“New Technology Versus the Pursuit of Facts”
By Emeka Izeze | Managing Director/Editor-in-Chief, The Guardian, Lagos, Nigeria
It is probably an understatement to conclude that media practice will never be the same again, with the advent of new technology. Things that posed a challenge in the past have suddenly become common place. And for a third-world country like Nigeria, the changes are nothing short of revolutionary. The pursuit of fact and the desire to sift it from rumours has become more streamlined. Information is no longer hard to come by; the task now is how to decipher the useful and useless.
In responding to George Gilder’s paper, I have chosen to briefly share our experience in Nigeria regarding the impact of new technology in the course of our job. Cell phones, for one, have become among the most widely used appliances by both the adult and youth populations. It has suddenly served to guarantee information flow in a manner that was hitherto inconceivable. It has enabled us to overcome traditional infrastructural limitations when reporting on events or transmitting information.
A recent case in point was the coverage of the general elections in April (2007). Reporters in far-flung corners of our country were able to bridge the distance by keeping in constant touch with our head office. (Nigeria has a land mass of nearly 911,000 square kilometers). We needed constant update of voters’ turnout, situation report around polling centres, conduct of electoral officials and law enforcement agents deployed to keep the peace. In the old days, we would have had to wait until the end of polling for reporters to file stories to the newsroom in the head office. This time, through the use of mobile phones, some reporters were required to send in their minute-by-minute update by SMS, or physical phone calls.
The impact was far-reaching. It enabled news managers to immediately build a clear and unfiltered picture of events around the country, decide on the direction the news coverage in the next day’s paper should take. They got instantly, breaking or anticipated news copies, thereby greatly facilitating their planning and processing of news. They tracked and reported instantly, incidents of ballot stuffing or theft and other forms of electoral fraud. There was no equivocation in our reports on occasions where balloting did not hold at all, even though officials were later to release spurious results from such non-existent polling centres.
Camera phones and digital cameras also came in handy. They offered new opportunities for transmitting not only verbal information, but also written texts and pictures. From the head office, editors were able to easily reach sources at any desired time, thereby enhancing both access to and credibility of high value information. Using the cell phones, they were able to quickly seek clarification from field reporters, election observers and officials. The scope of information sources is further expanded by public participation options. Members of the public sent SMS and pictures and made calls on happenings in their polling centres. It was also easy for our staff to track the army of local and foreign election monitors and obtain instant information on their observations. We have covered many elections in the past, but none had experienced such instant news generation and accuracy of reports as the recent polls. It was all thanks to the new technology.
The internet has provided a somewhat different opportunity for us. It has thrown up a whole new world of information sourcing. More detailed research through the use of the internet has undoubtedly enhanced the quality of reporting. Transmission of copies from our field offices and the headquarters has been facilitated by the internet at very low costs. The internet has also given the news media direct access to consumers of information, in a way that traditional channels were unable to do.
However, we have faced the greatest challenge with the internet, compared with other new technologies. Sifting the truth or fact from rumour or fiction has become a tasking issue when using the internet. It is getting ever more difficult to determine the credibility of all the available information, as bloggers’ sources for instance, are not so easy to verify. In particular, we had faced issues of libel and threats of litigation following the publication of information obtained in part from the internet. One instance involved the Finance Minister of our country, a former vice-president of the World Bank. She had been engaged in efforts to negotiate the write off of half of the country’s huge foreign debts owed the Paris Club of creditors.
In researching a story on the issue, one reporter sourced some of his materials from the internet. That information claimed that the finance minister had hired a firm owned by her brother as brokers for the debt negotiations. Ordinarily, it was legitimate business arrangement accepted internationally, to engage the services of brokers in such an instance. But the snag this time was the hint of corruption and nepotism. The internet report had claimed that the brokerage firm was paid huge sums of money as commission.
That information seemed so credible that it eluded the usual scrutiny of the editors. It was used in the story and soon enough, we were hearing from lawyers holding brief for the minister’s brother. On further investigation, we discovered that the claim published by the internet bloggers and circulated widely, was entirely false. We promptly published a retraction and settled issues with the lawyers. It was a classic example of the sort of problem that sourcing information on the internet, can get the news media into. It also raises the question of how to use legal means to curb the spread of rumour and falsehood through the internet, especially with the cross-jurisdictional nature of its operations.
The sometimes suspect credibility of its content apart, new technology has provided news-media houses with opportunities. We are for instance, exploring ways of achieving convergence in our media production. Our first proposal dwells on operating a single newsroom for print/internet/radio/mobile media. The television may be added to the package, depending on how the first phase turns out. Above all else though, is the issue of profitability of additional operations and marketing of content to subscribers. We could also face the hurdle of overcoming official resistance to what may seem to be media concentration.
Whatever the case, the future for both the news media and individual journalists can never be the same again, thanks to new technology.
Response originally presented at The Media Project's conference “Fact vs. Rumor: Journalism in the 21st Century.”