Online media can’t elbow out Conventional Media

29 Jan 2019

There are many reasons why the Botswana landscape favours conventional media over online platforms. It cannot be denied that online media, especially Facebook and Tweeter are making inroads in how we receive our news updates. The power of online media rests in the instantaneous reporting of the happening as it unfolds before the reporter’s eyes. Because all it requires is to update one’s wall or tweet account so that those who are in the circle so long their gadgets are switched on can see the newest development; the conventional media inevitably will always lag several steps behind.

“S—t has hit the fan…Isaac Kgosi arrested,” Sonny Serite’s famous Facebook post went viral just after nine on the night of Tuesday the 15th January 2019. This is despite the fact that when he got to the airport, Serite acknowledges having found a team from another media house, but whose approach to the story was for the photojournalist to shoot the pictures, download them back in the lab and have the journalist write a short blurb to whet the appetite of unsuspecting readers to the main headline planned for the weekend read. By updating his wall, Serite had beaten them to their game. But that’s all there is to the power of social media – breaking news. Today’s generation is surely one that is on the move and might want to glean something short and catchy so they can continue with their business without being bogged down with a long narrative. Perhaps that is only true to the extent that we want to prop up the attitude of those who are savvy with technology and lazy to focus on reading a good narrative that informs them to make choices.

Social media platforms don’t provide for language tools such as spellchecker and punctuation to help reporters with limited language proficiency to make sense. Our newspapers that boast layers of copy editors still come out with paragraphs that don’t communicate the essence of what the headline has given away to the reader, much less the posted updates on tweeters and Facebook by users of a language that is acquired from the classroom as opposed to suckling it. While the main idea of what the one posting an update would have been achieved, it remains true that such updates made in a hurry not only must deal with the problem of language to prepare the message so it is understood clearly, but also should confront the reality that the brevity of the message itself lends to nagging questions of ‘how and why’, while the ‘what/who, where and when’ may be simple and easy to address in a Tweet or Facebook post. If you take the Isaac Kgosi’s arrest as a case in point, Serite communicated clearly to the extent that those in his circles understood that the former DISS Director General was nabbed at the Sir Seretse Khama International Airport that particular night by the agents of the same organisation that he headed not long ago. At that stage, it would have been too early to know the details of why he was being arrested, and to differentiate between plain-clothes agents as belonging to the Botswana Unified Revenue Services – who actually carried out the arrest, and the DISS officers. The level of curiosity was raised high in the mind of the consumer of news, and waking up to a well-done story that filled all the gaps and provided more meat to the skeleton previously received from the Facebook post was a legitimate expectation.

Unlike online media in the developed nations, where not only are they writing in their native tongues, but also have the requisite skills that go with the proper language for their target audiences, plus the robust technology that allows for proper editing and proofing of copy within minutes after an incident has happened, here at home; we don’t have that luxury and would struggle for yet another two generations before we can embrace social media as truly the vehicle for news targeting the broader population. While newspapers’ advertising revenues might be shrinking significantly and leading to laying off great writers from our newsrooms, our reporters must not be alarmed that social media can take over as yet. In fact, newspapers should not fight in the same space as online media to break stories; rather, they should use online media as their feeders so that they then work and expand the themes that the breaking story did not address, thus giving the reader or consumer of news an insight or in-depth into the story.

There is a place for investigative reporting to take place once online media broke the story. The temptation in breaking stories instantaneously is that not all facts can be gathered and reported at once; hence an edition that follows should be thorough and cover all bases to give a total perspective so that the consumer understands and appreciates the angle to report the news. When facts are in short supply, yet the urge to break the story is powerful, the irresistible temptation is to speculate and infuse one’s bias and inhibitions with respect to the person or agenda that is the newsmaker at the material time. Inconsistencies and fabrications come to the fore of the article which is seen for what it is by keen readers that the reporter is making an attempt to break the story by hooking us into something he has no clue about. A classic example is with respect to what the search team discovered at Kgosi’s house the other week. There were many mouth-watering reports depending which media house fed its readers that the agents took away guns of war in their tens, spy machine and so forth.

The listing out of such discoveries obviously got tongues wagging as it was evident from such media reports that the former spy chief had been cornered and beaten hands down. As it turned out a day later or two, the head of the search team’s version was completely worlds’ apart from what has already been told the public. What a disappointment to those baying for Kgosi’s blood! Similarly, while the search was on at his Phakalane house, the social media report gave rise to the school of thought that Kgosi was no small boy, as the prosecution authority’s offices were submerged in water to the extent that files suspected to include his docket that has been collecting dust for years now, were destroyed. This report must have sunk too many hearts of those who wanted to see Kgosi having his day in court. It was reported to cement his authority and strong networks inside government so much that his allies would have ensured to burst a water pipe that could submerge several floors in water – just so there is no evidence that might be used to try him in the courts. This is the danger of breaking stories – a small matter is magnified or a big matter is simplified depending who is reporting and what is the objective for such a news article. Breaking stories, particularly in an era where there is stiff competition for a tight market and revenue spinoffs can bring with it strong sentimental pitfalls that make journalism another form of fiction while it is not.

“We need to write now, write well—tell the truth in all its messy complexity. It’s our best shot at helping to preserve a democracy in which facts still exist and all of us can speak freely,” writes Jennifer Egan in Time edition of December 2018.

Instead of despairing, serious-minded journalists in Botswana need to invest time in researching their stories and ensuring that all elements mentioned in the story are given the perspective to share their thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. It is important that conventional media as a holistic can start to view themselves as competing against ‘fake news’ and that they need not fall into the sentimental pitfall of online media to recycle the lies, the fabrications, the innuendoes that often litter online platforms. 

Our mainstream media must not emulate social media platforms – our writers, journalists, and public opinion commentators must be serious about the projection of facts through truth-telling. The only motivation for journalism, unlike other forms of writing, is telling the truth and facts are contained therein. News gatherers must resist the temptation to feed unsuspecting consumers lies, otherwise dubbed ‘fake news’ in the language of United States President – Donald J. Trump.