As a journalist, I firmly believe in the importance of media criticism. It’s a necessary part of our job that keeps us accountable and guides us towards delivering the best possible work while maintaining the trust of our audiences and stakeholders.
Let’s begin by understanding the fundamentals of journalism. The Elements of Journalism, a book by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, underscores that truth is the cornerstone of journalism. This means that journalists must gather and verify facts, and present a fair and reliable account opened to further investigation. Unfortunately, over time, some media outlets have veered away from this obligation of truth, inviting justified criticism. Yet, it’s important to recognise that not all media criticisms are constructive. Some are actually meant to destroy.
US, UK example
According to the Reuters Digital News Report 2023, the sources and drivers of media criticism vary by market. In some countries like the United States, Turkey, and Hungary, politicians and political activists are the primary sources of media critique. In contrast, in the United Kingdom, criticism often stems from celebrities, comedians, and social media figures.
In Ghana, I’ve identified two major sources of media criticism: That is from citizens and politicians.
From Citizens: Criticism from the public often focuses on dissatisfaction with media reporting trends. For instance, there was a time when the Ghanaian media seemed preoccupied with accidents and tragic stories, driven by the perception that bad news sells. This prompted public outcry, leading to a positive shift towards more balanced and uplifting news stories. Similarly, criticism arose when the content of telenovelas was considered excessively explicit and culturally insensitive due to their explicit sexual nature. Media houses broadcasting these shows responded by adjusting their content to align with cultural norms and societal values.
From Politicians: Politicians and their supporters are another significant source of media criticism in Ghana. This trend mirrors patterns observed in several markets globally. These critiques often arise when politicians perceive media reports as biased or unfavourable to their interests.
Unfortunately, criticism from politicians in Ghana has, at times, escalated to physical attacks on journalists. A notable incident involved Hajia Fati, a prominent advocate of Ghana’s ruling party, the New Patriotic Party (NPP), physically assaulting a journalist who was simply doing her job. This unfortunate incident occurred during the coverage of aspirants collecting nomination forms at the NPP headquarters.
A more tragic example highlights the severity of such criticism as in the case of Kennedy Agyapong, a Member of Parliament from the ruling NPP, who consistently criticised investigative journalism and even exposed the image of investigative journalist Ahmed Hussein Suale. Tragically, this disclosure led to the assassination of Ahmed Hussein Suale by unknown gunmen in January 2019.
These incidents underscore the severe consequences that political criticism can have on journalists in Ghana. It goes beyond words and enters into that of physical threats and harm.
On the other hand, both private and government institutions, including security services, have, at one point or another, voiced their concerns about the media’s performance. These concerns range from accusations of misreporting, under-reporting, to over-reporting. Even the National Media Commission (NMC) has not been immune to substantial criticism, with some labelling it ineffective and others suggesting it has become too politicised. The NMC, in turn, has not shied away from offering its own critiques, particularly targeting journalists and media organisations where necessary. It’s important to note that criticism of the media can come from any corner, and it can come at any time.
Journalism is often referred to as the Fourth Estate of the Realm as it is built on the principles of truth, accuracy, and impartiality. Journalists strive to provide their readers with essential information for informed decision-making. However, journalists are just human beings, and like all humans, they are prone to errors. Therefore, criticism plays a vital role in the media industry.
Even before external criticism comes into play, the media has built-in mechanisms for self-assessment. These mechanisms operate at both the pre-production and post-production stages of news programming. During the pre-production phase, editors collaborate to plan news programs carefully, ensuring accuracy, fairness, and relevance. During Post-production, there’s a thorough review process to evaluate the effectiveness of the news coverage. While it’s true that self-criticism may have dwindled in some newsrooms, it remains a potent tool that the media can employ to hold itself accountable for its actions and decisions.
The public expects journalists to scrutinise public figures and institutions rigorously. However, for this relationship to remain healthy, journalists should be ready for criticisms. Criticism often arises from a place of concern or disagreement. Therefore, journalists and media organisations should see it as an opportunity to learn and adapt. Accepting criticism demonstrates transparency and self-regulation, which is vital for maintaining public trust.
Constructive criticism acts as a quality assurance mechanism in journalism. Journalists and media organisations should embrace criticism as an opportunity to refine their work. Critiques can help identify inaccuracies, biases, or oversights that may have crept into a story. Valuing constructive feedback means correcting mistakes, improving accuracy, and upholding the integrity of the profession.
Credibility and trust are the lifeblood of journalism. The more journalists and media outlets demonstrate their willingness to engage with criticism, the more credible and trustworthy they become. Constructive feedback should be seen as a way to foster professional growth, and media organisations should encourage an open culture that welcomes criticism from both within and outside their newsroom. By doing so, media outlets can strengthen their editorial processes and enhance the overall quality of their content.
In conclusion, media criticism is essential for upholding the principles of journalism and maintaining public trust. It should be fair, constructive, and aimed at improving the quality of journalism, not at serving personal interests or political agenda.
The writer of this feature, Ibrahim Khalilulahi Usman, is a fellow of the Next Generation Investigative Journalism Fellowship at the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA), NGIJ Fellow, 2023.