This write-up is prompted by the deluge of news manipulation that is attendant in reporting the Jos crises. This misinformation that goes on tells heavily on policy formulation and in controlling and affecting the direction of national discourse and even national security. Within the Nigerian reading public, there is a little filter to sieve the kernel of truth from biased trash. People believe in the press especially where a tradition of a particular form of reporting is sustained. Mental models are daily updated through the regurgitation of structures, ‘Muslims’ will be ‘Muslims’, ‘Hausas’ will be ‘Hausas’ with all the attendant stereotypes churned out by the media and irrespective of what reality holds. So, part of the problem Nigeria faces as a nation among other myriad of problems is that of having a very biased and sectional press. The press that should stand high above all forms of statist dichotomies that derail Nigeria and maintain the proper ethical standards is here spearheading and setting the agenda for greater crises. A nation that loses a vibrant, dispassionate press to base, inordinate sentiments clearly sails to its mortal destruction. In the current Jos crisis, we have seen how facts are suppressed or overly highlighted, backgrounded or foregrounded based on the ideological preference of the reporting press.
In the most recent crisis in Jos following the end of the Ramadan, as usual, there has been a glut of biased news stories. I intend to use two news stories from the Sun Newspaper which clearly indicate such bias as models of the general form of skewed reporting in our press. These two stories follow each other within a gap of two days. They are:
Headlines and leads would be analysed here due to space and due to their tremendous importance as telegraphic summaries of the stories they tell. Statistically, while the story regarding the attack on the Eid ground consists of 555 words that of the attack on a family is 1231 words. In couching the headlines of the two carnages, we have seen how passions are deployed and how emotionally charged words are used. The attack on the Eid reads simply:
- Sallah celebration: 10 killed, many injured in Jos
While that of an attack on a family appears more nuanced emotionally:
- Massacre: Family of 8 wiped out in Jos
Dad, Mum, 4-month-old among those killed by gunmen in midnight attack
Soldiers get shoot-on-sight order
While ten were ‘killed’, eight were ‘massacred’. Greater number i.e. 10 that should have factored in the semantics of ‘massacre’, for reasons of sheer bias, is used for a lesser number, 8! This is because the use of ‘massacre’ here has more force and it invokes a state of more callous deliberateness and this betrays the bias of the SUN to what it reports. Reality is what we encode of it linguistically because there are no ready answers in nature. The taking of life whether it is called ‘murder’ ‘killing’ or ‘massacre’ only gives us ideological choices to make of how we encode an experience like this (mostly taking our biases with us) not that nature is sorted in such a way as to niche our labels. Nowhere is biased more established than in the leads of the two stories. In the Eid lead reproduced below:
- Sallah celebration by the Izala Muslim group on Monday turned sour as clash between the group and some youths led to the death of no fewer than 10 people while many were injured. The Izala members, who had gathered at the Rukuba Road praying ground for the end of Ramadan fast, were held hostage for hours by the youths from the area who had insisted that they would not be allowed to pass through their area back to town. A fight erupted between the two groups after efforts, which lasted for hours, by the security men to pacify the youths failed.
We see clearly how agency and responsibility is mystified. The use of ‘nominalization’ and ‘passivised processes’ only shows the crisis and aggression as mutual, deliberately hiding the face and the creed of the assailant. ‘Sallah celebration.. turned sour..’ is a passive or an ergative construction which hides the agent. An active construction like ‘Berom youths turn Sallah celebration sour’ could have nuanced the aggressor appropriately. It is also instructive to realize that the ‘Berom youths’ are described more with common nouns having nebulous modifiers (some youths, youths from the area, the youths) than proper nouns and modifiers which could have stated their identity clearly. One is tempted to ask here, which youths?. The further use of ‘clash between the group and some youths’ shows shared responsibility in the fracas. In the last sentence, we see a nominalization. A nominalization freezes or de-narrates a clausal process and makes an SVO clause a single word thereby turning a verb into a noun. The nominalized word here is ‘Fight’ which is the subject and it ‘erupts’ like a volcano. Invoking a geological metaphor to explain a clearly human phenomenon with clear cause-effect status is just part of the game, but even then, volcanoes don’t just erupt like that without reasons that cannot be explained systematically! That sentence is vintage biased SUN clearly obscuring and manipulating facts so much so that it is conceivable beyond imagination. The starkness of this biased report can only be gauged when juxtaposed with another lead barely two days after:
- Fulani herdsmen were on the rampage again yesterday, as another family of eight was massacred in Heipang, near Jos, the Plateau State capital. This time, Mr. Chollom Gyang, his wife, Hannatu and six children, including a four-month old baby fell victims.
This report clearly shows an entirely different form of reporting. In the report on the attack at the Eid ground, we see both a linguistic and spatial distance in reporting the issues. It is like a faint torch flickering from far seeing issues hazily, dimly and unclearly. But in this report we see this distance totally abridged. Suddenly people have names and particulars and history and families and the narrator/ reporter is omniscient knowing all that appear to have happened. There is also an overt attempt at personalization. When ‘dad’, ‘mum’ ‘children’ and ‘4 months old baby’ are clearly mentioned we are suddenly or psychologically more inclined to identify and sympathize with this constructed family unit rather than when number like ‘10’ is mentioned and said to be killed. But the blanket numeralization of people with a ‘10’, apart from the number being seriously reduced, is not about some rootless greens from another world or about some inanimate substances but also about people that are ‘dads’, ‘mums’ ‘children’ and even ‘babies’ with names, families and histories that deserve to be documented and highlighted. Shifting focuses is mostly ideologically driven. Whether we choose to focus on a man as a familial, humanistic or biological animal is about how we choose our stories to be understood or read. It is totally reprehensible to attack families whether these families are asleep or at a solemn religious moment offering prayers.
In the two-sentence lead quoted above, one clearly sees the aggressor named i.e. ‘Fulani herdsmen’. There is clearly no hedging of the assailant here because he has a name and identity! The names of the victims and their community are also apparently mentioned. We see here a flurry of proper nouns quite distinct from the Eid report where things are nebulously reported. There are also two very important words used here ‘again’ and ‘another’. ‘Fulani herdsmen were on the rampage again’ clearly shows this attack and the attacker as habitual but without having to go into details about those other attacks. The use of ‘another’ in ‘another family of eight was massacred’…also presupposes that families have been attacked in the past. Such (pragmatic) tools employed here to recall actions may be done innocently but they have totally not been deployed in the Eid news report where a series of attacks on a particular ethnic group appears to be treated on its spontaneous merit without needing to recall a particular string of actions. One would go ad infinitum citing other glaring evidences of this bias….
This is the way the attack on Jos has been reported. The news reports are presented with premeditated mindsets; mindsets that already judge and blame. Events are framed with biased constructions. No any dispassionate presentation of issues. This particular form of reporting affects all other spheres of our nationhood where groups (religious, tribal or sectional) are involved. It is this skewed presentation of issues that makes Bala Usman et al to warn about the nation tilting to Kigali. Ethnic cleansing propaganda establishes gradually and insidiously through propagandist misrepresentations to the extent that those misrepresented are slowly shorn of their humanity, and this makes it easy to apply summary, arbitrary actions against them. It behoves on governments or groups to invest in the media, if for nothing, to be able to counter such bias or misrepresentation of issues and apply the right ethical standards of journalism.
Umar writes from Saudi Arabia