We live in an era where the effects of globalisation are felt by literally every country on the planet. Globalisation and technological innovations have given birth to positive and negative repercussions. Like any other industry, this evolution has not spared the media. With the advancement in technology, anyone anytime can capture an event on their mobile phone and upload the story to social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, to name a few. In an industry where the mainstream media houses enjoyed a monopoly over the news and were the custodians of disseminating information, whether print, radio or television, for so many decades, it is indeed a shift that has left many grasping at straws to retain relevance. This evolution of the media has led to media owners and journalists competing for relevance and thus pushing boundaries to such an extent that it borders on unethical and unprofessional conduct. The practice of unethical and unprofessional conduct by journalists and media houses globally is not new, except it has become worse with all the changes that have occurred, here.
This dilemma is not unique to developed countries but is also experienced in developing countries like Zambia. Notably, the influx of online media and the competition that stems from it has contributed significantly to the decline in media ethical and professional conduct. In today’s media environment, journalists seem incredibly incompetent when reporting news stories; their lack of critical approach when covering a story has led to the presentation of half-baked, skewed narratives that disappoint audiences. The situation is worse regarding online media institutions, as most do not have a physical presence and are somewhat out of reach of regulatory bodies. In 2014, at the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) launch, the Zambian government also launched the code of ethics for journalists www.bizcommunity.co.zm/Article/237/466/119246.html, www.iba.org.zm/ethical-guidelines. The legend of principles was to ensure that all media in public and private media institutions level GH of ethical and professional standards in carrying out their duties. In absolute terms, ensuring that media houses and their journalists adhere to the laid down code of ethics has proved futile for the IBA, as ethical and professional conduct has dropped to its lowest level.
According to the 2021 African Media Barometer (AMB) Zambia report, Sector 4, indicator 4.1, the reporting standards are generally low, with many young journalists lacking fundamental principles of journalism. This lack of experience and proper or adequate media training has led to gross professional and ethical misconduct in Zambia, here.
As an executive of an organisation that has a significant influence on Zambian politics, I have been cautious when it comes to interactions with the media, as sometimes journalists tend to deliberately quote you out of context or twist your words to create a sensational story and up their ratings or to support a pre-conceived notion. These manipulative tendencies by journalists are so prevalent today that there is a general saying that "the media can make you or break you," hence the need to be careful when interacting with them. I have personally encountered journalists who have twisted my statement to support a particular narrative to steer public opinion particularising trajectory, here. This is usually to favour their paymasters, who typically happen to be opposition political leaders that desire to counter the narrative of their counterparts in the ruling party who have the state media at their beck and call. I was highly disappointed by this reprehensible conduct by a journalist whom I trusted and expected to be nothing less than professional.
The AMB report addresses a critical aspect as to why there has been a significant decline in professional and ethical conduct by both the public and private media. I have noticed that for most media houses, especially in the private sector, the number one motivation is money and not the noble cause of serving the Zambian people. For this reason, they compromise on the quality of the workforce they employ to reduce their wage bill. This compromise has led to the engagement of unqualified journalists who are clueless about their profession and how to understand journalism’s core values and principles.
Most media owners, out of self-serving motives, have opted to employ unqualified journalists with little to no experience whatsoever as it is much cheaper than seasoned qualified journalists who will demand higher pay. This also extends to why most media owners in the private sector shun investing in training programs for their journalists to enable them to acquire the necessary professional skills, as it is an additional cost to the business, a price they are not willing to bear. Therefore, the outcome ranges from poorly researched to one-sided reporting. Today it is common to have journalists from both public and private media houses being used by politicians to serve their interests and put out a narrative that best suits them to compensate for their poor salaries, here. This is not unique to privately owned media alone; state-owned media journalists also suffer from generally low wages and delayed payments, according to a 2008 Media Institute of Southern Africa MISA-Zambia report. There are significant discrepancies in wages earned by media employees, and the salaries are too low, prompting some journalists to solicit payments from sources. A decade-plus years later and this problem, to a greater extent, has even become worse, as highlighted in the AMB 2021 Zambia report, Sector 4 (4.3), that salaries in comparison to the standard of living are meagre, with journalists in private media surviving on refunds and transport allowance as they are mostly not on contracts. The report further states that some community radio station presenters earn as little as ZMK20 (US$1) daily and receive as little as ZMK240 (US$13) monthly. Further, the report states that a recent survey by MISA Zambia of 250 journalists established that average salaries range between ZMK1,000 and ZMK3,500 with those in public media institutions earning slightly better in the range of ZMK6,000 (US$330) monthly. These poor conditions of service prove to be a breeding ground for professional and ethical misconduct by journalists.
Unfortunately, most media houses and journalists get away with this misconduct, as there are no institutions or ombudspersons to hold media houses and their journalists accountable for their actions. It is essential to mention that the IBA is only concerned with electronic media; hence, there is no institution checking on the print and social media sectors. Therefore, these sectors are free to do as they please, giving rise to punitive measures and Cyber Security Laws. In 2019, the Media Self-Regulation Insaka was held with 220 delegates in attendance. It was after taking into consideration various media interests from media owners, community media, online media and mainstream media, as well as the interest of the public and government regarding media professionalism, that the delegates unanimously opted for the self-regulatory model backed by law, where the media continue to manage and control its affairs, here and here. This meant that each media house would have its own set of ethical code of conduct guidelines or house-styled. However, the only problem with this is the need for an overall regulatory body to ensure that media houses adhere to the self-prescribed rules.
Most media houses do not practice effective self-regulation; hence, an enterprise that this highly recommended model has not yielded much success four years later as the media’s issues of ethical and professional misconduct characterise the decline in professionalism in the media has caused the new dawn government to encourage media self-regulation to ensure the proper conduct of media institutions. Most recently, the Republican President, Mr Hakainde Hichilema, bemoaned journalists' lack of knowledge and professionalism, here. Suffice it to say that these efforts by the government will all prove futile if proper enforcement mechanisms are not put in place.
The author is the Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Dialogue (a local Think-tank), host of a radio show called All Things Governance on Capital FM and a former columnist/political analyst for the Post Newspaper (now called The Mast). A graduate of the University of Zambia and an Alumna of the London School of International Business and the University of Northampton in the United Kingdom. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Zambia with a research bias towards Ethical Transformational Leadership and Performance in Zambia’s Public Service.
The views expressed and conclusions made in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of fesmedia Africa, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), or the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA).
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