Vice President Yemi Osinbajo last week raised an important issue relating to journalism practice not only in Nigeria but also in other cultures. He said poor remuneration prevents journalists from living a decent life. Arguably, his statement marked the first time a top member of the government has addressed the relationship between miserable salaries and allowances paid to journalists in Nigeria and journalists’ failure to uphold their professional codes of practice.
Osinbajo, who spoke in Abuja at a seminar organised by the State House Press Corps to mark the end of the year, observed that, in Nigeria, the private sector has also shown little regard for the national minimum wage. He said even though President Muhammadu Buhari and himself earn low salaries relative to the tasks they perform on a daily basis, the circumstances of journalists were exceptional. He said this was because journalists work for profit-oriented media organisations that earn huge revenues every year yet the media owners have no regard for the welfare of journalists who generate revenue for their businesses.
Essentially, when journalists receive low salaries and allowances, it impacts negatively not only on their welfare and wellbeing but also on the quality of journalism that is produced for public consumption.
It is not only in Nigeria that journalists earn low wages. In Fiji, India, Indonesia, and other developing countries, poor remuneration has led to exodus of experienced, educated, and talented journalists to other industries that offer higher pay. When experienced journalists leave the industry, the outcome is inexperienced and low-skilled journalists who take many years to train and groom.
Low wages tempt journalists to engage in unethical practices that allow them to supplement their incomes so they can feed their families, clothe them, and provide accommodation. In this environment, journalists are unable to uphold the professional code of practice. This is how low remuneration adversely affects ethical conduct and, therefore, undermines quality journalism.
In India, for example, the phenomenon of “paid news” has been criticised severely by journalists and the larger society because of its impact on the quality of news. Paid news is the practice in which politicians, big businesses, advertisers, and other interest groups pay journalists to publish or broadcast news that will project them in a positive way. This practice has damaged journalists’ credibility, including the image of the media organisations in which journalists work. In Nigeria, one form of unethical journalism practice is widely known as “brown envelope syndrome.”
Not only did Osinbajo touch a sore point, which many owners of private media organisations would like to dismiss quickly, he also gave examples of his experience when he worked for a media organisation. More relevant for working journalists was the advice he gave to them on how to lift themselves from their current state of helplessness and vulnerability.
Osinbajo told the journalists: “I realised first of all that this is not a profession from which one could make a decent living in the first place, unless you find a really good way of doing so. But more importantly for me was the fact that you are just on your own. Journalism as a profession is so wide open… There are a few reasons in my view why remuneration is poor. The first is that it is just simply cheating. There are owners of media that are just cheats. They just want to get something from nothing and that is not uncommon, it is a general malaise, it is not necessarily restricted to the media. It is also the same in the legal profession. There are many lawyers, if they tell you what they earn, you will certainly not want to be a lawyer.”
This environment could be described in local phraseology as “monkey de work, baboon de chop.” That is, while journalists and other professionals work tirelessly for their employers, the employers stack in their private bank accounts the wealth generated by workers.
Having identified the problem of low remuneration for journalists and members of other professions, Osinbajo quickly suggested ideas for dealing with the appalling situation. He said: “We need to enforce some kind of adherence to the minimum wage structure. Not just the minimum wage of the lowest paid person, but minimum wages across the board, especially so that there is a certain amount of regulation of how people are paid.”
It was his recommendation for improving the welfare of journalists that I found most persuasive. Osinbajo said: “Entry into journalism is not vigorously enforced. Most professions are able to pay better because there (are) entry requirements that are rigorously enforced. Perhaps not the case in journalism and for good reason. There are those who are formally trained as journalists but the profession will admit anybody at all even if you are not formally trained as a journalist and that is even becoming more so now with social media platforms, with blogs.”
To solve the problem of low remuneration paid to journalists, Osinbajo opened an age-long debate about whether journalism should be regarded as a profession. Among journalists, journalism educators, and journalism students, the question of whether or not journalism should be regarded as a profession is as contentious as outlining the qualities of a good wife or husband.
Osinbajo is absolutely correct. One of the reasons why journalism and journalists continue to lose respect in different environments is the loose nature of the profession. Worst still in the electronic environment, anybody can be a journalist. This is the point highlighted by Eddie Madunagu, former chairman of the editorial board of The Guardian during a debate on this topic in 2002. Madunagu had written: “Anyone who puts some written materials together and circulates them or plays a part, any part at all, in this process, is in the journalism profession and is entitled to be called a journalist. In other words, journalism is a profession anyone can enter from anywhere. For some aspects of the job, no training is required, and for others, you learn on the job.”
While many people have argued that journalism is a profession, United States journalism academics, Everette Dennis and John Merrill, take the position that “professionalism is associated with competence, with training, with a body of knowledge, with standards of evaluation and improvement.”
Consider this. In professions such as medicine and law, it is not possible for anyone without qualifications to set up a business and practise as a medical doctor or a lawyer. One does not become a lawyer simply because one can mount sound arguments in a public debate.
Unlike medicine or law, there are no formal minimum entry requirements for practising journalists. All that anyone requires to practise journalism in Nigeria is the ability to write good English. This is even more common now in the Internet era than at any other time.
One way to deal with the situation is for editors, media managers, and media owners to recognise that unethical practices exist and are having deleterious impact on the profession. The second approach is to tighten the rules for professional practice and to impose severe penalties on offenders. A code of practice that is unenforceable and commonly breached is not worthwhile.