By Lindsay Boyle
“Don’t be hard-hitting.”
That’s what I was told on my first day as an intern at the Daily Graphic, Ghana’s state-owned and best-selling national newspaper. I was warned that, sometimes, the Graphic would find a reason to fire those who were.
Now, I don’t want to completely knock Ghanaian journalism: not only are other countries allowed to do things differently, but also, the United States’ way of going about things isn’t perfect — the 2013 Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, although controversial, listed it below 31 other countries. And, recently, a study by PEN America found that many U.S. writers are now self-censoring in order to avoid NSA scrutiny.
Regardless, some of the journalistic trends I observed during my two months as an intern with the Daily Graphic were disconcerting.
Every evening, the Graphic’s schedule for the following day — the “roaster” — is posted. Typically, it features almost nothing but press conferences, awards shows and other similar conventions. However, that alone isn’t the problem — it’s more so the way journalists go about covering the already PR-like events.
Even when reporters — not just from the Graphic — aren’t late, they sometimes fall asleep during events and rely on the typed-up speeches to write their stories. At one press conference about offshore drilling — where two British folks and a Ghanaian gas company owner talked about how awesome the practice would be — the Ghanaian journalists were so adamant about getting the speeches afterward that employees had to make copies on the spot.
I should note that, at the same conference, the reporters asked an uncannily small amount of questions. Not one person thought to bring up the potential adverse effects offshore drilling could have on Ghana environmentally. Following the public Q & A session, the reporter I was with still didn’t ask anything, even though the reporter could have done so one-on-one.
The problem goes farther than that, though: with conferences and other events — even ones that are days long — reporters from all media outlets rarely stay for more than the welcome ceremony. When I was covering a three-day conference on accessibility and quality of higher education, a Graphic photographer told me we needed to leave after we’d been at the event for just 25 minutes. What? I thought. What’s the point of even going? This will be a total fluff piece.
I rushed to find a man who was giving a presentation later during the conference specifically about Ghana, so I could at least have some quotes with real details. I didn’t see any other reporters do the same.
Instead, when I returned, I found the photographer waiting with other media members to receive money from the university that hosted the event. Again, what? I later learned it’s a common practice in Ghana that’s widely known as ‘soli’ — short for ‘solidarity’ — and is considered more of a courtesy than a bribe to write good things.
Perhaps I’d be more comfortable with that if it weren’t for the police escort Graphic reporters, myself included, received from an event at the Embassy of Japan a week earlier. Yes, that’s right: I rode, four in the backseat, in a police SUV with its sirens blaring, flying down the wrong side of the road as cars swerved out of the way just in time.
There was no hurry — we were just going back to the office to write about a Community-based Health Planning and Services compound. But, that’s the effort the police made for the journalists — the same journalists who are supposed to keep the actions of the police in check.
ran the following day with a shared byline. Agortoe, the main location to which the piece referred, was spelled “Argotoe” at two different points.
Editing errors such as that weren’t uncommon, either. When I wrote about a conference/awards event regarding sanitation in Ghana, my article ran the following day with an “edited” lead that ended with a comma rather than a period.
And, I was told my story from the conference on accessibility and quality of higher education didn’t “follow our style.” Where I had a short lead, it became 80 words long and tough to follow. Where I had two sentences, it became one run-on. Where I had words spelled correctly and plurals agreeing, they no longer were. Where I had “Prof Peter Mayer, from Osnabrueck, Germany,” there was “Prof Peter Mayer Osnabrueck, from Germany,” who was thereafter referred to as “Prof Osnabrueck.”
Fortunately, the Daily Graphic has a features section to expand on its regular coverage. With that, though, comes a different issue: actually trying to report a feature story in Ghana.
In Ghana, a freedom of information bill that’s existed since 2003 still hasn’t been signed into law. Many organizations and events have poor or nonexistent websites. But, what’s worse is how difficult it was, at least for me, to get a hold of government members.
When I needed information about why an island near Ada still isn’t on Ghana’s national electricity grid, Comfort Doeyo Cudjoe Ghansah, Member of Parliament for Ada, answered one email — asking me when I’d like to meet — but then never replied to my response. An NGO employee working in the area told me she’d never gotten back to him, either.
When I was working on a story about child trafficking in Ghana, I walked more than 30 minutes to the Ministry of Women’s and Children’s Affairs — which became the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection with very little publicity — because none of the several phone numbers listed for the place worked.
Employees there sent me to the Department of Children, which they said would be able to better answer my questions, with such terrible directions that I actually couldn’t find it until I tried again two days later.
Human Trafficking Secretariat for answers. I trekked almost three miles to the building only to find that the head of the secretariat, Victoria Natsu, wasn’t there and hadn’t been all week. I refused to leave until someone gave me her phone number.
A few days later, I did an interview with her, oddly enough, at the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection.
On the bright side, the Graphic did run my piece on trafficking — it received a two-page, center-of-the-paper spread — even though it could easily be considered “hard-hitting.” Additionally, the right to information bill seems closer to passage than ever, major outlets are starting to denounce ‘soli’ and increasing Internet access will inevitably lead to more, and better, websites. So, it seems Ghanaian journalism, at least, is headed in the right direction.