Journalism is arguably one of the indispensable professions in the present information-driven world. Just like a midwife is, to a considerable extent, responsible for the fate of a foetus during birth, a journalist determines the fate of information before it enters the public domain. More importantly, the actual quality of the impact of journalism on information that eventually enters the public domain is heavily determined by how journalists and the society they seek to serve conceptualise the profession and its activities.
One way of understanding how journalism is perceived in a society is by analysing concepts used by the society to describe the profession and its actors. This is the case because language is predominantly a value-laden mental activity. As a type of symbolic representation, language basically serves the purpose of naming mental concepts and describing the value society attaches to them.
A handy example is the Chichewa translation of the concept, journalism, utolankhani, from which the term, mtolankhani (journalist) is derived. As a concept, utolankhani is a combination of two basic words, tola and nkhani. Literally, tola means pick up something, like one does a fruit from a basket while nkhani means story. Significantly, this word combination connotes a casual approach to journalism that wrongly portrays it as a profession that simply concerns itself with collecting readily available stories and transmitting them for public consumption without doing anything to them.
The seriousness of the conceptual weakness of the Chichewa translation of journalism may be appreciated by considering how journalism is perceived elsewhere. The American Press Institute, for example, believes that the value of journalism “flows from its purpose, to provide people with verified information they can use to make better decisions, and its practices, the most important of which is a systematic process—a discipline of verification—that journalists use to find not just the facts, but also the truth about the facts”.
The concerns of journalism identified in this description of journalism are strikingly absent in the translation, mtolankhani and this should be a cause of concern to those who care about the advancement of journalism in Malawi.
This is not to insinuate that Malawi is a hallmark of substandard journalism. Such would be a hasty conclusion undermining the well-known fact that, historically, the country’s media industry has been anchored by committed quality-conscious journalists. As a matter of fact, the country is home to some of the finest journalists that the world can ever have. A good number of Malawian journalists have distinguished themselves locally and internationally.
Nevertheless, from a cultural perspective, there is need to underscore that Malawi’s linguistic conceptualisation of journalism and its activities has great potential to misguide journalists and Malawians in general about what journalism really exists for in an information-driven society, hence the present essay.
Malawi’s vernacular misrepresentation of journalism may be addressed by improvising vernacular concepts that represent the concerns of journalism correctly. For argument’s sake, for example, the Chichewa improvisation, ulondolozankhani, may offer a more accurate translation of the concept, journalism, on two counts.
Firstly, unlike utolankhani, it rightly suggests that a story is a sophisticated entity with various dimensions which cannot be accounted for when it is simply picked and hastily passed on to its intended audience. In turn, this observation portrays a journalist as a specialist in identifying story sources and leads which he carefully utilising to generate a full understand of the story. These are not mean differences because they suggest that a journalist is a researcher and critical thinker before he or she is a reporter.
It may be argued that the position taken by the present essay is irrelevant to the development of journalism in Malawi because journalism training is conducted in English in the country. Such a conclusion, however, would be misleading. Generally, non-native speakers of any language tend to process thoughts in their vernacular unless they attain native speaker level of fluency in the second language at hand. This is unlikely the case with most Malawian speakers of English in general and Malawian journalists in particular.
- The author is a lecturer in media, communication and cultural studies at Chancellor College, University of Malawi.