JOURNALISM: MA RAISON D’ETRE

 

The fourth estate. Are we asking the right questions?

The fourth estate. Are we asking the right questions?

Any journalist would know the basic core questions which must be answered in any news story: Who said (did) What, When, Where, How and Why, the Five Ws and an H. The Why question is what has been my main preoccupation throughout my life (even before I studied and became a journalist). My mother recently told me that though all children go through the WHY phases in their lives, I never stopped asking why, when I was expressing doubts about my suitability for the profession.  I have always asked questions, regardless of the consequences of what the answers might bring. I have always endeavored to try as best as I can to answer the why question in my reports, though I am as yet unable to quantify to what extent I was able to achieve that.  Why should the public care about who said what when, where and how, why is the story important for your audience, why am I reporting this story.  The why question is perhaps the single most important question any editor should answer before assigning a story to a journalist, and it’s the different answers to this why question that determines the weight of the story. Why? Has also been a source of arguments and heated debates in any given newsroom.  Someone once said, once you can answer the Why question, the how becomes easy.  But as in life, sometimes the answer to why is only revealed after a thorough investigation of the subject matter, something which requires time. Time is a limited resource, a luxury item for journalist but this fact is truer for radio journalist more than most others because they traditionally have half hour deadlines, on almost every story. You must have a new angle and story every 30mins while you’re out on assignment and must compete with your other newspaper and television journalist for the breaking news and angles and interviews while also filing news story every 20min. It is a high pressured job, where every second counts.  Imagine having to do that consistently for more than 10 years.

There’s little context one can give to a news event in one minute and 20 seconds, the most time that a news story gets on  Television or 2-3 minutes in radio.  The ability to answer the five Ws and an H in any in a single news broadcast is a mark of good reportage.  That can often only be achieved if a journalist or reporter fully understands the news story, which is not often the case. Adequate research is sorely lacking in the broadcast journalism world, whose news reports are becoming much more like gossip columns where journalist become the main actors in an effort to draw audiences.

It was when I found myself confronted with a series of Whys upon Whys with fewer and fewer answers to those whys that I began to question my profession, my life. It is right then that I started to doubt myself and my ability to be a “good” journalist or reporter.  You see, journalism for me was never just a job; it was never a thing I did to earn an income. It was my life, who I was, it was through journalism that I found meaning to my life, my voice on radio was not mine, it was a “voice-for-the-voiceless”. If I could not find meaning and relevance in my work as a journalist, the even I had no meaning and relevance in society as a whole. Journalism has always been a calling for me, what I always considered to be a noble profession like teaching, social work, being a doctor or nurse, a police man, and the work does indeed involve elements of all these professions and more. I took my job seriously, would have sleepless nights over a story.  I was Jedi Ramalapa the journalist and demonstrated my devotion my risking my life without a second thought at every any given opportunity. Yes there is a form of obsessiveness that comes with the job, where it does become a habit, but it was my life. So after trying all forms of journalism and even briefly dived into the murky world of public relations. It is when I couldn’t find answers to my questions, when I felt and lived in the dark side of journalism, when the professional mixed with the professional, that I needed to gain some perspective. What is a journalist role in society?  I had to start asking myself the five Ws and an H. Why am I still doing this job? Am I really a journalist? Or just a fraud seeking fame and accolades, does it matter that I have never being acknowledged for my dedication to the profession, who listens to my stories? What do they say about them? why am I in this profession in the first place? How have I fared? Have I been fair in my reports? Have I been balanced? How have I dealt with ethical dilemmas? Have I made a positive contribution to society with my work? Has journalism made me a better or worse person? Have I gone out of my way to tell the news as I see, without fear or favour? How have I dealt with opposition, confrontation? Am I asking the right questions?  To the  right people?  Am I independent? Am I critical? When have I done a good job? Where have I failed? The process of asking me these questions has not been an easy one, because what it meant was I had to face and deal and confront all my personal fears along with the occupational hazards of the job. In my zealous efforts to be the voice for the voiceless, I had forgotten about my own voice, about who I am  that though I truly love my job I needed to  take care of myself first and foremost  in order to continue doing a good job.  I needed debriefing, reviewing, and assessment of where I was and where I hope to go as a human being who also happened to be called to be journalists. I knew that I was called to this job, because I did it for free more than once, and have volunteer myself even when I didn’t need to because – I am my job.

Alcoholism, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, dysfunctional relationships, drug abuse, work-a- holism, anxiety and depression, even personalities disorders are just some of the many hazards of Journalism – which if they go untreated could have devastating consequences in the personal lives of  journalists. It after recognizing that I had symptoms of PTSD as result of my job that I started this blog, of course risk employability by admitting this. And this fact became real when while being interviewed for a job in a newsroom where half the staff was suffering from some symptoms of PTSD, I was told they don’t want someone with “baggage”.   I found suffered from news withdrawal symptoms, I had enxiety, I ate fast, did everything quick as if I was on all, on standby, on deadline.  I was used to the daily pressure and excitement, so didn’t know what to do without it, once I started working as a freelance journalist and work became less and less available. Who am I if not a journalist? But even my ties to the profession seemed superficial.  I have never won an award for my work or ever been publicly acknowledged for a job well done – so could never quantify my value as a journalist. So what does that mean? Am I a bad journalist? Can I base the value or merit of my work against awards received? For many years I have been vocal about how these simple matters of awards don’t matter to me and always publicly professed that they meant nothing, but I lied to myself. This fact became more prominent when my faith in journalism – because my faith was in the profession, began to wane. So you can imagine how lost I was. I had to begin a process of defining myself outside of the profession and realized that what mattered more than any award or public acknowledgement for any news story I could write was if I could sleep at night. Can I go to bed each night at peace knowing that I had done my very best, without sacrificing my ethics, values and principles? More than any award – peaceful sleep is the reward – I get at the end of the day, because it is ultimately what really matters. Can you sleep at night?

An unexpected award I have earned for my work as a journalism is one I value more now more than ever, for me it is equivalent to a Pulitzer: The opportunity, time and freedom to define myself for myself, the freedom to write my own story, to choose my own angle, to be the voice for the only person who has remained silent in the past ten or so years – Myself the journalist. I love my job and am thankful for the privileged position that I occupy in society because of three simple words: I am a journalist. I understand now more than ever the enormous responsibility that comes with this job, more especially today where anyone with a camera and access to the internet and social media can be called a journalist. There is untold value in education so that journalists understand why we do what we do.  It is only the in years and years of being a practitioner of  journalism that I appreciate just how important it is for journalist to be fully literate in their chosen profession, to not only blindly ask the questions, but understand why and how to ask a question to whom, under what circumstances.  It is only now that the honey moon is over, now that I lived through the whirlwind romance and has had my heartbroken not only once but many times by this lover of mine that I can commit to a lifelong marriage. In truth, I am more qualified now, today to call myself a journalist that in all the years I was working as a journalist.

Journalism is my calling. Storytelling is a gift no one can take away from me. I promise to never stop asking, Who, What, Where, When, Why and How for as long as I shall live. So help me God.

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