Why Local Conflict-Reporting Lacks Depth And What Journalists Can Do Differently

Insecurity has, for many years, occupied a central position among an array of dire problems Nigerians face. For people in the northeast, it manifests mainly as the Boko Haram insurgency. 

For those in other regions of the north and middle-belt, we have banditry, inter-communal conflicts, and clashes between herders and farming communities. In the south, kidnapping, cultism, and robbery remain major threats to lives and properties. In spite of this tragic backdrop, media institutions are not doing enough to properly capture these events.

The Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ) recently studied the coverage patterns of conflict and humanitarian issues in Nigeria and found that about 90 per cent of media publications on these issues lacked depth. The study had covered contents released between January and March 2019 by 10 print-based, online, and broadcast news organisations.

Following their analysis, researchers at PTCIJ concluded that up to 98 per cent of the reports related to conflict were basic. They only succeeded in providing a “mere recounting” of events while missing out on opportunities to provide context and fresh perspectives.

Additionally, only 38 per cent of the reports touched on the causes, 25 per cent highlighted the consequences, 19 per cent discussed the gender perspectives, and two per cent mentioned how relevant laws could shape the issues. 

The centre said 31 per cent of the reports addressed the issues from a solution-perspective but quickly pointed out that the bulk of these were opinion articles.

It is not the first time shortcomings in how the local media reports conflict will be brought up. A 2018 study by researchers at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium, charged Nigerian journalists with not emphasising the underlying structural causes of conflict and so allowing for ethnic and religious differences to be bandied as motivations for violence. 

“This may have serious consequences for people’s perceptions concerning the possibility and feasibility of peaceful conflict resolution and coexistence,” the authors explained.

The prevalent superficial style of reporting could prevent the public from fully relating to or even thoroughly understanding security-related issues that affect them. And it is especially worrisome in a country with plenty of such issues.

Nigeria is ranked the third most terrorised and 17th least peaceful country in the world by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) in its 2019 Global Terrorism Index and 2020 Global Peace Index respectively. 

The Boko Haram insurgency alone has killed over 37,500 people since May 2011 and has led to the displacement of 2.5 million people in the northeast. Today, 10.6 million people in Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe need urgent humanitarian assistance while 4.3 million face an immediate crisis of food shortage.

The farmer-herder conflict has likewise displaced hundreds of thousands of Nigerians and led to the death of thousands of people — at least 1,300 in the first half of 2018 alone, estimated the International Crisis Group.

Because of a general lack of safety in many parts of the country, the government of the United Kingdom advises its citizens absolutely against travelling to four states in Nigeria and parts of six states. It adds in its travel advisory that only essential trips should be embarked upon to nine other states. The United States similarly lists 15 states across different regions that should be avoided due to, it says, terrorism, kidnapping, crime, and civil unrest.

And it is not only other countries, international non-governmental organisations, and statistical bodies that have sighed over the country’s poor state of security. As of 2019, Nigerians considered crime and insecurity the second-most-important problem affecting them after unemployment. It was even more important than healthcare, housing, corruption, and education, the respondents said, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.

This shows that by paying insufficient attention to this sector, the media is not only allowing violence to fester but is also doing itself a disservice by ignoring a set of issues dear to the heart of its audience.

Meanwhile, another indicator of the lack of essential contexts in most conflict-related stories is their format. PTCIJ observed that 79 per cent of the reports published and aired were news stories, 10 per cent were news in brief, four per cent were opinion articles, two per cent were photographs, another two per cent were editorials, one per cent were feature articles, and then interviews equally constituted one per cent of the contents.

“These formats [news and photographs] leave the least room for in-depth analysis and often don’t carry a lot of information,” the centre summarised. That feature stories, editorials, and interviews are incredibly few reflects a misplacement of priorities in many newsrooms.

There are various reasons for the current state of conflict-reporting in Nigeria. Murtala Abdullahi, a security analyst and researcher with the Conflict Studies and Analysis Project at The Global Initiative For Civil Stabilisation (GICS), highlighted some of the factors as the lack of specialisation, resources, and objectivity, as well as the fear of backlash from state agencies.

“Some journalists and media firms do not take the middle ground. They tend to report from the lens of politics, the security forces, or one of the main parties of the conflict. This affects the depth of reporting,” he remarked.

Abdullahi, who is also the founder of Goro Initiative, a platform that drives awareness and dialogue on climate, conflict and humanitarian issues, said this bias could explain why little is known about gangs operating in the Niger Delta or bandits in the Northwest and why reporting about the killings in Southern Kaduna is often lopsided. Objective reporting is necessary to make proper diagnoses and come up with lasting solutions, he argued.

“If you do not report properly, it means the solutions that will be implemented will also be problematic and we will end up creating more problems.”

Senior investigative journalist at Premium Times, Taiwo Hassan Adebayo, cautions that the quality of reports from newsrooms would ultimately determine whether they are helping to alleviate conflicts or are, in fact, exacerbating them. In order not to worsen an already dreadful situation, he advised journalists to favour field reporting over simply depending on official sources or second-hand accounts. Anything outside this would only promote single narratives, inflame passions, and further deepen the lines of conflict, he said.

“Without witnessed reporting that is not only on-the-ground but affords the public access to non-official yet true accounts and exposes abuses and failures, the media may inadvertently be investing in supporting injustice and abuses, covering truth, and further drawing out the conflicts,” Adebayo added.


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