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Silence in the newsroom

Journalism thrives in the healthy chaos caused by intra- and inter-professional competitions. Being first with the news, otherwise known as the scoop, makes reporting exciting. In the past three months or so, we have seen a remarkable change in the culture and tradition of the newsroom. There is silence in the newsroom. Not because of the face mask that makes a speaker sound like man trying to talk at the same time as he is battling with a piece of cow leg in his egusi soup.

Coronavirus, yes, the same Covid-19, has imposed silence on the newsrooms across the country. Silence is anathema to the newsroom because it destroys the one thing the newsroom is known for – noise, reflecting a healthy competition among reporters. The newsroom is never meant to be silent. It is always meant, like an African bush market, to hum and sparkle with voices of men and women to whom arguments is second nature.

With Covid-19, our editors and reporters are dealing with something totally new and strange to journalism – the single story. I do not envy them. The single story is bad for journalism. The single story denies an editor his well-guarded authority to pick and choose the stories he wants to publish for public consumption. The single story must be professionally suffocating for enterprising reporters. When the single story is the biggest story, no editor can ignore it. Because it is the story; the one and only story.

The single story plays it both ways as a running story and a non-running story. A running story, meaning a story that stays in the public space for weeks or months, is always welcome in the newsrooms. Covid-19 should have been such a story, but it is not. Its nature makes it impossible to explore and report new angles and developments to it.

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When reporters explore and report new angles to a running story, they keep it alive and continue to properly inform and educate the public with new facts. The Covid-19 story has only one angle – the daily official briefing on the number of new infections, the number of the dead and those who are lucky to leave the treatment centres alive. It is handout journalism. Nothing kills the journalistic enterprise like a reporter being confined to reporting a running story from only the official information dished out to news media. Bad business. This is not journalism. It is merely echoing official voices. There is no room for questioning them; there is no room to provide alternative views and there is no room really to inform and educate the public.

It is not the fault of the officials. It is the nature of coronavirus. This is one strange running story. It stands still and forces reporters and their editors to stand still. Covid-19 runs the ring around reporters and their editors. It forbids reporters from meeting an infected person; it forbids reporters from checking on the isolation and treatment centres; it forbids reporters from talking to doctors who are treating the patients; it even forbids reporters from enquiring into who is infected, who beats the death rap and those who could not get their lives back. The virus makes everyone anonymous. Bad business.

This has hit reporters and their editors hard. It creates the totally wrong impression that they are not doing enough to inform and educate the people about this global killer virus that appears unstoppable in destroying lives, businesses as well as national and global economies. The world after Covid-19 would be a new world according to the order of the virus. But we must not let it impugn the integrity of reporters and their editors.

Reporters are, by their inquisitive nature, intrepid men and women. Courage is wired into their DNA, believe me. They laugh in the face of danger. Wherever there is danger, you would find them – be it wars, riots, ethnic or religious violence. Their profession obliges them to respect the right of the people to know. And if it means putting their lives on the line to achieve that objective and professionally serve the people better, they happily do it. No other group of professionals has the constitutional and the statutory right to inform the people. Only reporters can exercise that right. And they love to exercise it professionally to save mankind from mis-education and ignorance.

Wherever the angels fear to tread reporters love to rush in. Well, until now.

When a reporter covers a war, he knows that he risks taking a bullet in his head; when he covers a riot or violence, he knows that a club used to fight could make his head bleed. Despite these dangers, he is found where the action is, a faithful and vigilant witness to the daily unfolding of history. The reporter, I presume, must find it strange that despite the absence of guns and clubs, he cannot report on Covid-19 because the virus confronts him with a totally different professional challenge. In war, he knows how to take precaution to dodge the bullets and prevent them from homing in on his head. In riots, he knows how to protect his head from the clubs wielded by the rioters. But in Covid-19, he knows not how to protect himself. All he has, like everyone else, is the face mask. It has even become a fashion statement, as if we mock the virus attack. The capacity of the virus to kill is matched only by its ferocious spread in ways that makes it impossible for the reporter to protect himself and still carry on with his job. He does not know from whence or how it comes and cannot protect himself. He is as much a sitting duck as anyone else in the Covid-19 global health challenge era.

I am afraid, the silence is bound to sit in the newsrooms for quite some time yet. That statement comes with my expression of sympathy for our reporters and editors battling to be heard above silence of the single story.

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