Friday, December 23, 2011

Government-owned Media: The Zambia Daily Mail

By Brenda Evans

In Lusaka, Zambia

I am by no means a weathered journalist nor do I claim to know all the answers, I am still a student. I did not know what to expect when I came to intern at a government-owned paper in Zambia. The concept of a government-owned media was foreign to me, especially in a nation that claims to be democratic. Would they be showing me the ropes, or I teaching them? There were so many doubts that I had of what role I would play at a government-owned paper.  

Quality Control

Daily Mail newsroom
From my experience at TheZambia Daily Mail and what I have heard from The Times of Zambia, the quality of journalism within the government-owned media reflects the conditions in which they conduct business. The internet is unreliable, the pay is unfavorable, the news meetings are held at no particular time, and the energy level is very low. I have not worked in a newsroom in the United States yet, but from what I know they do not typically follow those traits. That is not to say that in order to produce a quality paper they must follow our guidelines, but they need to find a way to produce clean, efficient reports to their readers. The problems they face can be simply attributed to their lack of resources. These papers do not have the funds to acquire either top writers or materials desired for a fully functioning newsroom.

Jagged layout
Although I never received a straight answer of where their funding comes from, it is fair to assume that because Daily Mail is a government paper, it has a smaller readership, therefore receiving less revenue. Whether this affects the quality of the paper or vice versa, I am not sure. But I know that there are talented journalists in Zambia that could make the government-owned media far superior to what it currently is. The issue comes back to funding because the skilled reporters move on to work for organizations with better pay rates. This lack of quality control leads to both poor editorial and design decisions. There are plenty of positive things that Daily Mail does, but layout is definitely not one of them.

Unintentional Bias

The lack of energy and enthusiasm shows in the reporters’ stories. There is little drive to compete for readership with other papers and because stories are fed to reporters by government outlets they do not have to dig very deep. This shows in the news meetings, but also out in the field where they ask government officials safe questions and seem to know what they want to be asked. On an assignment with a reporter, the minister of health thanked the reporter I was with for helping out at his inauguration. This type of political involvement with officials would never result in a reporter covering any topic, which that official is involved. This creates a conflict of interest, but that issue does not raise red flags at a government-owned paper. These media outlets are practicing shallow journalism that borders on the line of public relations, which the Zambia News and Information Service (ZANIS) does not shy away from admitting.  

Competitors Advantage

The Post's design desk
This does not seem to be the case at all media outlets. Our visit to the independent and most popular paper, ThePost, blew my mind after working with TheDaily Mail for three weeks. They had new Macs, clean, modern offices, a very large property, and the staff is the highest paid in the industry. While I clearly saw the disparities in the quality of the products between independent and government media, the stories they covered hardly varied in content. Maybe I have just been in Zambia during Sata’s honeymoon phase and the independent media does not have much to criticize yet, or things really have loosened up with press freedom. It is too early to tell, but many people at the Daily Mail seemed hopeful. Not everyone who works there is a government puppet or uneducated and hopefully those who are will eventually diminish. But there needs to be an incentive to draw the talent in and make the government owned papers more competitive and less concerned with chewing up and spitting out every story the government hands them.

Brenda Evans is one of 18 students from Ohio University, who studied abroad in Zambia over winter intercession through the Institute for International Journalism.

She is a senior online journalism major with a certificate in Environmental Studies and a specialization in political science and geography.

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