscores the watchdog role of the press to ensure checks and balances that make the society work. Often times, most politicians, the elite and the bureaucrats in Nigeria are seen as the scum of the earth primarily interested in what they can grab for themselves. Journalists as the Fourth Estate of the Realm (the other three being the three arms of government – Executive, Judiciary and Legislature) plays the checks and balance function that makes public office holders accountable.
Metaphors are expressions used to conceptualise reality. They also explain how the social world and the identities and relations in this world are constructed. This also applies to journalism. The dog metaphor is used to explain the relationship between journalists and the society.
Media advocates, critics and scholars have used a variety of canine metaphors to describe the relationship between the media and other institutions in society. Dogs are used as a metaphor to explain the various ways journalists carry out their duties in the society. For instance, the guard dog metaphor suggests that the media performs its role as a sentry not for the community as a whole, but for groups having sufficient power and influence to create and control their own security systems. This perspective of journalism is derived from other perspectives, which include (a) the traditional fourth estate role of watchdog media, (b) the lapdog view of submissive media, and (c) the view of media as part of a power oligarchy. There’s also the watch dog perspective which sees the press a playing the crucial role of ensuring checks and balances in the society (their traditional function). There are some other dog metaphors (attack dog, guide dog, lap dog, junk yard dog) but the focus of this article is the Guard dog perspective of journalism and how it is practiced by the Nigerian mass media.
The Guard Dog Theory suggests that mass media and journalists basically support dominant political institutions, major economic groups, and their values, but can and do criticize those organizations, especially when elite class members of those groups violate system values or when they criticize each other. It is quite different from lap dog journalism (where the journalist is totally loyal to the elite class). In this scenario, journalists provide support for the existing power structures, even while occasionally producing content critical of it and elites.
The incident that took place in Ebonyi state between the governor and two journalists also reflects the existence of guard dog journalism in Nigeria. Because they are being paid monthly allowance by the governor, journalists in the state are expected to play the lap dog role but the two journalists working for The Sun and Vanguard went out of the ‘unwritten agreement’ to play the guard dog role by biting the person they are protecting. That is one of the major features of guard dog journalism. This practice exists among Nigerian journalists working in different parts of the country.
In contrast to a passive “lapdog,” the guard-dog media occasionally attack an individual in power, but they focus the blame on the individual, not the system. Journalists rely heavily on official sources and explanations of events in news writing. They use official sources to make stories look robust and well investigated when in actual sense they are protecting the elite class.
This theory is premised on the middle ground between the Watchdog and Lap Dog models. It claims that mass media are neither lap dogs of the powerful, not watchdogs of the weak and oppressed. Because elites primarily control the media agenda and provide most news and information to the journalists, the media act as a guard dog not for the entire community, but for political and special interest elite groups that hold political and economical power.
The guard dog model posits that journalism is characterized by three features. First, the news media act as protector of particular groups within the power elites. Second, the focus and approach of the news media are shaped according to who is being protected and who is defined as the threat (external/internal, political/racial, etc.). Third, in times of political conflict and/or scandal it is common for the guard dog to turn on one of the masters.
While the lap dog gives total protection to the elite class the guard dog might attack them occasionally. The distinct difference between a guard dog and a personal protection dog is that a protection dog takes its lead from the owner and acts on command while a guard dog will maintain their duties on their own. This is why occasionally journalist operating this model may write stories that are not favourable to the elite class they are protection but could blame the elite for such stories, not the system.
Guard dog journalism is a trend which is evident among many journalists in Nigeria especially due to the growth of brown envelop syndrome in the media sector. Journalists move from the watchtower where they are playing the watchdog roles, to the door steps of their pay masters where they play the guard dog function. They could use blackmail, cheap publicity, beggarly reporting, or ‘gangster’ journalism just to protect the interest of the paymaster to the detriment of the entire society. A situation where most media houses are not paying salary regularly or not even paying at all, and lap dog journalism becomes the order of the day because journalists wouldn’t want to offend their pay masters with reports such pay masters might view as ‘offensively’ even if they are actually objective. This is what has led to the growth of fake news in Nigeria and across the world.
Though welfare issues have been cited as a major reason for practice of guard dog journalism in Nigeria, there is still no justification for this form of practice by journalists. In a country where journalists are guard dogs you cannot go to bed with both eyes closed because every sector will be in danger of being raided by corrupt office holders who are the masters of lapdog reporters. You cannot leave the elites and office holders entrusted with public treasury to their own devices. To do so is to court danger and disaster.
It is based on this postulation that society needs men and women of courage in such a noble profession as journalism. Nigerian journalists should be men and women of substance that report the truth and ready to always be the nation’s conscience. Society needs such men and women to shape and to direct national conversations, its policies and politics. Colonial and post-colonial Nigeria had a lot of such noble men and women in the media landscape.
Journalism is pivotal to the development of any nation. The Nigerian mass media should strive to adhere to the tenets of professionalism in the line of duty. In a democratic dispensation, journalism is the last hope of the nation. This underscores the need for the Nigerian mass media sector to clean itself up. It should look inward, self-question, retool itself and retrain its members, especially with a view to preventing the practice of lap dog and guard dog journalism. Media houses in Nigeria should also improve the welfare of their staff and ensure regular payment of salaries to journalists to facilitate adherence to the ethics of the profession. Watch dog journalism is the ultimate practice which Nigerian journalists should always adhere to.