When the news breaks, let’s not break the rules

“So I am wrong, the eye witnesses are all wrong, the fire officers I spoke to, are all wrong, but you – who were sitting at home while we were on the ground, working to get you information – you are right? OK, I understand your problem and I am not equipped to solve it. Let’s all wait for the official report. That ought to settle this once and for all. Thanks for your feedback, everyone,” Kojo Yankson, Host of the Super Morning Show, Joy FM.

The pretty host of TV3’s Agenda programme, Deborah Kwabla, captures news reporting and information management most succinctly in her short promo: “When the news breaks, reporters will report it… analysts will analyse what it means, but we set the agenda…” For her interviews, Deborah could pick any angle of the news for interrogation, but she depends on the first report from the journalist on the scene. If the report was wrong, any commentary based on the original account is ill-fated.

 

Check, double-check, crosscheck

According to Joy News Channel, “news must be comprehensive. Doing journalism that matters means going to the people.” How do you work with exactly what the people have told you? Journalists have the professional latitude and the personal choice to report any story based on their appreciation of the 5Ws and the H. They may report a serious news story like a feature or stressbuster. All we want are the true facts.

Check, re-check double check, crosscheck and go back to check what you have checked, to check that you got all the facts right before you proceed to file the report. This is what we were taught in journalism school some 17 years ago. Andrew Marr, one of Britain’s finest journalists, goes further to add one more item to the check rules: find a surreptitious way to go back to check the information from the original source, to establish that the source stands by what they gave earlier.

Yet, we often get it wrong. The last time I met a very decent Canada-trained Ghanaian professor about whom I had written a wrong report years ago, I couldn’t look at the venerable academic in the eye. It was a sad case of mistaken identity in which I had confused a politician who bears the same name with the academic. I was ashamed.

 

Notable events, bad reporting

I have read many wrong and inaccurate accounts from young and inexperienced reporters who throng my organisation’s events to ‘cover’ the news.’ Usually, I do not see any enthusiasm in them to go any lengths to exhaust the ‘checks processes.’  You have no excuse to get the name of the keynote speaker wrong.  Your obligation is to report exactly what happened exactly as it happened. No opinions.

We were taught to observe the same strict reporting rules when the big news breaks. At this point, we shall not worry about what qualifies to be ‘big news’ or ‘breaking news.’ The gas explosion at Atomic junction last week, which killed some 7 people and injured more than 100, satisfies the definition of big news – Notable events, weather and sports. It was a notable event that is etched on our minds forever. It reminds us of similar events at Circle and Trade Fair where people died from gas explosions.

In a pluralistic media milieu where advanced technology and active citizen journalism have made reporting easier than the days of Henry Ofori, the passive news consumer has bigger expectations for quality and accurate reporting. They will know when a reporter got it wrong or buffed up a quote to capture a certain sentiment. They will also know when the H (the How) of the story is padded to communicate a preferred reality. News (North, East, West and South) is after all cooked on social media.

 

Kojo Yankson’s khebabs

While citizen journalists are prepared to write their own news when professional story tellers delay or misreport the events, they still seek validation of their own accounts from reputable media houses. Joy News sent their best to the explosion scene at Atomic junction when the news broke. It was refreshing to see celebrated host of the award-winning Super Morning Show, Kojo Yankson, reporting the sequence by sequence accounts of events that led to the explosion.

As usual, Kojo’s presentation was flawless, except that the facts were flawed, according to social media. In Kojo’s passionate account, a chinchinga (khebab) seller had lighted his stove in the midst of the explosion when the atmosphere was soaked with so much gas. Aboki’s fire was ready invitation for the gas, which borrowed some heat from Aboki’s stove and sent flames into space. Nearby installations and human settlements, such as a students’ hostel at Legon and Presec, felt the explosion with a bang.

Kojo Yankson has since been trending on social media for seeing too much in too little and being too quick to blame a national calamity on a poor khebab seller. Kojo is urged to look at institutional failings and our laxity in implementation of policies and regulations; that is when such policies are available. There are big players to answer perplexing questions. Aboki only fits into an already scripted narrative.

 

Remedies for wrong reports

Kojo’s story suffered a final credibility jolt when the Public Relations Director of the Ghana National Fire Service came out to play down the khebab theory, urging the public to wait for final investigations. On social media, Ace Ankomah wrote: “KhebabMan must be some kind of Superman with magical powers. With a ‘visible’ gas leakage, with a gas smell all over the place, and with people being evacuated, he insists on lighting a fire…I put it to you that the fire knew the man.”

I don’t remember the remedies they taught us at communication school when we got a story wrong. Well, the last time it happened to me, I went back to check what I failed to check, apologised and proceeded to write a long eulogy to placate the professor.

What about when men of God get it wrong? Dr. Lawrence Tetteh may need to check a few things about the reasons behind the bloody river in Koforidua before cursing the demons in the water. It seems we had a lot to take in last week. First, it was Kojo Yankson’s khebabs. Then a bloody river that became an apparition to a man of God. It all started with a little hitch in the reporting channel. Let’s check the facts.

 

Tissues of the Issues

…with Kwesi Tawiah-Benjamin

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