Value System Versus Journalistic Ethics: The Nigerian Experience
The basic role of journalism in any society is to inform, educate and entertain. Dominick (2009, p.31) also refers to the information role as the surveillance function of the media. This, he says, is closely related to the interpretation function which consists of providing information on the ultimate meaning and significance of events.
The interaction between cultural values and journalism practice cannot be ruled out. The journalist exists in the society which has a cultural identity. There exists an interplay between the journalists and cultural forces in his environment. Mfumbusa (2008: 140) notes that “media professionals in Africa operate in a context marked by the politics and culture of the larger society”. Elliot (cited in Ogongo-Ongong’a and White 2008: 162) observes that “the bases upon which individuals develop value systems are unique and complex combinations of religious beliefs, education, family and cultural norms, individual rationality and consciously or unconsciously accepted conventions of the many subcultures in which one lives”.
Culture is measured in terms of the attitudes, beliefs, norms and values which the people of a nation have and hold on to in general (Aluko, 2003). In the Nigerian context, how has cultural value system played out on news values and journalistic norms? The individual cultural convictions of specific journalists and the more general value systems and norms of the society in which the journalists exist and practice their profession possibly exert pressures on the journalists. Such pressures could lead to conflict of interest capable of affecting credibility of the reporter and the profession in general. The pressures could also further encourage professionalism in journalism practice, depending on the perspective of cultural pressure at work on a reporter.
Ethics is concerned with what is morally good or bad, right or wrong. A code of ethics is a set of moral principles, guidelines or rules that guide activities of a person or group of persons. This discussion specifically deals with journalistic ethics which is a set of moral principles guiding the practice of journalism. For instance, a journalist is not expected to glorify violence, sex and indecency in his/her report. He/she is not expected to identify relatives or friends of accused persons/crime suspects without their consent. A reporter should not make discriminatory or disapproving remarks about any gender, ethnic group, class of society, religion etc. These are among many ethical issues associated with journalism practice which the journalist is expected to factor into his/her actions in the line of duty.
However, the value system of a society could exert pressure on a journalist and possibly cause the reporter to operate from an unethical pedestal if he/she is not strong enough to resist the culture-induced temptation (Nwabueze, 2010: 499). Also, Hanson (2005: 419) writes that “ being fair and balanced are the core of journalistic values …. At times, however, other factors can overwhelm that value”. The argument being raised here is that cultural values could overwhelm the basic journalistic values of an average Nigerian journalist. Germini de Alwis and Senathiraja (2003) write that work ethics in a society is largely influenced by its culture and it has a direct relationship to its value systems. Cultural values and journalism ethics are constantly at war (Nwabueze 2010: 499). Journalism ethics is played up where a journalist is faced with conflicting values in the society, especially values that are incompatible with tenets of professionalism. Kasoma (1999: 447) notes that journalism ethics is concerned with making sound decisions in journalistic performance, and that it assumes the presence of societal morality. Morality consists of actions guided by generally acceptable human values and responsibilities which, according to Kasoma, constitute a moral system. Human beings subscribe to several moral systems at any point in time and “ethics begins where elements within a moral system conflict, and a person (Journalist) is called upon to choose between various alternatives” (Kasoma 1999: 447).
Inherent in the postulation above is that the journalist is always battling with conflicting norms, values, and interests in the society which derive from the culture within which he exists and the need to foster professionalism in his profession. Professionalism in journalism, in Kasoma’s view, simply means “performing journalistic chores responsibly by following the tenets of the profession whose function lies in disseminating news and informed opinion to the public” (Kasoma, 1999, p.446). A journalist battles with meeting the challenges of living in an environment shaped by a specific culture and the challenges of allowing ethical codes to guide the practice of his/her profession.
Culture has been defined as the totality of way of life evolved by a people in their attempt to meet the challenges of living in their environment which gives order and meaning to their social, political, economic, aesthetic and religious norms and modes of organization, and thus distinguishing them from their neighbours (Emeana 2001: 43). The journalist is part of the society, living in a value system cherished by people in that society.
The culture of corruption has permeated virtually every sphere of life in the Nigerian society, as in some other African countries. After an examination and analysis of Nigerian culture from the perspective of the three major local languages in the country (Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba), Aluko (2003) observes among others that the craze for wealth is high, the culture of corruption has been institutionalized in most work places, and Nigerian workers are largely motivated by monetary rewards. In some parts of Nigeria, success is largely measured by how many houses an individual builds in the cities and the type of house he builds in his village, not minding the source of his wealth. Integrity and moral values play little or no roles in such societies. The emergence and boom of certain weird crimes in Nigeria such as ritual killings and kidnapping largely derive from the value system that seems to glorify unquestionable wealth. Recall that the journalist exists in the same society with the noveux riche, where culture has virtually and gradually accommodated values premised on corruption. The journalist, in order to meet with the challenges of existing meaningfully in such society, finds himself/herself battling with conflicting values – that of the society in which he exists and that of his profession. It looks like negative values tend to override positive values in a decaying, corruption-infested society in Nigeria. While describing the gravity of corrupt value system in the Nigerian society, Dele Momodu, a renowned columnist in Thisday newspaper observed that “even our society frowns at you if you remain as poor as you went into government” (Thisday, November 7, 2009, p.72).
Within the context of the clash between negative societal value system and the attempt by journalists to exist meaningfully in the society, brown envelope syndrome (acceptance of gratifications from news sources) often thrives. Brown envelope syndrome is an unethical issue, although attempts to justify the action exist even among journalists. Some journalists have even taken the brown envelope issue too far; they have resorted to black mail and various forms of extortion in the name of brown envelope syndrome. Aiyetan (2002: 32), quoting Nosa Igiebor of Tell Magazine, condemns the act of collecting gratifications under any guise and describes it as “brazenly demanding bribe from people to publish or kill a story and failing which they resort to black mailing you, blacking you out or out rightly concocting stories that would embarrass you”. Some other factors may be responsible for the growth of brown envelope syndrome but societal value system also plays a pivotal role in perpetrating it. Aiyetan, (2002: 34) refers to the observation by Reuben Abati of the Guardian Newspapers that,
The journalist is also a member of the society and if we agree that we are an exceptionally corrupt society, then the media cannot be innocent. The media is just as corrupt as the society.
It may be suggested that a journalist guided by morals in the line of duty ends up struggling to make ends meet. Studies on corruption in the Nigerian media show that poor remuneration/welfare package are among the basic reasons why journalists accept gratifications (brown envelopes) from news sources (Okoro and Ugwuanyi 2006; Adeyemi and Okorie 2009; Nwabueze 2010). Similarly, while carrying out a study on when your “take home pay” can hardly take you home with regards to the Zimbabwean press, Mabweazara (2010: 433) observes that bad treatment of editors, repressive conditions and poor salaries are undermining the professionalism of journalists not only in Zimbabwe but in many other African countries. “These conditions not only differentiate African journalists from their counterparts in the economically developed world of the North, but also illuminate how the conditions of material deprivation tend to subvert conventionalized ethical canons of journalism such as independence and impartiality” (Mabweazara 2010: 433). Also, Mare and Brand (2010: 408) write that many media organizations operate on shoe-string budgets, and journalists working in African media are poorly remunerated. This invariably means that if journalists do not accept gratifications, their salaries will not be adequate to meet their needs; as a result they will struggle to make ends meet. Where the journalist attempts to get recognized in the society or overcome the challenges of existing in a value system that glorifies corruption, he/she slides into the realm of unethical practices.
The question then is could the journalist have been able to live a decent life if the value system of the society he exists in did not glorify the noveux riche syndrome or the get-rich-at-any-cost syndrome? The fact remains that the quest to make ends meet within the context of the present value system exerts pressure on the journalist and invariably affects news values. The journalist that engages in brown envelope syndrome defines news based on who gives him/her what. Collection of gratification (or brown envelope syndrome), including other forms of unethical practices distort the definition of news. The values used in judging what makes news are defined by what the news source is willing to offer to the journalist. Mfumbusa (2008: 151) asserts that cavalier attitude towards corrupt practices exists in most African newsrooms and that journalists pretend to be objective. Mfumbusa further notes that open remuneration (brown envelopes) that journalists get from political and economic patrons is a prevalent practice, which is largely condoned in the African media circles. This unethical practice seems to have permeated journalism practice in most African nations.
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