NACgate and challenges of objectivity journalism in Malawi

“Many journalists now are no more than channelers and echoers of what George Orwell called the ‘official truth’. They simply cipher and transmit lies… many journalists become so defensive when you suggest to them that they are anything but impartial and objective. The problem with those words ‘impartiality’ and ‘objectivity’ is that they have lost their dictionary meaning.” ~ John Pilgernacgate

For Malawians working and interested in current affairs, the last few months must have been interesting. The judiciary strikes and the National Aids Commission (NAC) MK5 million saga have been a source of endless flow of news and information. These have provided the kind of news that is always handy for the media that is cultured in reporting both sides of the story and let readers and audiences to judge for themselves – the convenient premise of objectivity.

After weeks of debates, arguments and counter arguments in the press, an average Malawian still cannot fully explain what the so called NACgate is all about. This is because news headlines and reports have been following the noise around the issue, regurgitating arguments and counter arguments instead of stepping back, separate facts from the fluff, and report the straightforward truth. Any journalist worth their name in Malawi should know where the truth on the issue is. But this is comprised by journalist’s quest for objectivity, which for most journalists simply means reporting both sides of the story.

News must be balanced, of course. All parties involved must have a fair hearing, this is important part of news reporting even though balancing the news does not always guarantee neutrality or fairness, even when sources are treated fairly. This is because the choice of balancing sources is not always objective, if ever. A news source on one side of the argument can be a more authoritative figure who commands much more respect in society than their opposite.

This is one of the reasons why letting ‘both sides’ of the story determine the truth of the matter is always problematic. It only adds to confusion instead of clarifying issues. Journalists who, mistakenly, believe that it is enough to simply tell ‘both sides’ of the story, as long as the information is correct and has been presented accurately, compromise accuracy and truthfulness in journalism.

The late New York Times columnist, Molly Ivins once noticed, “the very notion that on any given story all you have to do is to report what both sides say and you have done a fine job of objectivity journalism debilitates the press.” He added:

“In the first place, most stories aren’t two-sided, they’re 17-sided at least. In the second place it’s of no help to either the readers or the truth to quote one side saying “Cat” and the other side saying “Dog”, while the truth is there’s an elephant crashing around out there in the bushes.”

Think of NACgate here, the crux of the matter is that money donated by Global Fund to the people of Malawi, to help fight HVI/Aids epidemic and other diseases has been abused by those entrusted with it. The money has been used to fund a launch of a trust that has nothing to do with fight against HIV/Aids, a trust owned by one of the country’s powerful individuals, the country’s First Lady. This is where the matter is. All other arguments put forward cannot change the fact that the money has been abused.

Journalism has a duty to set such record straight – the truth. Instead, it is those who take a stance against such abuse of state resources that always have to defend their anger in the national press. This is because journalist believe determining what the truth is would compromise their objective and neutral role. Objectivity does not mean perpetuating falsehood and inaccuracies. Journalists ought to play an educative role and not disinterest mediators who are only there to present the case regardless where the truth lay.

The renowned journalist, Chris Hedges noticed that this kind of journalism “disarms and cripple the press”. Hedges added that journalism becomes a convenient and profitable vehicle to avoid confronting unpleasant truths. This creed, he goes on, “transform reporters into neutral observers or voyeurs. It banishes empathy, passion and a quest for justice. Reporters are permitted to watch but not to feel or to speak in their own voices. They function as “professionals” and see themselves as dispassionate and disinterested social scientists.”

Good journalism must analyse accounts from ‘both sides’ of the story, crosscheck sources’ statements against available evidence and report what the truth actually is. Journalists are not there to report exactly what sources of information tell them, the “he said, she said” journalism. Professor of journalism at New York State University, Jay Rosen calls this “one of the lowest forms of journalism in existence”. And he is right.

Balance has its use and it remains a very important part of news coverage but it must not come at the expense of reporting the truth. The point of balance in journalism is to uphold truth and shine light where darkness is. It is not being subjective if journalists expose lies or ask sources to substantiate their allegations; it is not right for a journalist to report information they clearly know is incorrect just because they are afraid of contradict their sources. These issues only empower the powerful against vulnerable groups. Journalism has a moral duty to check against this.

  • Jimmy Kainja is a full-time lecturer at Chancellor College, University of Malawi, a Nyasa Times columnist every Wednesday and a current affairs writer and blogger.
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musisipala
Guest

Fellow Malawians let s live together as one. We should stop pointing fingures at one another but together as one.

lingtone
Guest

Ayi ndithu zosayendatu apa .chonchi otithandizawa atithandizapo apa?

Mlomwe12
Guest

This staff is really written by someone who imparts knowledge. In fact, some of us have learnt something from this, esp journalists who lack objectivity.

Petro John
Guest

Ngati kuli mbuzi zaanthu inu amene mukupanga support mlako ndi Beam kutenga ndalama zothandizira anthu odwala HIV and AIDS ndikuzipititsa kosayenera.Wina nkumati I am ashamed ndi Mtambo komanso kabwira those are graduates undiuze school yomwe unapita iwe wanzeru mlomwe iwe,kulemba timacomment topanda pake.Iweyo ndiife tikuvutikira limodzi akutizunza kapolo wakuZimbabwe socalled APMtalika.I am disapointed with you poor Malawians,munthu wina akufuna kuthandiza wina akumunyoza,iwe ukunyoza ukupatsidwa chiyani ndalama anachita misuse first lady yo akugawirako?Be reseasonable pochita timacomment tanu.

peter
Guest

solve it

Alex Likoswe
Guest

Good writing and very objective. Sanitation has nothing to do with HIV/Aids -period.

People are paid to counter these good arguments.Indeed if we continue with this attitute to glorify wrong, we shall maintain position 5 as the bottom least developed, enlightened country.

Ngozo
Guest

Whatever happened with NAC funds has caused Global Fund to stop directing HIV & AIDS funds through NAC, such funds will now be funded through Ministry of Health. This means that the 75% of NAC budget has been withdrawn. What a shame to NAC.

phodogoma
Guest

Timothy Mtambo on your placker is it ashemed or ashamed? I saw you. You carried it. Thats Mtumbuka.Or is it nacgate language?

Professor
Guest

Kainja, I am also dissappointed that you have sided with those who have partial truth on the matter. In your right sense, are you saying BEAM and Mulhakho have no activities that warrants them to source funds from NAC? BEAM deals with environmental health, and to hear that it has nothing to do with HIV/AIDS, I am also afraid that our kids in your course are not safe, if this is the calibre of lecturers that we have at Chancol.

kanchenga
Guest
Kainja is absolutely right. No matter how dirty a place may be you can not contact HIV virus by staying at that place. Please don’t justify wrong. What Kainja is saying is not all stories have neutral reportable side. There are times when telling the truth will look like siding and not balancing reporting. Now NAC is fighting Hiv Aids. They finance a grouping that parades naked young girls most of them ready for sex and you call that fighting HIV. This is foolishness. Knowing Lhomwes can you imaging how many young girls are fucked both on that day and… Read more »
Mmihavani
Guest

If Jimmy is indeed a lecturer at Chancol am sorry we are all doomed. No wonder our graduates are substandard. With his clumsy reasoning and writing, how can he supervise students? Aaaaa University of Malawi yatha basi.

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