On February 15, a day to the presidential election in Nigeria, journalists begin to report on a possible postponement of the election. Citing inside sources in the Independent National Electoral Commission, the reports were published in mainstream media outlets. While many readers were shocked and apprehensive of the implication of such postponement, others label the reports as fake news. Their argument? The news did not come from any official sources, and therefore it was fake. This group of citizens and vocal voices alike seem to believe only INEC can creditably report on INEC, rendering any sort of independent and investigative journalism on the Commission useless and condemned. This would have been strange and considered counterintuitive if not that we are in the era of fake news hunting.
Powerful people have always hated reporting activities they don’t like. Journalists have been killed, discredited, harassed and persecuted for their work for as long as journalism has existed. However, the 2016 United States election has added another dimension to the issue- a blanket denouncement of consequential journalism that annoys its subjects or readers as fake news. The fake news hysteria inspired by President Donald Trump and his supporters has contributed immensely to the erosion of trust in the press, not only in the United States but across the world.
There are indeed cases of fake news, many of them perpetuated outside of the mainstream media and even by those who love to scream fake news at any news they don’t like. For example, many of those who condemned the INEC reporting as fake news has been caught sharing fabricated information in the past. Trump, both as candidate and president, has shown no fidelity to the truthtelling. So, it is important that concerned citizens and analysts do not take their lesson on fake news from those who do not care about the genuineness of a report but are only interested in discrediting to further their own interest.
Another thing to note is that the use of anonymous sources can never be characterised as fake news. The INEC reporting was attacked by many precisely because the reports relied on anonymous sources. But this is a misunderstanding of how consequential journalism is done. Bob Woodward, the famed American journalist whose reporting helped remove a US president, once said, “Using these unnamed sources, if done properly, carefully and fairly, provides more accountability in government.” Ahmad Salkida’s contribution to our understanding of the Boko Haram phenomenon is made possible by his use of anonymous sources. Asking journalists to wait for official press statements is reducing journalists to a mere mouthpiece of government and other powerful stakeholders. By the way, the reports of election postponement all turned out to be correct, but those who condemned the reports as fake news have refused to apologise.
Journalists, like all other professionals, do make mistakes in the course of their work. When a journalist makes a mistake in their reporting, the mistake should be portrayed as evidence of fake news. It is a mistake the journalist and her platform has to admit to and retract, and mainstream media in Nigeria has shown leadership in this direction in recent years. However, denouncing genuine reporting mistakes as fake news helps only those who want to see independent journalism castrated and those who do not want to see the truth in print or broadcast.
The Nigerian media is already facing immense challenges, ranging from poor funding to government persecution, it is important we do not make their work impossible by attaching unfair and devastating labels to their work. We must also remember we need the support of the mainstream media to fight the real cases of fake news. If the public loses all trust in them thanks to unfair and untrue labelling of their work as fake news, they would not be able to do the work of pushing back against real fake news that does exist.
Sodiq Alabi tweets from @SodiqAlabi1.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of Nigerian Diary