During the second semester of 2018/19, I taught two courses in Media and Communication at the African University College of Communications, AUCC, in Accra. The two courses: Journalistic reporting, writing and editing, and Communication Theory presented different challenges for both my undergraduate and graduate classes. At face value they seemed dialectical; perched at opposite ends of the pendulum. For the graduate class of 8, most of whom were media practitioners and one politician who had lost an election, there was a hollow ring to the Journalistic reporting, writing and editing class. What have these journalists been doing all this while, I asked myself if they are only now to be tutored in the mechanics of their craft? Not only was I certain that the course as modelled was inane and of little benefit for practising journalists, I felt that their academic appetites would be whetted if I could refashion the course to anchor their journalism skills within a firm theoretical base.
Consequently, I transformed the journalism class into a laboratory to test as well as illustrate how media artefacts and stories either lent credence to or undermined media/communication normative theories. The Journalism reporting class morphed into an encounter where students reflected over why for instance, Fareed Zakaria would do a documentary on “Presidents under Fire: The History of Impeachment” dissecting its implicit representational choices, its careful use of archival material and its adoption of the first person, “I” point of view in both narration and interviews? Was the adoption of an auteur approach efficient for a factual news format? What informed its frame choices and why were some voices privileged, excluded or voiced over?
The process of aligning theory and practise provided me with deep insights, forcing me and my students to clarify, question and even deconstruct some of our “black box” (Latour, 1999), taken for granted positions in journalism along the way. To my relief and eternal gratitude, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. In many ways, the Ghana Media Observatory is a direct beneficiary of this experiment which aims to reexamine routine, professional assumptions, on the one hand, whiles aligning institutional practise with normative theories on the other. It is a laboratory of ideas that believes that Petty and Cacciopo’s model (1982) is as applicable to newsmakers, pun intended, as it is for advertisers and news consumers.
This study cell will run like a seminar and is intended to achieve two principal things: serve as a platform for media professionals to synergise through sharing of ideas as well as catch up on the latest research in their professional “field” (Bourdieu, 1998). Various media formations (philosophies, ownership type, funding streams etc), editorial practices, and the legislative regimes that define their raison d’etre and regulate their practices will constitute an unavoidable backdrop for discussions. Ultimately, the mode of engagement will strive to fuse praxis (in philosophical and experiential terms) with normative (media and communication) theory, while leaning on some of the latest empirical literature and research as a base for analysis and discussion around media in all its formations and professional practise in all its affordances.
What is news? What defines it? How do media settings and cultures affect the conceptualisation and production of news? In what ways do news as products reflect institutional routines and audience preferences? Are they meant to bear witness, place on record or archive the truth? These are some of the critical questions that will confront this small cell of not more than 10 editors, producers and frontline editorial workers. The cohort will discuss media stories along two critical scaffolds: shared professional practices and ethics, and normative best practice. The overarching objective will be to align media and communication theory with various strains of professional and editorial practices, philosophies and routines. Considering the ethnocentric impulse of most western communication theory, every effort will be made to ensure that local resonance is not missed through their applications.
A typical session will begin with a facilitator reviewing any media artefact(s) that caught his/her attention either for good or bad reasons. Without sounding judgemental, this will be done within the overarching objective of tracing, commenting and ultimately eliciting discussions/perspectives about highlighted media artefact, quality and impact within the media ecosystem. This review of media artefact(s) is expected to segue into a discussion of whether or not normative best practices were respected or ignored, and more importantly, what could have been done to make such artefacts stronger.
Equally importantly, the facilitator is expected to apply relevant communication/media theories/concepts to the stories under discussion, outlining their characteristics, relevance, (mis)application, and limitations. In all things, “normative praxis” should be the goal: a quest for a delicate balance between placing a high-end media product within a local setting for a “glocalized” audience/readership.
Down the road, the convenor and lead facilitator will share with members in advance relevant literature (PDF files of journal articles, media publications) and media artefacts. Considered as required reading, members will be expected to familiarise themselves with such readings before meetings to enhance the quality of discussion as well as expand the scope of analysis.
Needless to say, if the seminar format is to be maintained, then it should be expected that participants will take turns to lead sessions as facilitators, sharing their thoughts on global issues of their choice, and leading ensuing discussions.
Given that editors and senior editorial staff constitute this cell, its principal objective is to equip them to situate their daily routines within the best normative practice. Whose normative and whose practise will constitute an unending question to answer. This will be achieved through the constant reiteration of aligning praxis with normative theory, empirical literature and research. Additionally, it is to underline the previous divide between local and international audiences within a globalised setting increasingly characterised by converged media. The fact that such media are characterised by “multimediality, interactivity, and hypertextuality” (2014) draws attention to the compelling need to do old things differently.
Hopefully, practitioners will be more sensitive to the political economy of media, their ecosystem as well as their variegated cultures. Ultimately, the first of two expected outcomes is for participants to recognise their critical role in the configuration, tone and social functions of the fourth estate, whiles the other seeks to provide assurance that a cohort of professional colleagues are at hand to run ideas by, as well as undertake joint projects with. In a converged media environment, this will constitute a healthy “coopetition” (Dailey et al., 2005).
Kwame Akuffo Anoff-Ntow, PhD