Thomas Jefferson, the third American President, is credited with what many regard as the most flattering attribute to journalism.
“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter,’’ Jefferson wrote in January 1787.
Unfortunately for the newshounds, Jefferson is also credited with what is seen as the most devastating remark on the media.
“The man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them,’’ Jefferson wrote few years later.
“In as much as he knows nothing, he is nearer to the truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehood and errors.’’
Jefferson’s dramatic u-turn may just have been caused by the preponderance of fake news that has taken over today’s media space, with both the social and traditional media struggling to outdo each other in the spread of hoaxes.
Consider this. A state governor is reported to be involved in a road accident which killed the driver and left the governor with a broken spinal cord. He is reportedly ferried, unconscious, to a foreign country for urgent medical attention.
The governor appears days later, hale and hearty, to the shame of newspaper editors, who had splashed the road crash rumour on front pages.
Or this. A gateman, Musa Usman, makes it to the front pages of several newspapers and enjoys prime time on televisions and radio for rejecting a house offered him by an Indian boss he had served for 25 years, opting to rather have a borehole in his community.
For placing public good above personal interest, he is celebrated as a model, with encomiums flowing from all directions. Usman has, however, declared that no house was offered to him. He says that his Indian master did not give him such option. The house offer story was just someone’s imagination.
Not long ago, a news medium quoted a governor as pouring encomiums on his former political god father (now a bitter political rival) at a ceremony to mark the latter’s birthday. Such a report should ordinarily be a simple and harmless one.
But, few minutes after the story was published, the organ received threats of a legal action. The event never happened. It was a hoax by a reporter, who had no qualms feeding the public with utter falsehood. The news was fake. A cheap lie.
The instances are just everywhere. Aside the fake news, photos or videos are purposefully created and spread to confuse and misinform. Photos or videos are also manipulated to deceive, while old pictures are often shared as new.
In some cases, photos from other shores are shared in the Nigerian space, ostensibly to create the impression that they are local scenes.
Commenting on the trend recently, Prof. Umaru Pate, Head, Department of Mass Communication, Bayero University, Kano, said it was “dangerous, unethical, provocative and subversive to peace and societal serenity’’.
“Fake news misinforms and misdirects society with severe consequences on individual and national systems. It heightens tension, builds fear and mistrust among people.’’
Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, has also deplored the trend, declaring recently that fake news could “threaten and destroy’’ the country. He has also launched a campaign against it.
Vice President Yemi Osinbajo echoed similar worry in a speech at the biennial convention of the Nigeria Guild of Editors (NGE), in Lagos recently.
“Fake news will make media practice lose its appeal; it will challenge the credibility which is the base of journalism practice,” he said.
He called on editors to consciously take back the space by infusing online media practice with traditional and professional competence, to right the wrongs in the industry.
“Some people must take up the role of speaking against the bastardisation of journalism by the new media,’’ he declared.
Osinbajo called for the resuscitation of investigative journalism to tackle national challenges and help government plan better, noting specifically, that the advent of the new media had increased misinformation through the spread of fake news and other negative reports that often caused confusion, disaffection and disunity.
“Editors must evolve strategies that will keep journalism in its place as the digital media appears to be moving away from the newsroom to the clouds,’’ he said.
Osinbajo regretted that the role of the newspaper was gradually being usurped as the print media continued in its pursuit of traffic, rather than accuracy.
He called on media stakeholders to equip newsrooms with gadgets and technologies that could detect and remove fake images from news items, and emphasised the need for accurate, fair, balanced and objective reportage at all times.
Like Osinbajo, many media analysts blame the worsening trend of fake news on the collapse of investigative journalism.
Mr Peter Amine, secretary of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), Plateau State chapter, for instance, believes that the spread of fake news can be minimised if reporters and editors insist on the dictum “when in doubt, leave out’’.
“What we have, regrettably, is a situation where reporters, in a hurry to be the first with the news, hurl every rumour at the public. One can even understand the `wild freedom’ in the social media where there is no control, no editors, and no consequences for lying.
“But, what does one make of similar lies celebrated in the traditional media?’’ he queried.
Amine blamed the preponderance of fake news on laziness and the loss of the investigative culture that should be the hallmark of functional journalism.
He urged editors to rise up to the challenge of curtailing the activities of erring reporters.
But, as stakeholders strive to minimise the incidences of fake news, analysts have suggested a deeper look into why it is getting more common and becoming the norm.
According to Prof. Pate: “Fake news is partly caused by the absence, or late arrival of official information, which creates a vacuum filled by rumours and imaginations.’’
According to him, desperate politicians, ethnic jingoists, foreign interests and mischief makers have also taken advantage of the explosion in social media platforms – Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Google, Nairaline and Whatsapp – to spew fake news and hate messages which inflict confusion into the society.
While urging media houses to focus more on investigative reporting, he cautioned against selective reporting and the promotion of prejudicial stereotypes about groups and individuals based on incomplete facts, mischief and ignorance.
Other analysts have also called for more training to reporters and editors to boost research capacities among media professionals so as to minimise shallow reporting and episodic attitudes in news coverage and programme production.
They have also cautioned the media against promoting statements of politicians, ethnic champions, religious zealots and other interested parties without critical inquiry about specific social conflicts. They noted that such groups were usually prone to spreading fake news against perceived rivals.
While urging media gatekeepers and news content managers to be more critical, the analysts have pointed out that publishing fake news could confer legitimacy, credibility and massive reach to such fakery and confuse the audience about truth and falsehood.
Worried by the effects of such misinformation, many Nigerians have always wondered if it is possible to quickly spot fake news to avoid being misled.
Dr Sylvestre Dada, a communication expert, offers suggestions.
“The readers, listeners or viewers must check multiple sources, and try to establish trusted brands over time.
“They should also use various verification tools, with news content managers encouraged to check and think, before broadcasting or publishing.’’
He added that young people should be educated on what was trustworthy, as against what is fake, so that they could draw a line between the two.
But as Nigeria strives for reliable information crucial to her growth, media professionals saddled with that task appear to face lots of challenges, including the limited knowledge of the country by even top editors. Another challenge is the commercialisation of news.
Other limitations include ownership influence, social malpractices and corruption, media professionals acting as judges or advocates for hidden interests, and cases of senior editorial staff acting as consultants to politicians and religious groups.
The existence of cartels among reporters covering specific beats has also led to the adulteration of what is reported as the “media gangs’’ only decide what information to publish after “discussing and agreeing’’ with the news sources.
Analysts say that such “unholy fraternity’’ has often led to the “burial’’ of some hard truths that would have been useful in the nation’s search for greatness.
Another challenge is the “copy-me’’ syndrome, a practice where reporters receive reports of events they did not cover, from colleagues, and publish same, not minding if what they had been “copied’’ is fake news. Not a few reporters have lost their jobs to this scary practice, yet it still persists.
To effectively battle fake news, observers have suggested closer working relationships among credible media organisations to facilitate the dissemination of only credible and verified news to reduce the attention to fake information by the social media.
They have also called for increased and continuous training for media professionals, with regulatory outfits encouraged to strictly apply the rules, while professional bodies keep eagle eyes on members to guide against derailment.
Sheyin writes for the News Agency of Nigeria.