FOSTERING JOURNALISTIC INTEGRITY FOR STRENGTHENED DEMOCRACY

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IPC Ups the Stakes of Fact-Checking, FOIA Use and Inclusivity
in Election Coverage

By Olutoyin Ayoade

For a democracy to flourish, an informed citizenry attuned to current affairs is paramount. This raises a fundamental question about the effectiveness of the media in providing citizens with the necessary information, analysis, and contextual reports essential for informed decision-making on political candidates and policies. How can we enhance the quality of media engagement to improve the integrity of information available to the public? Additionally, considering resource constraints, what steps can journalists take to elevate and uphold reporting standards and enhance the quality of their news delivery to audiences?

In responding to these concerns, the International Press Centre (IPC) recognises the significant impact of the media on societal dynamics and positive change. IPC employs a variety of strategies, such as media training, resource dissemination, and advocacy initiatives, to empower journalists nationwide. By providing support, advocacy, and training, IPC aims to elevate journalistic standards, preserve press freedom, and enable journalists to effectively inform the public. This assistance contributes to nurturing a vibrant media landscape in Nigeria and Africa, aiding in the advancement of democratic governance and sustainable development objectives through the promotion of ethical journalism.

In further pursuit of these objectives, IPC, as lead partner of Component 4: Support to Media of the European Union Support to Democratic Governance in Nigeria (EU-SDGNII) project funded by the European Union recently organised a three-part workshop spanning a month to elevate journalists’ skills across the country. The workshops which took place in Akure, Ondo State, Port-Harcourt, Rivers State and Kaduna, Kaduna State brought together about 120 journalists from the six geo-political zones of the country with the training curriculum designed to equip them with vital tools and skills to tackle the challenges of the digital age in relation to information disorder while underscoring the importance of responsibility and ethical conduct.

The training also aimed to address some of the critical media observations highlighted in the European Union Electoral Observation Mission (EU-EOM) final report on the 2023 Nigeria general elections, including the following:

 The online sphere experienced a surge in false information, including sensationalized content spread across various platforms and media channels. Political entities and individuals contributed to this trend, targeting actors like INEC and mainstream media. False information circulated during presidential and state elections, especially around polling days.

 Throughout the gubernatorial elections, a proliferation of misinformation was observed, ranging from false claims of candidate withdrawals to fabricated endorsements. The online sphere witnessed the dissemination of hate speech aimed at specific political factions in Nigeria.

 The electoral discourse in Lagos was marked by divisive dialogues revolving around the ethnic origins of candidates. Female candidates encountered gender-based online harassment. Notably, the races in Rivers and Adamawa garnered significant user engagement, particularly highlighting prominent female contenders. However, the online narrative in Adamawa was tainted by the prevalence of misinformation.

 The Nigerian Fact-checkers Coalition (NFC) comprising 12 organizations fact-checked 150 election-related cases from December 2022 to March 2023, raising awareness about disinformation risks. Collaboration among organizations optimized capacities, with peak fact-checking before the February 25th election and extending to state levels.

The journalists who participated in the workshops demonstrated a notable improvement in their skills and understanding of how to combat disinformation, misinformation and mal information thus demonstrating commitment to curbing information disorder. The workshops focused on critical areas including utilising fact-checking and Freedom of Information tools. Attendees were equipped with essential competencies to navigate the complexities of the digital age effectively. Moreover, participants gained knowledge on enhancing post-election coverage of gender-related issues and tactics to address misinformation and gender biases.

Facilitators Dr. Titi Osuagwu of the University of Port Harcourt; Dr. Fatimah Shaibu of The Polytechnic, Kaduna: Mr. Martins Oloja, former Managing Director/Editor-in-Chief, The Guardian Newspaper, Mr. Edetaen Ojo, Executive Director, Media Rights Agenda and Mr. Lanre Arogundade, Executive Director, International Press Centre spearheaded the discussions with presentations on the selected topics.

FOIA and Investigations in Post-Election Reporting on Democratic Governance.

During the training session, Mr. Ojo and Mr. Oloja extensively delved into the topic of “Post-election Reporting: Leveraging the FOI Act and Investigative Techniques for Reporting on Democratic Governance and Electoral Accountability.”

Recognizing the imperative for media practitioners to persist in advocating for a governance system characterized by accountability and responsibility, the expert sessions highlighted the pivotal role of the media in advocating for transparency to bolster good governance. Emphasizing that adherence to regulations nurtures trust and credibility, the facilitators underscored the importance of this principle.

The session also emphasised the vanguard role the media can play in utilising FOI Act to bolster accountability by regulatory bodies across sectors. They underscored the importance of assessing adherence to statutory regulations and the significance of journalists incorporating data into their reporting to enrich the depth, accuracy, and impact of their narratives.

Moreover, the sessions also buttressed the fact that the practice not only elevates the quality of journalism but also fosters transparency by holding governmental entities accountable for their assertions, declarations, and commitments. In addition, that data-driven reporting offers empirical evidence, enhances public comprehension, facilitates informed decision-making, and validates assertions through the meticulous cross-referencing of data from credible sources to uphold accuracy.

The discussion also encompassed various topics related to the Freedom of Information Act (FOI), such as the process of submitting FOI requests, permissible information, judicial review procedures, offenses outlined in the FOI Act, the responsibilities of the Attorney-General of the Federation, and safeguards for whistleblowers.

The sessions emphasised the need for thorough examination of the foundational tenets of the FOI Act and the Access to Information (ATI) framework. This analysis concentrated on crucial aspects, such as record-keeping procedures, the designation of information officers within public institutions, educating officials on the public’s right to access information, handling FOI applications, adhering to response deadlines, submitting annual reports, and the obligatory proactive disclosure of specific information by public entities.

Additionally, it was highlighted that certain exemptions exist for information that could potentially compromise international relations or national defence.

A major highlight of the session was the group work during which Messrs. Ojo and Oloja walked the participants through how the Freedom of Information Act could be used to investigate and follow-up on the fufillment of campaign promises. The journalists were actually tasked with conducting research on at least five campaign promises by their respective State Governors, which they presented and formed the basis of the group discussions.

Fact-Checking and Verification in Combating Misinformation in Democratic Governance Reporting

In his presentation on the topic “Pictures in Your Head, Good Journalism & Why Fact-Checking Matters”, Mr. Arogundade examined key considerations for applying the concept of mental imagery to fact-checking. He underscored that the mental image may differ from the actual representation and cautioned that reliance on these mental images could lead journalists to propagate hate speech, disinformation, and misinformation.

While discussing the perils associated with disinformation and misinformation, which can lead to widespread scepticism, confusion, panic, anxiety – particularly during crises – and harmful behaviours in times of infodemics, the speaker also delved into the encompassing concept of information disorder. This encompasses various forms of misleading, fabricated, false, and manipulated content.

He underscored the vital importance of fact-checking in combatting hate speech, which often serves as a catalyst for ethnic profiling, violence against specific groups, identity theft, fostering distrust in media institutions, endangering journalists, promoting anti-free speech and press freedom laws by autocratic regimes, and fostering inaction during emergencies.

His presentation delved into the prevalent forms of deepfakes, which involve manipulating real individuals’ facial features using sophisticated software to generate entirely new images that do not correspond to any actual person. This process combines data from various real faces to create deceptive visuals. Additionally, speech synthesis utilizes advanced software to replicate someone’s voice convincingly, allowing for the creation of deceptive content such as images, audio, and videos with malicious intent. These fabricated materials are increasingly challenging to differentiate from authentic recordings or images.

Regarding strategies for achieving balanced reporting, the session emphasised the importance of eliminating biases that may influence journalists’ narratives. Arogundade suggested that diversifying information sources and incorporating multiple credible perspectives can contribute to more balanced news stories. Furthermore, it was recommended that news reports include quotes from a minimum of two individuals or groups to ensure comprehensive and impartial coverage.

It was further explained that transcending biases contributes to balanced journalistic pieces, facilitating the creation of conflict-sensitive reports. This can be realized through engaging with the silent majority – the individuals who may refrain from expressing their opinions publicly on certain matters. While news media typically feature individuals with contrasting viewpoints, particularly in political contexts, there is often a prevailing consensus that remains unvoiced.

In instances where the vocal minorities are fervently for or against a topic, it becomes the responsibility of news outlets to represent the silent majority, Arogundade quotes a media scholar as saying.

He urged the journalists to also bear in mind the word of Alexios Mantzarlis that:“From politicians to marketers, from advocacy groups to brands everyone who seeks to convince others has an incentive to distort, exaggerate or obfuscate the facts”. In this regard he reterated the need for journalists to always strive to distinguish between fact and opinion, stating that:

“A FACT is a thing that is known to be consistent with objective reality and can be proven to be true with evidence” while AN OPINION “is a judgment, viewpoint, or statement that is not conclusive and may not be based on facts”
The session also delved into the critical examination of fact-checking methodologies and the effective utilization of fact-checking tools to ensure the production of accurate and verified reports. During the group sessions, the IPC Executive Director dialogued with the participants on how some of the fact-checking tools and methodologies can be used to establish the truth or otherwise of claims of achievements by political office holders.

Deepening Reportage of Gender Issues Post-Elections
From a gender reporting standpoint, the presentations by Dr. Titi Osuagwu, Faculty of Communication and Media Studies of the University of Port Harcourt and Dr. Fatimah Shaibu, Department of Mass Communications, Polytechnic Kaduna emphasized the significance of embedding gender issues in post-election reporting to ensure that campaign promises relating to women and the girl-child are fulfilled while also urging the journalists to offer distinctive but factual viewpoints that challenge prevailing discriminatory paradigms.

According to them, by amplifying their voices and sharing their experiences, female journalists in particular, have the power to reshape narratives and bring attention to crucial gender-related issues that often go overlooked. Moreover, their diverse viewpoints and insightful analysis can help dismantle stereotypes and push for a more inclusive and equitable society through informative storytelling and investigative reporting that promotes meaningful change and inspire others to join the fight for gender equality.

While the two female facilitators highlighted the insufficient integration of gender perspectives into democratic governance reporting, they equally acknowledged that there are inherent challenges in incorporating gender considerations into election-related reporting. These challenges include a lack of awareness regarding the importance of gender mainstreaming for societal progress, the absence of editorial policies on equitable coverage of gender-related issues, the belief that each gender should solely address its concerns, and inadequate journalistic resources for source identification.

The discussions highlighted additional hurdles such as non-compliance with journalistic ethics, prioritization of financial gains over societal welfare, the use of gender-biased language and discriminatory statements, unequal access to women as news sources, and a lack of trust.

It was further noted that the absence of gender perspectives impedes comprehensive advancement across various sectors, exacerbating inequality and impeding the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Regarding the electoral context, the sessions observed a significant gender disparity in source representation during the 2019 General Elections, with men overwhelmingly dominating political narratives at 85.7% compared to a mere 4% contribution from women.

To enhance the coverage of gender-related issues, it was recommended that journalists should:
• Demonstrate a heightened interest in topics concerning gender by offering specific perspectives from women. In this regard, female correspondents can play a pivotal role in reshaping entrenched discriminatory frameworks.
• Emphasize grassroots events throughout the pre-election, election, and post-election phases, particularly those relevant to women.
• Proactively seek out narratives featuring women in prominent roles, such as female gubernatorial candidates and deputies, and share their achievements to inspire others.
• Reframe reporting styles to challenge stereotypes and dismantle narratives of women’s subjugation, utilising feature stories and editorials.
• Highlight rural women’s activities post-election to underscore their significance.
• Utilise previous news sources to generate new stories.
• Engage students as volunteer reporters to broaden coverage.
• Harness the power of social media through live streaming, visual content, and strategic hashtags.
• Employ storytelling techniques to captivate audiences effectively.
• Adhere to ethical standards in journalism and avoid the dissemination of misinformation.
• Utilise a variety of investigative tools, including interviews, observations, shorthand, and investigative methods, to gather comprehensive reports.

The sessions encompassed a variety of activities, including plenary discussions, question-and-answer sessions, case studies, group works and reflective sessions emphasizing key takeaways, and the establishment of commitments and action plans.

IPC/EU-SDGN Fellows
The collaboration between the International Press Centre and the European Union exemplifies a shared commitment to upholding journalistic integrity and ensuring accuracy in reporting on democratic governance issues. Through such initiatives, journalists are empowered to fulfill their role as gatekeepers of truth and serve the public interest with unwavering dedication.

To strengthen the partnership and uphold democratic values, journalists engaged in the training sessions were selected as fellows of IPC/EU-SDGNII based on their expressed commitment to foster transparency, accountability, and inclusiveness through investigative journalism and fact-checking in the realm of democratic governance reporting.

The IPC/EU-SDGNII initiative will provide fellows with the chance to collaborate with industry experts and undertake exchange on best practices with peers to further enrich skills. The reports generated by the fellows are anticipated to play a pivotal role in countering disinformation and misinformation, promoting the dissemination of accurate information, fostering critical analysis of content and democratic principles, and ultimately contributing to a better-informed and more engaged society.

Ms. Olutoyin Ayoade, is Communications Officer for Component 4: Support to Media of the European Union Support to Democratic Governance Project in Nigeria being implemented by the International Press Centre and Centre for Media and Society.

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