By Tonnie Iredia
The term ‘fake news’ which refers to the distribution of false or incorrect reports has gained prominence in many places in the last two years. The development is no doubt attributable to US President, Donald Trump who appears to see fake news as every media report which does not favour him or his government. The perspective is not much different from that of the typical politician; the only difference is probably the intensity and frequency of the posture of President Trump who got to the extent of instituting a ‘fake news award’ to highlight any news outlet which he thinks deliberately misrepresents him. But we need to be careful not to be misled to accept every cry about fake news as authentic. Quite often, some people raise fake news alarms as a strategy for dismissing some truths they are uneasy about; and this has happened over the years especially in matters of politics and elections.
Fake news can also be found in other spheres of life. Indeed, the term is as old as humanity. Recently, the Catholic Church traced its origin to when Satan deceitfully got Eve to eat of the forbidden apple in the Garden of Eden. Since then, fake news merchants have been at work here and there. Only last Wednesday, they falsely published the obituary of Alhaji Gambo Jimeta, who had served as Nigeria’s Inspector General of Police from 1986 to 1990. I first got the message at a meeting of the planning committee for the 2018 World Media Congress holding in Abuja which was scheduled to begin the next day. One of our members who had received the message could not but share it with us all. I immediately cautioned him against saying it to any other person because of the privileged information available to me.
During his public service career, Gambo achieved a lot. In addition to becoming the number one policeman of the nation, he also served as Agriculture Minister and also as National Security Adviser. These make a story about him attractive, so we were all interested in the breaking news about him received by one of us. To the enquiries as to when, where and how the reported death occurred, the story said he died in Mecca at 6 o’clock in the morning. My heart jumped severally; but i knew we had fake news in our hands because I had spent no less than one hour towards the tail end of the previous day with the same Gambo Jimeta, a senior friend of many years. I sat by him at his Maitama, Abuja residence and we watched on television, highlights of Russia 2018. We discussed the Nigeria/Croatia match and the likely chances of our Eagles as well as other matters especially the politics of 2019. If so, how could he have been in far away Mecca? This question left everyone speechless!
With a telephone call across to the house, I was able to confirm that there was no truth in the story. It is certainly quite difficult to appreciate the enormity of the agony which Gambo and his entire family passed through because of the recklessness of the fake news that the man had died when he was very much alive. As a matter of fact, at the time of my call, the family was considering a number of options to take in response to the subject. My suggestion that there was no need to respond so as not to further popularize the story had to be jettisoned following the avalanche of enquiries by well meaning friends and relations. A short statement revealing the true situation had to be issued. Although some of the sources which earlier published the fake story have since retracted it and apologised, ‘why good journalism matters’ the theme of this year’s IPI World Congress was quite apt.
In earnest, the theme underscores the significance of good journalism because of the pains which bad journalism can have on people. The IPI was thus prophetic in harping on it this year. First, it is necessary to begin to emphasize the inevitability of ethical values of the media which rest squarely on truth, fairness, balance and objectivity. In journalism, facts are sacred hence the typical journalist is under a duty to leave out any story about which he has any doubt whatsoever. Rushing to publish a story as breaking news without substantive evidence of its veracity is professional suicide. But with the proliferation of different media sources, it is becoming virtually impossible to adhere strictly to media ethics. Several challenges among them unemployment, poor pay and inadequate working tools have tended to further complicate the situation.
A major source of fake news is unfortunately domiciled in the new media. With improved technology, everyone could get to know about an event as it is happening but those who praise the fastness of the new media must fully appreciate its capacity for mischief. It is not enough to applaud the emergence of citizen journalism which now makes the reporting of events and day to day happenings within and around different communities an everybody affair. Strictly speaking, not everyone can pass for a journalist. A citizen journalist is a mere story teller and not a news reporter and as such lacks the knowledge of the difference between the subject and the object of news. He is engaged essentially in ‘free-based journalism’ featuring amateurish accounts of events and thus cannot be equated with a trained journalist who is obliged to go beyond the confines of telling a story of where, when and how an event took place or the number of personalities at the event. Put differently, the citizen journalist can hardly undertake the interpretative dimension of a news report which enables society to understand the implications to their lives of the event being reported especially if their attention can be drawn to danger signals in the horizon to help them avoid woeful ends.
Different societies must therefore devise ways and means by which the improved technology of the new media can be put into positive use. As Pope Francis said at the recent 52nd World Day of Social Communications “amid feeding frenzies and the mad rush for a scoop, journalists must remember that the heart of information is not the speed with which it is reported or its audience impact, but persons.” We agree that Journalism is “not just a job, it is a mission” and that creating an ordeal as was done to Gambo Jimeta and his family a few days back is unacceptable