Professor Chinyere Stella Okunna, Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences and former Head of Mass Communication Department, Nnamdi Azikiwe University (UNIZIK), Awka, is a globally acclaimed communication scholar, a fellow of the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) and a journalism teacher of renown.
She is shaping the profession through her work in academics and is currently ranked among the 100 female achievers in Anambra State by the Federation of International Lawyers (FIDA). In this interview with ECHEZONACHUKWU JONEKAY EMEJULU, the former Anambra State Commissioner for Information and Chief of Staff dwells on journalism. She equally frowns at some of the unethical conducts of practitioners in the field. Excerpts
HOW have you been able to change the way mass communication is perceived in UNIZIK?
Mass Communication here in UNZIK is one of the most sought-after courses. By hierarchy, we have the professional courses like medicine, pharmacy, and engineering after which, I think, you have mass communication. It is among the high-flying courses we have in higher institutions today.
But actually, standards of academics have fallen even in professional courses unlike what used to obtain in the past. Recently, I was grading some students and I discovered that their standard of English was horrible and we need to work on that; classes are too large.
I began teaching Mass Communication from IMT, Enugu. We couldn’t admit more than 50 students.
Here, i could remember I fought hard as HOD not to admit more than 50 students because the course is a writing course. Unless you can write, edit and produce, you cannot study the course.
How can you have 150 or even 200 students to teach how to write? I mean, what kind of graduates do you hope to churn out at the end of the day? Half-baked graduates, obviously. So, we must train the students on how to write news, grade news and edit news.
This is what obtains in our tertiary institutions where polytechnics and even monotechnics admit up to 200 students in one lecture room.
Standards are bound to fall. We have tried to do our best to make sure that they are trained in both theoretical and practical aspects. You can only do your best. You try to know what knowledge the students possess and hence, award grades based on that knowledge.
A lot of students do not want to work; they want good grades on a gold platter. That is why we will keep on fighting by training the journalists especially those on the field.
The Nigeria Union of Journalist (NUJ), at a time, warned that those with no Mass Communication Certificates must leave the profession. When I became dean of this faculty, the Anambra chapter of the NUJ approached me and we put a course called ‘Professional Diploma in Journalism (PDJ)’ which has already taken off and has spread to other parts of the country.
Many journalism practitioners, who have no prior base in Mass Communication, have taken advantage of the programme which runs for three semesters. It is grounded mainly in theoretical aspects as they are already familiar with the practical aspects of the job. This implies that their jobs are secure, when the NUJ finally enforces the no-journalism qualification, no-job rule.
How do you see female journalists in Nigeria, particularly in the Anambra State?
There should not be any distinction. We have had study after study that show there is still strong discrimination against female journalists. The way the society is, it is being carried over into journalism and every other profession. They think that this profession is a career where women should not go into.
In the field, there are beats still being covered exclusively by males; such as the aviation, defense, judiciary and education beats.
They think that these so-called manly beats are so important, hence only dominated by men. That is absolute nonsense. Studies reveal that women are still being marginalised.
I teach a course I call Gender Issues in Nigeria and it is one of my most interesting courses.
Together with the students, we brainstorm on gender inequality, gender discrimination, gender equity, and we do research every year since i began teaching this course for years now.
Even this last semester, we did the course; my students did a research. In the class, we treat content analysis of newspapers of broadcast stations where we get to see that the major beats are still being covered by men.
While women do what we call the soft beats like fashion, home making, and children, among others, which made my male students marvel at the discrimination.
But usually, people think that we are crying wolf when there is no discrimination. When we did those content analyses, the margin was obvious. Take a look at your own newspaper, if you look at the ones they call ‘major’ they are still being male oriented and male dominated.
So, what i advise my female mentees, the young female journalists, when you are given a bit that is too much for you, that should be male covered, go in there and do your best. Sometimes, women do not help themselves; they make matters worse because they put you in a beat and say, for instance, you are assigned with a male colleague; you get there and just cross your legs while the man does all the work, thereafter you tell him to add your byline.
What do you expect? The man will not respect you. He will, probably, just tell your superiors how the assignment was covered.
They have to strive to do the job as professionally as their male colleagues. Most times, there are impending dangers, so female journalists should protect themselves from sexual harassment and intimidation.
As many important men who you want an interview with will want you to interview them; they dangle money in front of you. They dangle all kinds of powerful influences and you succumb to them.
You should go in there and maintain your integrity. Also, make sure you are doing the job because you love it. So do not zero your mind that you can meet powerful and influential men and sleep with them. That notion is wrong.
But more women are getting into journalism and they are shining. The broadcast journalism used to be so. They used to employ women who were young and beautiful to cast the TV news.
They wanted you just as a decorative piece on the screen and when you get to a particular age, they make away with you because it is for the beauty you were recruited.
When you stop being beautiful and decorative for the TV screen, they kick you out. But for the men, you could still see them with their grey hair and wrinkles casting the news, they complement him by saying he is looking so mature and professional.
But things are changing now as you still see the older ones on TV but these are professionals. If you do it well, you are retained. They keep telling you; you are justifying the retention.
What is your take on careless slangs and poor diction used on
broadcasting TV nowadays?
They are just watering down standards. When I began teaching, one of the strongest topics for conferences was the argument whether journalism was a profession.
They used to compare us with law, medicine, and engineering. At that time, journalism was not a profession; it was just a craft, unlike engineering which had a body of knowledge.
You cannot allow someone who has not gone through college of medicine practice as a doctor. You cannot take somebody who does not belong to the body of pharmacy as pharmacist or other professions.
Gradually, there must be a body of knowledge which is vital, for every entrant to acquire before one can practice. Journalism must stick to that regulatory principle.
They are still employing those with no skills; I call them quacks. You must acquire skills in the practice by training, if it is a question of acquiring skills on the job.
You can do that, but formal education is necessary to give you the self-esteem and the confidence and the respect in the profession. You have to acquire formal education even if it is a diploma.
And because of the nature of journalism, the variety of backgrounds enriches our profession. So that if you are covering the court and you are a lawyer, it will enrich your coverage; if you are a science reporter and you have a degree in the sciences, it is an advantage.
All we are saying is bring your rich background from where ever you are coming and get a little education in journalism so that you can tie your background to your new profession.
If you just come in because you are an engineer, because you have a business degree or economy and you have no qualification, you will lack the self esteem.
People are bound to look down on you. Things are changing and journalism must become a profession and stay as a profession.
Anybody that does not have that qualification, whether he has a PhD in Engineering or a PhD in Economics, and you are reporting the economy, go back and have a qualification to tie it to your new job. There are still so much unethical practices in the profession.
When unethical practices are nipped in the bud, do you see better
reportage on the job?
Journalism is a beautiful profession if given the prestige and the quality training, retraining and ethical orientations.
It is a very glorious profession. Take a cue from journalists abroad; you respect them, where money is not everything; where you respect the employees; where at the end of the month they pay salaries; where they protect lives of journalists.
When you listen to international news channels, you can see how dangerous the profession is. Journalists lose their lives in the line of duty. They cover war zones; they cover heated areas.
People become enlightened with the information and, in doing all these; they put their lives on the line and endanger their lives. One good thing about the profession is that people admire them; society loves them while in Nigeria, they belittle them.
At the end of the month, they are not paid salaries thus making them to indulge in unethical conducts: you see them struggling for food at events, struggling for handouts, they are begging for gratification and it lowers their prestige – a profession that is prestigious all over the world.
I wish people can appreciate the work they do better, appreciate the risk they take and remunerate them properly. By this, i mean that whatever the employer and the employee agreed on should at the end of the month be paid because things are tough.
Honestly, I think it is the most inhuman thing; it is the height of inhumanity; it is the height of wickedness for an employer to not pay a contracted journalist at the end of the month because you expose him or her to all kinds of practices.
It is a very noble profession. It is a shame for a journalist to go crawling on his knees, begging for handout or commercialising news. A journalist should be able to go and hunt for news.
You go into an important place to cover an important event which, at the end, you hold your head high and go home. Your employer has provided for you to go there, the equipment you are using, the transportation you are going to use; the food you will eat have been taken care of by your employer. So, you match out with dignity.
But when all of these are lacking, you will see the journalist always in the place where they are sharing food or money undignified. So, there are many handicaps in the country, especially the third world countries who do not dignify their journalists.
That is why our professional bodies – the Nigerian Guild of Editors, Nigerian Union of Journalists – should come together to discuss this. The issue should not be politicised.
They allow their employers to put them into their pockets so that they cannot raise their voices.
We have always said it on several occasions that there should be a kind of Trust Fund for journalists in case employers do not pay you or you get sacked, you can go to court.
The Trust Fund should be able to maintain the journalist until better days come. I wish we could borrow a leaf from the banking industry; nowadays people can just open one mushroom media house.
Can you see the way radio stations are recklessly springing up everywhere? Anyone that can afford it, goes to float one; even now, they have extended to TV houses, as well as the print media where they employ young people who are desperate for jobs and at the end of the day, they would not pay them their salaries.
I think we should borrow a leaf from the banking industry; if you want to open a bank now, you must deposit a minimum of 25 billion dollars. Then, let’s make our own be 5 billion.
The thing is, you the proprietor deposit the stated money so that if you renege in paying salaries to your journalists, they go there and forcefully take from the fund to pay the affected journalists. This will enable them to take the job seriously.
Again, Mass Communication is a very popular course. Definitely, every tertiary institution has a Mass Communication Department, churning out hundreds of thousands every year and there is desperation for the job.
Once you open one wretched newspaper house, or radio house, the young people rush there where they are being exploited. At the end of the month, you do not pay them anything; these are those desperately looking for means of livelihood while there is no means of livelihood.
It does not dignify our profession as we must have dignified ways of making the profession stand. There is no other profession in the world that can do the things journalism can do.
Think about it. If there were no news for one day; if all radio stations, television stations, all online blogs, newspapers shut down for a day, I tell you the world will go crazy. Men and women go out there risking their lives to gather and disseminate information.
Like I said earlier, nobody, no organisation in the entire world can have the capacity to gather the quantity and quality of information the world desires to make sense of themselves and package these professionally and efficiently.
Nobody else can do that and, so, why don’t they appreciate the men and women who are doing it and not just doing it professionally but also risking their lives. I think it is the height of ingratitude and wickedness.
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