Nearly two centuries ago, a notable French writer, Alexis de Tocqueville, provided a controversial description of the media’s power in establishing and sustaining democracy.
Focusing on the American model, which was then already mature, he found that the press was in a mutually beneficial marriage with democracy.
He drew attention to the fact that the press kept “political life circulating through all parts of this vast territory (United States). His eye is constantly open to trace the secret sources of political intentions and to summon the leaders of each party in turn to the bar of public opinion.”
He explained that based on his experiences and observations, the press “concentrates the interests of the community around certain principles and establishes the creed of each party; for it provides a means of intercourse between those who hear and speak to one another without ever coming into direct contact.”
Alexis’ perception, anchored in his analysis, was that the media wields so much power that it not only influences politics and its key players, but also has the ability to control politics and its key players and to control them with the people connect to.
Maybe Alexis was right then. But between 1835, when he wrote this piece, and today, the paradigm has shifted again and again. One of the inventions that must have sparked change is called citizen journalism.
Let’s explain that a little bit. In the 1830s the press was controlled by individuals trained not only in the classroom but in the mill to report news, write analysis, and influence public perceptions on critical issues.
This was a time when journalism was practiced by journalists – by those trained in the art and tested in the mill of the profession. At such a time, the press could set the agenda for public discourse because the profession was socially responsible.
Journalists were made to think and act as the conscience of the nation; so that whatever the people read in the newspapers was taken to be the truth of the gospel because it was steeped and steeped in the acceptable ingredients of the profession.
In such an atmosphere, the consolidation of democracy as an alternative to authoritarianism was left to the media. No wonder on January 19, 1787, Thomas Jefferson, the man who wrote the document for the 1776 Declaration of Independence, while serving as America’s Secretary to France, made this historic and often-quoted statement.
The story goes that while Jefferson was in France, in a letter to his friend and political collaborator Edward Carrington, he stated that if he were given the choice of government instead of newspapers or newspapers instead of government, would certainly opt for the newspapers.
This metaphorically charged statement affirmed the inherent power of the mass media – and of course the newspaper was the only dominant mass medium at the time.
It was the media that consolidated democracy in the United States. At this point the press could reasonably be described as the Reich’s Fourth Estate – that is, the unofficial but extremely powerful participant in democracy.
The 1970s saw a series of events responsible for further consolidation of American democracy. We remember the man named Richard Milhous Nixon, the 37th President of the United States.
Under his supervision and to his knowledge, some Republican Party leaders in his administration arranged and oversaw the invasion of the Democratic Party office on August 8, 1972. Some of those involved were personal assistants who worked closely with him in the White House. The intruders were immediately arrested and interrogated.
As is the case with politicians everywhere, Nixon’s spin doctors, consisting of political advisers, spokespersons, even some lawmakers and other political jobbers, denied his involvement.
But the Washington Post The newspaper refused to believe the stories. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, supervised by tireless editor Ben Bradlee, worked on this story for more than two years.
Within that time, most of Nixon’s political appointees who directed the undemocratic act were imprisoned. Others have resigned in shame. Finally, the ugly incident prompted Nixon to declare on June 27, 1974, “I will resign the presidency effective noon tomorrow.” And he did.
The moral of this story is that democracy needs the media to live up to its name. Bradlee noted in his autobiography that while Nixon hated the media as the media ironically made him unpopular through his actions, he brought unprecedented fame to the same media. He “brought the press their finest hour”.
Imagine what would have happened to American democracy if such a dictatorial act by the party in power had been swept under the rug by the media! However, the only way the press could hold the government to account was through undiluted professionalism, which meant operating within certain normative limits.
Let’s take a deep breath and ask ourselves: How is it possible, in an age of social media-driven information dissemination – when journalism is practiced by quacks disguised as professionals – how is it possible to consolidate or strengthen democracy in the manner described above? Almost impossible because you can’t give what you don’t have.
The next question is: is there something wrong with citizen journalism – the so-called journalism practiced by people who are untrained in the profession, people whose practices are not governed by ethics? We can only answer this question with another question.
If journalism is a profession like medical practice, engineering, architecture, nursing, or a pilot, how acceptable would it be if a carpenter walked into a hospital room to perform brain surgery, or if a mason jumped into the cockpit of an airplane ready for a flight? That’s what citizen journalists are doing to journalism.
By examining citizen journalism as a tool to consolidate democracy, we seek to identify what aspects of this unprofessional practice can help our democracy grow. So we are indirectly demanding the benefits of citizen journalism in a democratic environment.
By the way, can this type of information dissemination be called journalism? “It’s a misnomer to call it journalism,” Ray Ekpu said at a journalism workshop in 2018. He noted that such writing lacks “the rigor, the professionalism, the ethical commitment, the truth-telling and the fairness lacking in doctrine inherent in journalism.”
Undoubtedly, so-called citizen journalism has helped disseminate information or democratize the process of information dissemination, which is good for democracy. Such information can be false, falsified, misleading, or intentionally mischievous and have predetermined negative effects, but hardly any information is completely useless.
Citizen journalism is actually nothing new, except that it is technology-driven in this day and age. For example, on November 22, 1963, the day American President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, it was someone we can now call a citizen journalist who caught it on video.
It is still unclear how he fared. But Abraham Zapruder documented the bloody incident with his Bell and Howell camera. The video only lasted 26 seconds.
Born in what is now Ukraine, Zapruder was a tailor, not a journalist. He was simply trying to capture the President’s convoy when a bullet slammed into the limousine, killing Kennedy.
Fast forward to March 13, 1991, when a plumber named George Holliday filmed certain police officers beating Rodney King. The video lasted nine minutes.
Be aware that these events would not have been recorded if both Zapruder and Holliday had not been at the scene of these incidents. So are we clapping for citizen journalism? Wait a moment!
The truth is that so-called citizen journalism can only help consolidate democracy in Nigeria if there is cooperation between it and the mainstream media. In other words, all information gathered by laypeople should be subject to normative evaluation by the professionals.
For example, in the two examples above, the recorded videos were turned over to the mainstream media for professional editing. However, this is no longer the case since the advent of internet technology and the creation of social media platforms.
In citizen journalism, the so-called reporter is also the publisher. He or she is not subordinate to anyone. There is no gatekeeping, there is no filtering process, there is no verification, there is no attempt to balance the story. They see it, they report it, they publish it, and life goes on.
Some people have argued that the meeting point between the traditional and this new style of writing is that both produce news. This is absolutely misleading. The reason for this is that what is called news can only be produced by people trained or experienced in the art and practice of journalism; not just anyone.
If citizen journalism is about disseminating information that falls short of what news should be, how does that help consolidate democracy? Democracy thrives on truthful, balanced and objective reporting, which is the hallmark of journalism. Anything else is supposed to destroy democracy.
Let’s draw a line here: citizen journalism is not to be confused with online newspapers owned and operated by core journalists. An online newspaper differs from blogs created by self-proclaimed journalists eager to publish anything that catches people’s attention.
Our conclusion is that so-called citizen journalism can help consolidate Nigerian democracy through meaningful information dissemination. However, this can only be done on the basis of ethically motivated quality, truthfulness, objectivity and authenticity of such information.
This is only possible if industry players are consciously trained in the basics of normative reporting or submit their passion to working with the mainstream media.
Until then, what is now being circulated on social media platforms containing false and misleading information can only destroy Nigerian democracy rather than consolidate it.
Sam Akpe is a journalist and editor while Mercy Tartsea-Anshase lectures in mass communication at Bingham University, Karu.
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