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Tuesday, October 19, 2021

The digital age, fake news and the Gambian journalist

By Famara Fofana

In this day of breathtaking transformations in the digital media landscape, journalism appears to be a less hard job. Despite being blessed with the internet and the many conveniences it has brought to humankind, the irony is that journalism is in fact a different animal today than it was a decade or so ago. This is even making a lot of people ask the question ‘who is a journalist today?’

Fake news, which could mean different things to different people in some instances continues to pose one of the biggest threats to the credibility of the news media industry.   In case you wonder why I stated that ‘fake news’ could mean different things to different people, look no further than a certain Donald Trump, who despite being flagged several times for his own culpabilities in that regard, is reported to have mentioned ‘fake news’ more frequently than his campaign talisman ‘build the wall’ since he first used the term on December 10 2016. That was a ploy by him to discredit those that were not singing from the same political hymn sheet as him.  By the way, The Donald is not the only guilty party here. Politicians elsewhere and some leaders with populist tendencies also are in the habit of branding criticism(s) as fake news when they have their back against the wall. The term seems to be carrying a similar connotation as propaganda in the political arena of yesteryear.

Let’s face it! Journalists like the rest of society are bound to make mistakes. However, the thing is that even the most minute of errors by a reporter or an editor (the supposed gatekeeper) in his or her line of duty can have catastrophic consequences for society.  This is even more true of a country like ours where the pursuit of both personal and political capital in a year of elections means any little lapse on the part of a journalist can be received with explosive kneejerk reactions and rightly so. But beyond politics, the publishing or dissemination of news that is found to be unfounded in the end can have serious ramifications for both persons and establishments at the center of those stories.  Careers and reputations can fizzle in a jiffy with the publication of stories that border on fake news or fabricated information that mimics news. Apart from established media entities, there is also the small matter of individual journalists in The Gambia the habit of copying and pasting news  on social media without  citing sources, thereby leaving their publics with more questions than answers. 

And despite the fact that some people in our country frown upon the classic tabloid style of news reporting that thrives on hyperbole and melodrama, it is worth stating that sensational or Yellow Journalism as championed by the likes of William Randolph Hearst in the 1890s, may in itself not amount to fake news. Rather, it is the proliferation of citizen journalism, digital activism, chaotic communication, among other forms of online reportage that has increased the tendency for misinformation and/or the spread of fake news nowadays. This problem seems to be further compounded by the new-found super aggressive competition between different news media in dropping scoops with attention-grabbing headlines. Some would argue that the quest for ratings and views, coupled with an urge to   satisfy sensationalism-loving generation is also a reason why the media today doesn’t do a robust news processing and packaging job where every T has to be crossed and I dotted.

But whilst the untrained or unconventional journalist can be excused for letting go some basic tenets of the trade, a professional is expected to have his or her work grounded in facts and truth-telling – nothing more – nothing less.  So, in an era when even mainstream media houses in The Gambia and other parts of the world do fall back on non-journalists for videos and eye witness accounts of certain developments, what then should be the role of the journalists or a given media house or online platform in dealing with such secondary products?   The obvious step in the first place is to substantiate the veracity of the incident/occurrence at hand. By so doing, one would be required to go few steps further – to not just ensure the authenticity of the videos alone that easily go into online circulation these days – but utterances that are made by individuals in those clips ought to be more than double checked.

At times also, the problem is not about WhatsApp videos or audios that are peddled around with such a speed and precision but even ordinary people and what they post online, especially on Facebook, should be taken with a pinch of salt. The temptations are there for journalists to take some people’s words as the gospel truth on account of their reputation and/or profile in society. Be as that may, a degree of caution would be required in such circumstances given the implicit bias in us as human beings.

Of worthy mention here would be recent widespread reports that large quantities of ‘Cocaine’ were found in Kombo Sanyang on a day of mayhem and grief in the coastal community. On the back of the seizure of large quantity of ‘Nose Candy’ at the Banjul ports, the Sanyang cocaine claims sent a bewildered nation into another meltdown until the country’s anti-narco agents shot down those reports as false.  That tells you the power of misinformation. It has also what it takes to send people into jitters but how the media deals with unsubstantiated information from a people crumbling under information overload can help the rest of us. By virtue of its very powerful Magic Bullet or Hypodermic Needle capabilities, the effects of mass media, audiences (particularly passive ones) are likely to believe and accept that which come from journalists without any second thought.

Our current realities are best summed up by Silvio Waisbord of George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs   in his paper Truth is What happens to News: “Journalism as a single institution cannot possibly control this environment. Certainly, individual news organizations have the power to determine what they publish and what norms should be followed, as they struggle to reassert their position as a “news authority” in a crowded landscape of information flows.”

The tangle web of the digital age is here to stay. For the media, the opportunities are immense but so also are the downsides in the context of fake news and/or misinformation and the dangers associated therewith. Over to us, Gambian journalists.

Famara Fofana is reading Media and Communications Studies at the Graduate School of Social Sciences, Ankara University. He is a freelance journalist and also the author of When My Village Was My Village and Recollections of An African Child.

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