Trust, but verify.

The Bond movie ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ had a message that seems almost tailor-made for this period. Beyond the action, the gadgets and the beautiful women, the underlying theme was about how media organisations go to any length to profit from news. Just like they say that the best way to predict the future is to create it, it seems that the best way to profit from news is to make it. With the coming of new media and increased access to the internet, people who used to consume the news are also producers of news.

Cyberspace is filling up rapidly with blogs and websites, with every one trying to ‘stand out’ in their own way, and often stepping outside the best practices of journalism as it is (or used to be?) practiced. Indeed, it is all about page views, and the truly ambitious people will stretch the boundaries of ethics to get those views, to have you click their links. The more views a site has, the more advertising it will get and the more money it will make, but to get those views, it seems there is a race to the bottom to shock people, to mislead with headlines, or to misinform outright.

This is a tactic increasingly employed by that bastion of government opposition known as Sahara Reporters. Its stated mission to expose the shady events in the Nigerian government has proven useful in the past, especially as it is filling a vacuum in Nigerian investigative journalism that is as wide as the desert from which it gets its name, but when it crosses the line into reporting things that didn’t happen in a time of rising tension, then a line must be drawn.

It is relatively easy for news outlets to falsify reports in Nigeria, because no one bothers to check. There is no reliable news outlet that gives up-to-the minute information on events around the country. For hours after the unfortunate bombings near churches on christmas day, none of the major tv stations, including the NTA (with offices all over the country, no less) reported the news.

On the night of the 27th, SaharaReporters reported an explosion at an Arabic school in Sapele, which injured 7. It was spoken of as a reprisal attack for the killing of christians in the north, further escalating fears of a religious war. However, two people that were in Sapele moved around the city and found no evidence of any such attack. Meanwhile, the report has already shown up on other websites and TV stations around the world, without any pictures or independent verification.

Aside from the fact it is extremely sloppy journalism, it is most dangerous to further inflame an already combustible situation with reports that are not fact-checked. There is no news like bad news, and if you add in the ever more urgent need to ‘break the news first’, thereby generating the most hits on the site, it becomes perfectly clear why some choose to go down this road.

News has become ever more sensationalist in a bid to get readership, but this should not be at the expense of lives. Nigeria is a nation on edge, and a website like Sahara Reporters that has a large following cannot be an agent of falsehood in such sensitive matters. By all means, report the news, but more than ever before, the responsibility is to be accurate. In the event of a wrong report, it is only right to retract it.

It is also the responsibility of consumers of the news to be more discerning in processing it, lest they become pawns in the hands of those who have one agenda or other. Governor Rotimi Amaechi’s recent assertion that up to 80% of the news is paid for, is something that should give anyone pause. We cannot continue to sleepwalk.

Ronald Reagan had a favourite phrase: ‘trust, but verify’. In a time where misinformation and at times disinformation is rampant, this should be a guiding principle for everyone.

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