Our Underperforming Press: The Missing Topics, Polish on the Contents
By Atem Yaak Atem
For years, many South Sudanese understood that the primary role of conventional mass media, especially radio and press, was propaganda. Being propaganda tools, these media had to explain the cause of the conflict between the central government in Khartoum and the people of what was known as Southern Sudan. Closely related to that advocacy function, the media of the time provided the spokespersons for the region with a platform on which they had to refute and debunk claims being made by the opponents. Consequently, there was no room for a newspaper owned by a Southern Sudanese organisation or individual to cover the host of issues and topics that under normal situation would form the stock-in-trade of newspaper or a radio station.
This understanding has virtually continued to dominate thinking of editors, and the contents and operations of our press even after the attainment of independence. The subjects that are absent from the pages of nearly all of the publications appearing in Juba include the following: incisive analysis of local, regional or international news, public affairs, obituaries, profiles of shakers and movers, environment, business and finance, history. These are just a few of the topics that I have picked at random. Lest it be forgotten; why these subjects are rarely covered has nothing to do with whether the media are free or not. Even a press that is tightly gagged can still write on those topics as long as their authors do not open floodgates to criticism of policies and the powers that be.
By way of digression, it can be stated that since South Sudan’s press does not enjoy the kind of freedom of expression that exists in countries such as Kenya or South Africa, critical news analysis or an opinion that may go contrary to the official position, is understandably absent on the pages of the local newspapers. This means creditable analysts such as Brian Adeba have to publish their educative and incisive analyses on independent platforms such as African Arguments. This is unfortunate because such forums despite their availability locally online, are not accessible to the majority of the audience in Juba or major towns, for example, where power outage and low IT saturation are leading obstacles.
Let us begin with obituaries. Following the death about two years ago of one of South Sudan’s distinguished law professors and chairperson of the Constitutional Review Commission, Akolda Man Tier, one of my colleagues based in Juba informed me in an email note that it was only Alfred Taban the editor and proprietor of Juba Monitor daily who had written a brief eulogy of this prominent public figure. It is true that most of the media outlets, both print and electronic, carried the news of Akolda’s passing on within 36 hours of its occurrence. Nevertheless, an obituary befitting him as a renowned academic was written by Nasredeen Abdulbari. Abdulbari is a Sudanese academic who was late Akolda’s student and later a fellow lecturer at the Faculty of Law, University of Khartoum. Nasredeen Abdulbari, who by the time he wrote his piece was a doctoral student at the American Georgetown University, has written a glowing tribute to the late professor. In the obituary Abdulbari remembers Akolda as someone who was known for “objectivity, straightforwardness, honesty, candour, dedication and commitment to work …will remain forever”. From the eulogy, the reader learns that the Faculty of Law at the University of Khartoum where Akolda had taught for more than four decades has honoured the departed don by naming a lecture hall after him.
Profiles and obituaries as art forms
After reading the tribute one is bound to ask: Why should such a detailed and favourable exposition of the life of a prominent South Sudanese citizen be written first by a foreigner, and not by a fellow South Sudanese and for the tribute to appear in a publication owned by a non-South Sudanese? The answer to that question is that many journalists in our newsrooms think that the job of a newspaper is to publish news reports-including news of someone’s death- and opinion pieces, not obituaries. That thinking is definitely erroneous because the wider understanding of topics that cover matters such as profiles or obituaries are a form of extended news; providing readers with background or additional information to news items. The irony in the situation is that most of those journalists know and sometimes read profiles and obituaries in leading world newspapers such as The Times of London, The Guardian, New York Times, Washington Post or weekly magazines, among them The Economist or Time. Our neighbours, the Kenyans have print media which are high standards which should be emulated.
The line between an obituary and a profile is narrow: a profile, for example, deals with an account of a living person’s records that highlight outstanding achievements or spectacular failures in public domain, and affecting the lives of other people, a nation or humanity at large, for better or for worse. When such a person dies their profile could be converted into an obituary, with amendments made here and there. A well-crafted tribute or profile, for instance, can claim a place alongside an essay which is a literary form in its own right.
Obituary and profile writing requires skills and expertise similar to that enjoyed by writers who specialise in political analysis, science or economic affairs issues. And objectivity can be employed in the writing of the life of great public personalities. To make subject of an obituary a real and credible human being, presentation should contain warts and all: virtues, foibles, achievements and failures, and possibly a sensitively sanitised revelation of some guarded secrets in the life of the dead great. Even if the dead cannot sue for defamation and libel, obituary writers should steer clear of retelling unpleasant facts- verifiable or otherwise- about their subjects to avoid hurting the feelings the deceased person’s loved ones.
Outstanding deeds (and omissions) equal great lives
And who qualifies for a newspaper’s profile? Almost anyone as long as their life story is unique, newsworthy, and whose life and deeds are likely to inspire younger people who would look up to them as persons to emulate in real life. As an example, I think one of the people who would have qualified for a newspaper’s profile was the venerable Bari man who was known as Uncle Daniel Jumi to many of his compatriots including political leaders of different generations and persuasions. The eventful life of Uncle Jumi who is believed to have been a centenarian when he died not long after the attainment of independence in 2010, was a profile material. Unfortunately, none of us in the media- not by design I venture to suggest- was able to record his rich life and time. As an old man with a clear memory to the end of his life people who wanted to hear from him eyewitness accounts of the past 70 years stretching back to colonial rule; the events leading to August 18, 1955 mutiny by Southern elements of Equatoria Corps of the Sudan Defence Force at Torit and so forth, sought his company.
Pioneers in many fields of human endeavours such as medicine; service in the military; spiritual domain; education, agriculture, for example, have potential to produce leaders whose careers would make rich and educative profiles. We also have kings- Collo (Shilluk) and Anywaa (Anyuak), for example, who remain largely unknown outside their own territories of jurisdiction. These “moving history” kind of people are everywhere in our society; in the rural areas; as retired senior citizens in major towns of the republic; as lawmakers; business people or as part of the struggling and anonymous citizenry. Their impressive and informative life stories will remain locked away from the rest of the society unless when journalists approach and mine the trove of knowledge and experiences that should be passed to the wider public for sharing.
When a person with such a background makes news by way of appointment to a high public office, journalists do not have to rush to the fresh newsmaker for information following their appointment. Media practitioners who know their job well must arm themselves in advance with life stories of outstanding public servants who are also potential newsmakers. A reputable newspaper leadership should compile and “store” raw material for profiles of leading public figures. Whenever the subject is in news for the right or the wrong reasons, editors then pick and assemble the profile to suit the situation in question.
Environment as planet shared heritage
Away from public figures and their life stories, environmental issues should be seen as matters of life and death. Our natural surroundings, our place in the world as partners with other living things in a shared habitat; the impact of human agency on the natural world; the place of natural resources in their different forms and uses to human beings, and many more, all do have direct bearings on our lives and the health of planet Earth. Often, people tend to consider wildlife only as a resource that attracts foreign tourists to increase national revenue, and not as an integral part of the environment and its protection. Other environmental concerns include the deplorable destruction of forests for fuel.
These and the threat posed by global warming as a result of human activities resulting, for example, from pollution by developed world, should be part of frequent coverage by our newspaper as they affect all nations, poor or rich, developing or industrialised. Our newspapers should publish stories to educate the public about ways environmental degradation could be minimised while at the same time they should initiate discussion about alternative energy source for the poor majority of the citizens relying on wood for domestic use. Debate and education on global warming should also have a space on the pages of our dailies or periodicals.
Just as we are not as island as Africans or South Sudanese, we cannot elect to ignore what is taking place in the rest of world as far as environmental issues are concerned. By the same token, globalisation of business, trade and economies also means there is no room for us to stand aloof as what happens in New York, London or Tokyo will definitely have ripples in our own land and lives. Our papers should follow trends worldwide, including advanced technology even if we do not have it, by reporting news in those areas and in our parts of the world.
Making contents attractive and accessible to all (almost)
If the contents of a newspaper can be likened to a meal ready to be consumed, then the format and the manner of presentation would take the place of a container. If a delicious food is put in an eyesore and dirty container, the consumer is likely to lose appetite. When one applies that analogy to the contents of a published material, it is true that a very good story can be spoilt by poor presentation. Over 80 percent of news items, feature stories and other contents intended for publication reach a newspaper office in a raw form and in a serious need of polishing. That process of making the reporter’s news story or an opinion writer’s article, flow smoothly, clear and less dreary to a potential reader, is the job of sub editor or copy editor. This person operates according to some guidelines they know by heart. If the stuff is news, for example, then the story must answer the “five ‘ws’”, namely who, what when, where and sometimes “how”.
The other cardinal rule is that the story especially news must be understood by the “biscuit factory worker”, a phrase coined by the late journalist and author of Inside African Newsroom, Frank Burton. By biscuit factory worker, late Burton who once worked as a journalist in Kenya used to emphasise an old principle in journalism. The rule maintains that the basic aim of communication whether in speech or writing is to inform rather than impress the reader or the listeners. The objective can be achieved, it is argued, only when the communicator uses simple language, shorter sentences devoid of long and difficult words or technical jargons. Simple language then has the advantage that it is understood by someone with a modest knowledge of the language concerned as well as by specialists in their different fields including professors of the language used for writing the story. There is no wonder why the African Newsroom was the best handbook for many young African journalists in the 1970s through the 1980s.
As far as experience with our newspapers of the recent years is concerned, the standards have been falling alarmingly and steadily because their owners see little use for employing professional subeditors. Need a proof? Get old copies of some publications and go over them at random. That you will spot stories carrying these “aircrafts, equipments, ammunitions, artilleries, damages (in reference to material destruction, not in the legalistic sense of the word) or broadcasted (irregular verbs remain unchanged). Despite the fact that these forms break the rules, the fact that they continue to appear in the stories means that they are not unintended errors in typos but what their writers think are correct.
Americanism or British English?
Another journalistic tradition that has been thrown to the wind is the adoption of house style. This system that is also known as style guide aims to regulate the manner of writing, although arbitrary, it gives a publication its individual identity. One of the problems resulting newspapers operating without a house style is that you will read not only in the same paragraph but the same sentence accommodating Americanisms with their British counterparts, for example, centre/center/, colour/color, programme/program (exception is only when referring a computer program) or sizeable/sizable, ageing/aging, skilful/skillful, instalment/installment. It is all confusing and lacking consistency and character.
There is no suggestion that one or the other form is superior to the other. There is no value judgement involved here. Everyone is free to adopt and use any of the two forms only on one condition: once the choice is made, for goodness sake, stick to that version; mixing the two shows inconsistency and as an evidence of “no system” malaise in writing.
As if all these acts of deviance are not irritation enough, a popular online publication has made a fetish of using “X plays down…” for headlines almost daily.
With this kind of falling journalistic standards, reading some of our newspapers has become a chore instead of the pleasure the habit is supposed serve. But the problem is not as difficult and complicated as the problem of power struggle among South Sudanese political class. The problem of contents devoid of value and poor presentation in the paper is simple and has a solution: let the papers employ professional and experienced copy editors and the readers will love the papers’ contents regardless of the opinions they carry.
Atem Yaak Atem began his journalistic career in 1975 and trained in Sudan, Germany and the UK. For more than four decades he has held senior editorial positions on several publications, among them Nile Mirror, Southern Sudan magazine, The Pioneer. He was the founding director of Radio SPLA (in October 1984), the voice of the former rebels of SPLM/A. He is currently living in Australia where he is a translator.