IDEAs Episode 116 – Lanre Arogundade on Journalistic Ethics during Elections

IDEAs Episode 116 – 27th January 2023

Lanre Arogundade on Journalistic Ethics during Elections

Ezugwu Chukwudi introduced the programme by saying that “Information is Key” during elections, but that it had to be handled in a way that would not set the nation on fire.  He introduced Lanre Arogundade, the Executive Director of the International Press Centre before handing over to Ayo Obe. 

She welcomed Lanre and said that what was concerning people and was causing something of a moral panic was the discovery that journalists and on-air personalities (OAPs) might have opinions, and wanted to discuss with Lanre as someone steeped in the ethics, practice and teaching of journalism what the position was.  She said that some people believe that an OAP, or a journalist, or a writer should have no opinion whatsoever about partisan politics, while others saw partisan politics under every bed.  She cited the example of Ajuri Ngelale who had been regularly criticised by President Buhari’s supporters while he was a journalist or OAP on Channels TV, and then had turned up on the President’s team.  That caused some to wonder whether maybe what they had seen as partisanship was just neutrality.  So what is the position?  Is there a difference between what is expected of broadcasters and what is expected of the print media – newspapers and magazines etc.?

Lanre said that the same Code of Ethics covers all those who recognise themselves as a journalist, whether or not in broadcast or print media.  What the Code says is that as much as possible, journalists should maintain balance, objectivity, fairness in treating any subject matter.  When it comes to elections, there are additional guidelines.  Some are self-regulatory, such as the Nigerian Media Code of Election Coverage which has been endorsed by umbrella media professional bodies and several individual media houses, including Nigeria Info, Channels Television and many others.  What it says is that journalists should avoid bias, that they should be fair and that they should show respect to their guests, while at the same time demanding that guests should refrain from inflammatory or hate speech.  They should distinguish facts from opinion, and refrain from presenting their own opinions as facts.  If a journalist is interviewing a politician and wants to put something to them, they should make it clear when they are putting their own opinion, so that it will be clear that it is not the view of the media house.

Ayo interjected to ask whether that meant that journalists were allowed to have an opinion, and Lanre said that they could, because it was not possible to say that because someone was a journalist, they could not have an opinion, after all, they had their PVCs and would plan to vote.  But that opinion should be far in the background, because essentially, a journalist is trying to help people to make informed opinions, and if the journalist kept putting in their own opinions, that would make it difficult for people to weigh the facts of the matter.  He said that at best, it could be presented as “This analyst has said this, some other observers have said that, what exactly is the position …”  He said that it was necessary to do a lot of orientation and training for some of his colleagues.  They could ask their questions in a very firm way because politicians were also dodgy and could try to avoid, or as Ayo suggested, reframe the question.

Lanre said that some journalists had columns where they were free to express their opinions.  Ayo said that if one was writing a column in a newspaper, or in situations where newspapers come out to endorse a particular candidate, could any analogy be drawn between opinion pieces in newspapers and what was said on air.  She said it was important to remember that an OAP was not necessarily a journalist, giving the example of herself as someone who was on air, but was not a journalist, even though her training as a lawyer might help her to assess matters from a non-partisan perspective.  Was that different?

Lanre said that it was not possible to equate what happened on air with what happens in the print media, because in a newspaper you write an opinion and publish it.  If one wanted to do that on air, one should be interviewed as an analyst, so that it was clear that it was one’s own views that were being presented.  However, when one was interviewing guests or candidates, a journalist is not allowed to bring in their own opinion, rather, one was to put facts on the table.  For example, if there was an allegation against a politician, one could put it to them with evidence of that allegation, or provide proof and get a response.  He said that it was often very delicate because broadcast media are dealing with audiences who want to form an opinion.

Lanre cautioned that journalists should be careful when it came to social media platforms because it could be difficult to distinguish between the opinion expressed there and what a journalist did when working for their own media organisation.  He said that while one could not take away the right to express one’s views, a journalist must exercise some discretion because the work they are doing is not like the work of other professionals during elections.  They are supposed to help people know what was going on, to hold politicians and leaders accountable because there was some level of constitutional responsibility for that.

He agreed with Ayo that a journalist could put robust questions, but that they had to be careful because if they put a question in such a way as to suggest that they had already agreed with a particular position, then the guest could challenge them on that.  Lanre cited his own example, saying that although he was known and visible as an activist, he was quite vocal on the issue of media ethics and had always been restrained about going on social media platforms to express his opinion because it could be difficult for people to separate his views from those of the ICJ where he was Executive Director.

Lanre said that the fact that one worked in a broadcast medium did not mean that one could not write an opinion piece in a newspaper.  Ayo pointed out that even OAPs did give on air opinions, citing the example of Fareed Zakaria who would start his programme with an opinion or some analysis.  She also mentioned a presenter on one of the BBC’s flagship programmes who was known to have been a Conservative Party activist, and was always criticised for the way he questioned those who are not Conservatives when they came on to the programme.

As time was running out, Lanre emphasized the issue of discretion and the need to err on the side of caution.

Ayo said that one issue that ought to be touched on before closing was that bias could appear from the kinds of guests invited onto one’s programme, which could also make a statement.  Lanre agreed that this was what was meant by confirmation bias where guests were invited to agree with a particular viewpoint already held by the media house, but said that that was not allowed, that balance had to be maintained by inviting views from the other side.  He said that the integrity of the medium mattered, because beyond politicians, there are other audiences, and if they perceive bias or feel that the medium is not credible, in the long run it could be a problem for the media outlet.  He said that that was why section 3 of the Nigerian Media Code of Election Coverage was headed “Credibility and Integrity”.  Ayo seized on that because IDEAs is focused on Integrity, Democracy, Ethics and Accountability, so that one should be Accountable for what is expressed on one’s media outlet.

Lanre liked the word ‘Accountable’, because although the Constitution says that journalists should hold government accountable and monitor governance, journalists themselves should also know that they were accountable to the people because theirs was a public trust.  They were not accountable to politicians, but to the larger society.

Ayo drew the discussion to an end on the note of accountability to the larger society, and said that Lanre would have to come back later so that IDEAs could look back at how the media had performed.

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