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A journalism without content and context...

By Francis Sowa

There is no shortage of individuals practising, purporting and preparing to be journalists in Sierra Leone. They want to be part of the fraternity, trade or profession called journalism. But what is journalism? Reque
et al. (2001) in their book “
Introduction to Journalism” note that “traditionally, journalism is defined as bringing the
news of the day – material of current interest or importance – to an audience.” Professors of journalism may view this definition as simplistic, but I will use it as a working definition for this piece.

Let me from the outset state that I am not a professor of journalism. I approach this subject from the perspective of an ardent student of journalism.

Dozens, if not hundreds, of articles/news stories, are published and broadcast on a daily basis in and out of Sierra Leone. They are produced by journalists. But I dare say that most of them are without proper content and context. I have spent the past two years buying few newspapers to prove this point. Any time I read them, I ask myself
what the news story, article, commentary, editorial, commentary, etc. really is trying to say. Sometimes I know the answers because as a journalist I would have followed the event or the issue. But the non-media practitioners are sometimes left more confused than they were before reading a newspaper, listening to a radio or watching television programmes.

Now, content is basically about the subject matter, the ideas, the amount of substance contained in something. Context refers to the parts of a piece of writing, a speech, etc., which surround a word or passage and which influence or help to explain its meaning. It is also the surrounding conditions in which something takes place (Longman
Dictionary of English Language and Culture, 2003).

I submit that the meanings of the concepts apply to journalism- bringing news stories of the day to our audiences and trying to explain the surrounding conditions within which they occur. As journalists we do this every day. As I write this piece, I have newspapers in front of me with stories on the SLPP award of symbols in the Kailahun district, the
PMDC convention, the deferred or postponed NDA convention etc. These are the contents I am talking about – the ideas, subject matter of those stories.

In short, it is not too difficult to see content in Sierra Leone’s journalism. The educated and uneducated would say “It is written in newspapers, or it has been said on radio.” This means they know what is happening – the subject matter. At present, everybody knows that the November 2012 multi-tier elections are just next door – journalists have written a number of news stories on the electoral process. Knowing the issues does not seem to be the problem. That is
not to say that the media in Sierra Leone do not put out wrong content. Some of them do. They do so by publishing or broadcasting content out of context. While content makes us know, context helps us

This is where I believe the real problem lies in Sierra Leonean journalism. I have hundreds of articles with me to prove this. But since this is a country that has almost lost the culture of debate if not already, I will not make reference to them in this piece. I will use them in future academic work. I will practically explain the use or otherwise of context from my own journalistic experience some nine or so years ago.

I started my career as a journalist at the then Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service (SLBS), now Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) about eleven years ago. As a young reporter then, I covered a number of programmes including one of the annual conferences of the National Association of Farmers of Sierra Leone (NAFSL) in Bo, Southern Region of Sierra Leone. The current Deputy Chairman of the SLPP, P.C Somano Kapen was the National President of NAFSL. By the way is that association still alive and kicking? Its spokesman, Andrew Conteh (aka PASACOFAS) seems to be quiet these days. Anyway, that’s not the focus of this piece.
I returned to Freetown from Bo. Our New England studio was my next destination. As it was the practice, I don’t know whether it has changed, I took my pen and paper to write the news story. The editor would later edit the script and would give it to the typist. Until I left the SLBS in 2007, reporters did not type their own stories. So I wrote the script. The Editor of the day was the Head of Newsroom, Isaac Massaquoi, somebody who was later going to be my lecturer at the Mass Communication Department, Fourah Bay College and currently my Head of Department.

I wrote a full page (A4 size) that was our estimation of a not-too-long news story. Okay. Script submitted and I waited for the edited version. Now, anyone who was au fait with the style of writing at that time, I don’t know whether it
still exists, certainly knew how the story would have started “The annual conference of the National Association of Farmers of Sierra Leone (NAFSL) has ended in Bo. About 100 delegates from all the twelve districts attended the conference. Speaking at the opening ceremony or Delivering the keynote address…” So the story went.
Then I waited for the comments from the editor, he was like a judge who gave verdicts or sentences. I had written something that attracted the “trained journalistic eyes” of the “commander” - Isaac Massaquoi. The statement was in the last sentence of the news story. He said to me, that’s the news! I was shocked. In that statement, Mr. Conteh, you remember him as the man I mentioned earlier, had said in his vote of thanks that “We are calling on the government to allocate ten percent of the national budget to the agricultural sector.” 

What was my problem then? Inexperience and no journalism education, whether at a school of journalism, training workshops, seminars or conferences. At that time, we (some staff of SLBS) believed, rightly or wrongly, that we should write news and present news stories from a hierarchical standpoint: first the president, followed by the vice, the ministers, parliamentarians, and permanent secretaries and so on. I know as a student of journalism that personality is a news value but it should be used wisely. What Mr. Massaquoi did was to address the issue of content and context. In this case, while it was true that part of the content was to write about the NAFSL’s conference, the main object of that conference was to map the way forward for the agricultural sector which the stakeholders noted was suffering from a funding crisis.

I failed to realise that the NAFSL spokesman hit the nail on the head by calling for increased budgetary allocation to the sector. Poor Sowa! Today I do not feel ashamed to say it because I have learnt a lot from my two bosses then (they still are) – Isaac Massaquoi and Joshua Nicol. I have told many people that if there are only three professional
broadcasters in Sierra Leone, Isaac and Joshua are two of them. People can find the third.

The other fundamental issue I learnt from him was how to put the story into context. I later came to know the context of a news story in my journalistic studies. Still with our scenario, the conference took place at a time former president Ahmad Tejan Kabba had just declared war against hunger. He said that by 2007 nobody should go to bed hungry. The farmers had gathered to see what they could do to actualise that dream. But the core issue was that they wanted the government to match its policy pronouncement of food security to allocation of more funds to the agricultural sector. I missed that again. 

I have realised that content and context in news gathering, writing and reporting are aided by the following: News
Judgement; the process by which editors, broadcast producers, and to some degree reporters decide what the most important news is and how it should be gathered and presented. News judgement is a more conscious process at some times than at others. News judgement does
not occur in a vacuum, of course. It is built on a flexible group of
guidelines that editors can apply to any news event or issue in order to ascertain its importance. These guidelines are called NEWS VALUES.

There are seven traditional news values: Conflict, impact, proximity, prominence, novelty and audience interest (Friend et. al 2005). This is one of the fundamental weaknesses in Sierra Leonean journalism. In the scenario above, I failed to decide what the most important news story was. Like I did some nine years ago, there are dozens of reporters and even editors making that same mistake today. They have taken news values for granted. Ask a reporter what news values apply to their story and you will be shocked to get no answer. The failure to exercise news judgement has also resulted in news stories having no proper angle. We are all over the place and our news stories are
also all over the place. It so important for us to understand news angle because it
may be impossible to cover every aspect of a news story at once- there is seldom the time or space. The reporter will be forced to concentrate on a few of the story’s facets. Each facet represents a different angle. Interestingly, a student in one local journalism institution said “the angle is the three hundred and sixty degree position the reporter takes to write a news story.” On a more serious note, “The angle is the part of the story the reporter chooses to hold up to light at any one time.” Most stories will have a number of different angles and news editors and producers usually spell out which particular one they want the reporter to focus on.

Before so much as rattling the keyboard or writing on a piece of paper, the journalist has to be clear about which angle to take on the story. This will depend on where the story occurred, what has been reported already, and what new facts have emerged (Boydd, 2001).

Boydd continues that once the angle is established, the writer has to work out the introduction (also known as intro or lead in the UK, or headline sentence in the USA). This is the first sentence or paragraph of the story and also the most important. Its function is to state the most significant point, grab attention, whet the appetite and signpost the way into the rest of the story.

So in the scenario above, the angle to that story would have been (it ended up being anyway based on the advice of the editor), the call for an increased budgetary allocation to the agricultural sector.

The angle helps us to present a clear and concise content for the news story. The context of that story was the need to provide more funds to meet the president’s proclamation of food security at that time. That context was to be made clear by the fact that the government’s budgetary allocation to the sector at that time was about 3 to 4 % of the national budget. What that means in essence was prioritising agriculture over other sectors.

I have tried to pen down my little experience and knowledge of content and context in news gathering, reporting and writing both as a practising journalist and a student of journalism. God willing, in another edition I will speak to the key two concepts contributing to unprofessional journalism in Sierra Leone.  See you then.

Francis Sowa is a journalist and lecturer of Mass Communication at Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone. fsowa2007@yahoo.com