Recently on April 27, 2020, the Akwa Ibom Governor, Mr. Udom Emmanuel had a parley with journalists to update the public on the COVID-19 status of the state and any other matter as may have been necessary. The session which lasted about three hours, was in my estimation very timely and apt, having gone a long way towards dousing the general atmospheric tension that had surrounded the state, occasioned by widespread rumours, half-truths, gossips, blackmails and at worst outright falsehood levelled against the State Government vis-à-vis her management of the pandemic and the imminent danger posed to peoples’ lives.
The assemblage was very engaging between the State Governor on the one hand and members of the fourth estate of the realm on the other hand. Preset questions put forward by the media professionals as well as other concerns crafted spontaneously as the event progressed were addressed squarely by the Governor. All ended well. To a large extent, the event was satisfactory. Confidence was reassured. Nerves were calmed and feelings were assuaged.
Governor Emmanuel had further used the medium to appeal for public cooperation against promoting messages of fear or panic, regrettably in terms of the multiple allegations of passivity, manipulation of figures and at worst outright negligence by his administration towards the COVID-19 fight. He highlighted a litany of actions undertaken by his administration towards repositioning the healthcare delivery system in the state – all of which had culminated in the pandemic not meeting the state unprepared. “Most of the equipment which we are currently using for the fight against COVID-19, including the 13 ventilators at our Ibom Specialist Hospital, were there even before the outbreak of the pandemic. COVID-19 did not meet us unprepared,” – Governor Udom Emmanuel.
Various reactions have trailed the media engagement, of-course, beginning with reports by media professionals, who were like hosts of the event. Governor Emmanuel had partly noted during his remarks thus: “The NUJ chairman is the convener; I am only an attendant in today’s conference, so I will do less of the talking.” Feedbacks have also been acknowledged from other stakeholders, as the event was transmitted live on the Akwa Ibom Broadcasting Corporation, AKBC Radio and Television services. It was also streamed live on the internet via the State Government’s official electronic mail account and a number of associated links.
The Punch (www.punchng.com) was one of the first publications to hit the news stand, Tuesday, April 28, 2020. It had the headline “COVID-19: Random Testing Waste of Resources – Akwa Ibom Gov,” as reported by Patrick Odey, Uyo. The lead of his news story proceeded to read thus: “Akwa Ibom State Governor, Udom Emmanuel, says the idea of random testing for COVID-19 in the state is a waste of government resources.” – (emphasis are mine).
The lead is a very decisive part, if not the most important part of any news story. It is a journalism parlance referring to the first sentence which introduces the body of any news story. The lead presents a synopsis of the most essential components in the straight news writing and has a direct relationship with the headline. The lead reflects the most significant gist, which the reporter must have gathered from an event. The inverted pyramid style is most commonly used by reporters in straight news writing. This presents the story from a prioritized approach – playing up the most important point, while the lesser ingredients come subsequently in descending order, down to the least point. The Punch reporter had adopted this approach in his seven paragraphed news story of 28 lines.
Recall that part of Governor Emmanuel’s submissions during the media event was that no country, no economy on the planet earth could test every citizen due to insufficient resources. “We can’t even afford it. We don’t even have enough materials, even in some developed countries.” Perhaps The Punch newspaper headline was crafted therefrom, as interpreted by its reporter, Patrick Odey. And of late, the Director General of Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, NCDC, Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu recently announced that Nigeria had so far conducted a little above 12,000 tests since the pandemic hit the country, with a target of about 2million people within the next three months, thus confirming that the tests are not done indiscriminately.
However, Independent (www.independent.ng) and Vanguard (www.vanguardngr.com) newspapers also reported on the event in their respective editions of Tuesday, April 28 and Wednesday, April 29 respectively, both with the headline “None of My Aides Infected With COVID-19 – Gov Udom Emmanuel,” while TheMail Newspaper, an online media platform quoted the Governor directly in its report thus: “No country, no economy on planet earth can test every citizen. There is no such resources. We can’t even afford it. We don’t even have enough materials, even in some developed countries.” Other headlines also noted included “COVID-19 Pandemic: Why Akwa Ibom People Should Have Total Confidence in Governor Udom Emmanuel’s Administration,” as published by The Empire News (www.naijanews.blogspot.com) of April 28 as well as the National NewsTrack (www.nationalnewstrack.com) of April 29 respectively, among other notable publications.
At this juncture, it is important to stress that the necessity for every reporter to be well versed with background knowledge of any event, interview, investigation or any other matter cannot be over emphasized. And this should reflect in his report before going to press. What did Governor Emmanuel’s media engagement seek to achieve? What were the background issues that prompted the press chat? Did the event realize its objective after-all? What is the situation on ground – mood of the environment, etc.? Stimulating questions such as these would often boost the reporter’s story. This is common knowledge among professionals in the media industry. Any reporter who falls short of these considerations before going to press may have acted rather unprofessionally or at worst acted in bad faith. The Punch reporter herein analyzed may be a case study.
Similarly, news stories which are deficient in the foregoing considerations might not help to realize the cardinal functions of the mass media after-all. The report currently under analysis may not have helped to achieve the essence of the media chat, bearing in mind the prevalent circumstances that had prompted the event. It could be recalled that in his initial remarks, Governor Emmanuel had told the journalists that ordinarily it would not have been necessary for the entire membership of the Akwa Ibom State Executive Council to be present for the media event, pointing out that his full team, comprising of the Deputy Governor, Head of Service, Commissioners and Special Advisers were all in attendance to help dispel the widespread blackmail that some members of the team had tested positive for COVID-19 but were hidden by government, among other wild allegations that had evoked public stir across the state. The Governor had sought to diffuse tension among the public; restore the peoples’ confidence in his administration; inform/communicate to the public effectively about government’s efforts towards fighting COVID-19 and seek concerted cooperation by all and sundry to end the scourge. These are all captured in the functions of the mass media: Information; Education, Entertainment and Mobilization. Other functions include but not limited to: persuasion, socialization, correlation and public opinion molding. Did the report under analysis seek to achieve any of the above?
That oddity makes more news than recurrent developments do not suggest that standard occurrences are not news worthy. Breaking news, no matter how hot and/or juicy should not break the state. The reporter’s creativity, innovation and sense of judgment is very important in news writing. The Punch vis-à-vis other media reports as indicated herein is a case study.
It must however be emphasized that there was an avalanche of news story angles that would have made banner headlines from that briefing. It was only worrisome that The Punch reporter could not appreciate any of such but resorted to his self-styled paradigm – alien to professional ethics to suite his selfish desires. For the avoidance of doubts, some excerpts from the governor’s sumissions at the event included but not limited to:
• Recovery rate from COVID-19 has been marvelous in Akwa Ibom. We currently have only three active cases and they are responding very positively.
• The rumours making the rounds that nine of my exco members are COVID-19 positive is nothing but blackmail and lies. I am here with my entire executive council members.
• The only palliative we have received from the Federal Government is 1,800 custom-bonded rice, which have changed colour and not good for me to distribute to my citizens.
• Akwa Ibom State is not hiding any information about COVID-19, but the confidentiality of patients remain paramount.
• Our heroes are those medical officers who have exposed themselves so as to make the pandemic well managed.
• I meet with the COVID-19 committee every night to review the health situation in the state. The team works in strict adherence to NCDC guidelines and procedures.
• NCDC has scored Akwa Ibom 99 percent on contact tracing for COVID-19. NCDC had been in this state for two weeks, giving directions on how to test for COVID-19.
• COVID-19 did not meet us unprepared. Most of the equipment we are currently using for the fight against the pandemic, including the 13 ventilators at the Ibom Specialist Hospital had been there before the outbreak. We currently have over 400 medical doctors and over 2,000 nurses in our employ.
• All the food items – rice, garri and flour recently distributed as palliatives to about 3,000 villages and groups across the state were produced locally in our mills.
• Our 300 – bed isolation centre currently under construction at the General Hospital, Ituk Mbang will be ready in two weeks. It is a world class facility and will still be very useful after COVID-19.
This article does not seek to censor media reports in favour of government. It is rather pushing for a greater realization of the cardinal essence of the mass media through objective reportage by media professionals. The mass media seeks to build, not to destroy. It seeks to mobilize for good, not to incite. It seeks to promote, not to demote. It supports constructive criticism, not lies and blackmail. As professionals, reporters should therefore endeavour to juxtapose these principles before going to press for best results.
Above all, in putting up this piece, I tend to align with a recent article by a brother and friend on his Facebook wall with the title “When Silence is Not Golden.” He had referred to the unpopular media image suffered by the late Abba Kyari – former Chief of Staff to President Muhammadu Buhari, who died recently of COVID-19. The article had flayed some friends and colleagues of the fallen presidential aide whose tributes and eulogies only emerged in favour of the deceased after his demise, yet they had kept mute to his ordeals and chickened away from defending him while alive. He therefore described such silence as “not golden” and I seem to agree with him absolutely.
Against the foregoing backdrop, recall that Governor Emmanuel ended the media engagement with the conviction that he had given Akwa Ibom the very best in the COVID-19 situation. The wisdom of a leader is very important in times like this. The pandemic took the world by surprise. There had been no precedence to managing the disease. He was humble. He spoke well. The media space has been relatively calm since then – an affirmative indication. Prior to the briefing, allegations of Government playing politics with the pandemic were all over the space. In-fact, the Governor demonstrated leadership. He was in-charge. He landed well. I stand with Udom.
By Akaninyene Esinwang