Why the media must stop regurgitating government press releases
Press releases from across the current Nigerian government are generally more detailed and frequent, than from the last government. There seems to be a better willingness to give concrete information about their agenda. The majority of Nigerians still need the press to inform them about government activity, but through government Twitter handles, apps and newsletters, increasingly more Nigerians have direct access themselves. What remains problematic is, despite that change, the Nigerian press mechanically echoes those press releases without scrutinising them. Too often, it functions as an added government medium, rather than a separate entity.
A standard practice covering Nigeria for foreign media, as with national media, is to contact the presidency or a relevant government administration about a new policy or initiative, or when something significant happens. There’s a default assumption that, in doing this, the information you get is not necessarily in the public domain, and that you’re amongst the first to receive and release it. A key departure from the previous administration is that often, this isn’t the case.
A case in point happened recently. When the Presidency announced via a press release that President Buhari would be returning to Nigeria, almost immediately afterwards, the President’s official Twitter handle released the same information. Journalists also tweeted snippets of the press releases, as you often do when important information is released. But by the time domestic and foreign news outlets released “breaking news” of the President’s return to Nigeria, anyone, either press or citizen, following President Buhari on Twitter, already knew.
This has been a regular feature, not just in the reporting of the President’s medical trip to the UK, but on government policies. Not only is the speed and frequency of press releases better, but the government uses more avenues to release and clarify its agenda.
Last year, a news report about a policy being implemented by the Vice President’s office made me aware that I wasn’t on their press release list. I called and asked to be added, but specific to that policy; it wasn’t wholly necessary. The government’s FGN iApp, posts press releases, often immediately after they have been sent to news reporters. Any citizen can download the app and use it.
The Aso Social Newsletter is also a further detailed tool to learning about what the government’s agenda is and what they are claiming is being done.Transparency, on budgets and on the details of its policies, across Nigerian federal and state structures is still inadequate, but overall, more ministries put out more information than in the past and more innovatively. The Borno State government now uses Snapchat, posting clips of state government briefings.
In this climate, how the press reports on the governments agenda has to change. Press reports about the governments activities routinely simply regurgitate the exact statements from government. Government terminology is often waffled and vague, yet the press does little to further clarify or explain them.
Even more problematic is that the press doesn’t offer an immediate scrutiny of those statements. At the point that it informs the public about government activity, it should give Nigerian citizens the tools to hold that activity to account. Government statements are often published in the press without accompanied critiques or opposing views.
They aren’t qualified, explained or scrutinised but just repeated. Often opinion pieces are the primary opposing view to government activity. Special reports, investigating the success of policies, weeks after announced policies are helpful but not enough. There and then, there has to be balance.
As Nigerian government systems continue to use multiple mediums to communicate to the public, the Nigerian media needs to become more innovative with presenting government press releases.
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