Bayo Onanuga, Editor-In-Chief of TheNEWS and P.M.News

By Bayo Onanuga

Journalism covers the gamut of activities involved in writing news and commentaries for newspapers, magazines, web news platforms, blogs, news broadcasts , etc. Citizens who have smartphones and data access, Facebook, Twitter access and also engage in writing news and information are also now considered to be part of the noble profession. One book, with the title, ‘We are All Journalists’ drove this point home. In the age of internet, the profession has suffered the incursion of charlatans and the media landscape has been greatly expanded and redefined.

This article is not just about the ingredients of journalism practice. The operative word, even though it sounds tautological is ‘professional,’ since journalism itself, despite the incursion, remains a profession.

Some 22 years ago, media men, goaded by the Nigerian Press Council, attempted to give the profession the proper professional garb by pushing for a code of ethics, registration of members and prescribing a minimum educational entry point. While all other moves collapsed, a 15-point code of ethics developed by the meeting in Ilorin survived.


The code is an ethical foundation of sorts for the profession, similar to the Hippocratic oath of medical doctors. It was agreed upon on 20 March 1998, by the Nigerian Press Council(NPC), the Nigerian Union of Journalists(NUJ), the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria(NPAN) and the Nigeria Guild of Editors(NGE). The Code was unveiled in Ilorin and signed by late Alhaji Alade Odunewu, for NPC, our own Ray Ekpu for NPAN, Lanre Ogundipe for NUJ and Garba Shehu, for the NGE.

I will reproduce the entire code here for the sake of those who may not have come across it. You can also read it at the homepage of the NPC: CODE OF ETHICS | The Nigerian Press Council.

The code goes with a preamble:

“Journalism entails a high degree of public trust. To earn and maintain this trust, it is morally imperative for every journalist and every news medium to observe the highest professional and ethical standards. In the exercise of these duties, a journalist should always have a healthy regard for the public interest.

“Truth is the cornerstone of journalism and every journalist should strive diligently to ascertain the truth of every event.

“Conscious of the responsibilities and duties of journalists as purveyors of information, we, Nigerian journalists, give to ourselves this Code of Ethics. It is the duty of every journalist to observe its provisions.

l. EDITORIAL INDEPENDENCE

Decisions concerning the content of news should be the responsibility of a professional journalist.

2. ACCURACY AND FAIRNESS

i. The public has a right to know. Factual, accurate balance and fair reporting is the ultimate objective of good journalism and the basis of earning public trust and confidence.

ii. A journalist should refrain from publishing inaccurate and misleading information. Where such information has been inadvertently published, prompt correction should be made. A journalist must hold the right of reply as a cardinal rule of practice.

iii. In the course of his duties a journalist should strive to separate facts from conjecture and comment.

3. PRIVACY
As a general rule, a journalist should respect the privacy of individuals and their families unless it affects public interest.

A. Information on the private life of an individual or his family should only be published if it impinges on public interest.

B. Publishing of such information about an individual as mentioned above should be deemed justifiable only if it is directed at:

i. Exposing crime or serious misdemeanour;

ii. Exposing anti-social conduct;

iii. Protecting public health, morality and safety;

iv. Preventing the public from being misled by some statement or action of the individual concerned.

4. PRIVILEGE / NON-DISCLOSURE

i.A journalist should observe the universally accepted principle of confidentiality and should not disclose the source of information obtained in confidence.

ii.A journalist should not breach an agreement with a source of information obtained as off-the-record or as background information.

5. DECENCY

i.A journalist should dress and comport himself in a manner that conforms with public taste.

ii.A journalist should refrain from using offensive, abusive or vulgar language.

iii.A journalist should not present lurid details, either in words or picture, of violence, sexual acts, abhorrent or horrid scenes.

iv. In case involving personal grief or shock, enquiries should be carried out and approaches made with sympathy and discretion.

v. Unless it is in the furtherance of the public’s right to know, a journalist should generally avoid identifying relatives or friends of persons convicted or accused of crime.

6. DISCRIMINATION

A journalist should refrain from making pejorative reference to a person’s ethnic group, religion, sex or to any physical or mental illness or handicap.

7. REWARD AND GRATIFICATION

i. A journalist should neither solicit nor accept bribe, gratification or patronage to suppress or publish information.

ii. To demand payment for the publication of news is inimical to the notion of news as a fair, accurate, unbiased and factual report of an event.

8. VIOLENCE

A journalist should not present or report acts of violence, armed robberies, terrorist activities or vulgar display of wealth in a manner that glorifies such acts in the eyes of the public.

9. CHILDREN AND MINORS

A journalist should not identify, either by name or picture, or interview children under the age of 16 who are involved in cases concerning sexual offences, crimes and rituals or witchcraft either as victims, witnesses or defendants.

10. ACCESS TO INFORMATION

A journalist should strive to employ open and honest means in the gathering of information. Exceptional methods may be employed only when the public interest is at stake.

11. PUBLIC INTEREST

A journalist should strive to enhance national unity and public good.

12. SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY

A journalist should promote universal principles of human rights, democracy, justice, equity, peace and international understanding.

13. PLAGIARISM

A journalist should not copy, wholesale or in part, other people’s work without attribution and/or consent.

14. COPYRIGHT

i. Where a journalist reproduces a work, be it in print, broadcast, art work or design, proper acknowledgement should be accorded the author.

ii. A journalist should abide by all rules of copyright, established by national and international laws and conventions.

15. PRESS FREEDOM AND RESPONSIBILITY

A journalist should strive at all-times to enhance press freedom and responsibility.

The Code as template for professional journalism

In my view, the code offers a good template, a good foundation for ‘professional journalism practice,’ if we all abide by its provisions.

Unfortunately, this has not been the case in our country, with some publishers even encouraging their reporters to use their media to make money, by engaging in mercenary journalism. Worst of all, many of the charlatans, who have invaded the profession have neither heard about the code nor read it.

There are other factors that make for best professional practice as journalists. I have distilled some here:

*A journalist must be able to write well. This is the most basic of all requirements.

Why go into journalism, if you cannot write? Today, many news reports are filled with grammatical errors that will upset Dr Ndidi Uyo or make the late Dr Delu Ogunade flinch in his grave.

*A journalist must operate with the code of ethics as laid out by the Nigerian Press Organisation(NPAN, NUJ and NGE).

*A journalist must have an acute sense of perception. He must be able to analyse, interpret events and issues. He must be able to read between the lines. He must know when the society is going wrong and help to blow the whistle. In the Babangida years, the African Concord Magazine was the first to accuse him of a hidden agenda, and that the transition programme was transiting to nowhere. I remember what the apologists said then: ‘ Give the man the benefit of doubt”. We all gave him that and in 1993, he annulled the freest election and sabotaged the transition.

In the Babangida years, the African Concord Magazine was the first to accuse him of a hidden agenda, and that the transition programme was transiting to nowhere. I remember what the apologists said then: ‘ Give the man the benefit of doubt”. We all gave him that and in 1993, he annulled the freest election and sabotaged the transition.

*As a reporter, do not talk too much. Listen more than you talk and have your ears to the ground always. In 1985, I attended a conference of Federation of International Women’s Lawyers(FIDA) in Lagos. Hilda Adefarasin, who was the president of the National Council of Women Societies(NCWS) was one of the speakers. She spoke extemporaneously and told the conference the efforts being made by the organisation to change Nigeria’s divorce laws, such that women would be entitled to 50 per cent of the couple’s assets. Sir Darnley Alexander, now late, was reviewing the Nigerian laws at the time. I jotted what she said. Since it was evening, I didn’t file the story same day because I needed to be sure I heard her correctly. The following day, National Concord called her to verify what she said . She affirmed it and even expatiated on the move by NCWS. The story made the front page of the newspaper, the following day. No other paper published it, because their reporters were waiting for the usual ‘handouts’ or press releases or they simply did not listen to her.

*A journalist must be a walking encyclopaedia. He must have a sense of history, able to tie the present with the past. Google and Bing have made this task easier. One can now just Google all the information one needs. I use these tools all the time.

Never go out to conduct interviews, without knowing your subject. Do your research very well, to know who he is. Don’t go and play the fool, by asking your subject: ‘Can you unveil yourself, Can you tell us who you are? Etc., Google the subject for background information. At least, let the subject know you know him.

*This may be controversial: a journalist must have an ideological perspective about the society where he operates and pitch his tent to the media spectrum where he belongs. People should not forget that the media space is a market place of contending ideas. And that the media themselves play mediatory role. Some forces are dragging society to the right, some to the left, some to the centre, some to the left of the centre. A journalist must be clear where he belongs. If he is not sure, his medium will remind him that he cannot write certain stories which run counter to the medium’s founding philosophy.

This may be controversial: a journalist must have an ideological perspective about the society where he operates and pitch his tent to the media spectrum where he belongs. People should not forget that the media space is a market place of contending ideas. And that the media themselves play mediatory role

Passion is the real deal

Most important, a journalist must have passion for the job.Using my own experience in the past 40 year and the experiences of other practitioners that I had met in many parts of the world, the most important factor that drives professional journalism practice is Passion. Every other driver can be subsumed under it.

Passion is what will make a journalist or a journalist-to-be hone his writing skills, master the rules of practice; passion will make him want to learn about the experiences of the great journalists before him. Passion will make him acquire analytical skills if he was not taught in school.

Passion will make the journalist abandon a social event 100kms away and head back to the newsroom in Lagos to report on a historic earth tremor he just witnessed; passion will make him abandon the comfy of his home and embark on a perilous 400 km journey, at night looking for the leader of a failed coup plot. Passion makes the journalist nimble footed, quickly following a news lead when he sees one.

When Fela Anikulapo Kuti died the night of 2 August 1997, I was playing a game of draft with a colleague when the news reached us. It was about 8pm on a Saturday. We decided to hit the road, to confirm the story. We went to Fela’s Gbemisola Street home in Ikeja, the Shrine also in Ikeja and his brother’s house in Anthony Village. We spoke to Fela’s band boys, his wives, his children about Fela. Our biggest catch around midnight was Nike, Beko Kuti’s daughter. In the absence of Beko, who was in jail for coup plotting, she was in the hospital where Fela died. She also spoke with us. We returned to our office around 1am on Sunday and contemplated whether to run a Fela special edition on Sunday. Our marketing people warned against it, because vendors would not be available. To our surprise, all the pieces and pieces we collected on that Saturday night remained our exclusives by the time we unloaded them in the P.M.NEWS on Monday. And what we learnt later was that the family had slammed an embargo on press interviews after we left.

Passion will make the journalist abandon a social event 100kms away and head back to the newsroom in Lagos to report on a historic earth tremor he just witnessed; passion will make him abandon the comfy of his home and embark on a perilous 400 km journey, at night looking for the leader of a failed coup plot. Passion makes the journalist nimble footed, quickly following a news lead when he sees one.

Passion is the adrenalin that motivates journalists to cover wars, despite the dangers of bombs and missiles flying around them. Passion gives the journalist the Kamikaze spirit to use his pen or medium to confront dictators or oppressors. Passion will make a journalist steal photo, if need be, or documents that are important to his story, without necessarily going to the extreme of bugging phones or planting cameras in search of news. Passion will make a journalist cultivate news sources, the high and the low, the way a man toasts a woman. Passion will make a journalist indulge in morbid fantasy by wishing that his plane crashes and he emerges the only survivor to write the story!

In my almost 40 years of practice, as a reporter, sub-editor, editor, media manager, the recurring factor to enable good journalism practice is simply Passion. Passion is everything. And I think it undergirds every other profession where people want to make their mark. My advice to anyone nursing a career in journalism is that If you don’t have the passion for it, go and look for another profession to do. Journalism is not just for you.

During job interviews in the past, my favourite question was why the job seeker wanted to practise journalism.

Many of course lied. And we soon found out that such people missed their way to the newsroom . They never stayed long on the job. Few years down the line, they have ousted themselves to work as PR men or women or escaped to UK or US to eke for non-journalistic living.

The fact that there are many gate crashers into the profession, who should not be there, explains the high labour turnover in our profession.

Those people in the first place only join the profession because they couldn’t get positions in all those ‘lucrative places’ of first choice: the banks or the oil firms , or if they want to work for government, the Federal Inland Revenue Service or the Customs and Excise.

But journalism is about passion.

The person who wants to practise it ought to have shown some traits of this passion right from secondary school, either as a member of the press club, or a debating society. He ought to have been politically active, by joining societies or clubs that can give him an acute understanding of our society and the international order. Right from school, he ought to have been well-read, trying to know something about everything around us, knowing the major actors in all spheres of life. While in school, he ought to have written articles for notable newspapers, or in our e-world today, create blogs, create Twitter or Facebook accounts to share his thoughts.

Quite a number of non-journalism graduates who have these attributes and who make the switch into journalism after graduation, thrive as journalists and even do much better than those schooled by Mass Communication Departments.

Some people have argued that the dearth of passion about the profession by journalists is because of low pay. But my answer to them is that the profession rewards those who commit themselves wholeheartedly to it.

There are many rewards if one is truly passionate about his involvement, especially now that our world has become a true global village as envisioned by Marshall McLuhan. A good story written by a Nigerian journalist can now easily go viral and the journalist can become an overnight celebrity, with doors opening for him all over the globe. A good story can win many awards; a good journalist can earn good money writing for international newspapers.

*This paper was submitted to the WhatsApp Alumni Forum of the University of Lagos Mass Communication Department on 7 March 2020.