"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: 05/03/20

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Dangote, Premium Times, and Journalistic Ethics

By Farooq Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

Many journalists have asked me to share my thoughts on Premium Times’ ethical entanglements with a recent botched Dangote story. Two high-flying Premium Times reporters by the names of Samuel Ogundipe and Nicholas Ibekwe came across a memo from Dangote’s company informing its staff that the “lockdown period will be regarded as part of leave period and therefore annual leave consuming.”

In other words, if the lockdown period exceeds the duration of the annual leave the company’s workers are normally entitled to, they won’t be paid. Apparently, workers were alarmed by this and decided to leak the memo to Premium Times, one of Nigeria’s leading investigative news platforms.

When Ogundipe and Ibekwe reached out to the Dangote Group about the memo, the company’s spokesperson dismissed it as “fake.” Although many online publications have already published the memo (because workers in the company anonymously confirmed its authenticity), Premium Times’ editors chose to err on the side of caution and “killed” the story. I have a problem with that, but that’s not the point at issue now.

Since the story had effectively been “killed” by Premium Times editors, Ogundipe came on Twitter to reflect on the memo. He wondered aloud how the rhetoric of “fake news” is invoked by companies, governments, politicians, etc. to delegitimize legitimate stories. He also wanted to crowdsource the authentication of the memo.

The usual suspects predictably maligned him. And, here’s where it gets interesting, Premium Times’ well-regarded and globally garlanded Editor-in-Chief by the name of Musikilu Mojeed implicitly endorsed one of the tweets that criticized Ogundipe’s decision to publicly reflect on the memo.

“Thank you very much, Ruona, for calling our attention to this. This is actually a violation of @PremiumTimesng Social Media Behavioural Guideline for staff. We are already reviewing this. We will take appropriate administrative action,” he wrote in response to a tweet to which neither he nor Premium Times was tagged.

Now, the issue is, is it ethical for reporters to publicly discuss a story that has been killed by their news organization? Yes, it is, especially if the story is already public knowledge. The Dangote memo wasn’t exclusive to Premium Times. Even I got it on WhatsApp.

I searched for Premium Times’s Social Media Guidelines for its staff on Google and couldn’t find it, but if the guidelines forbid reporters from crowdsourcing stories and from publicly reflecting on story ideas that have been abandoned, then it’s behind the times and need to be updated.

I teach media ethics and can say this. In the early 2000s, before the advent of social media, the American news media were leery of blogs. In fact, by 2003, reporters who had blogs were either fired or told to stop. But by the late 2000s, which is co-extensive with the birth and flowering of social media, blogging and social media became integrated into the business of reporting. The Associated Press Social Media guidelines, which I teach, would have no problems with Ogundipe’s tweet.

Ogundipe’s tweet— which shares a screenshot of the Dangote memo, reveals why a story wasn’t written about it, and wonders aloud if “people are now taking advantage of ‘fake news’ to deny anythin?”— isn’t unethical or inappropriate by even the most wildly elastic stretch of journalistic ethics.

That was why Mojeed’s unsolicited reply to an inconsequential tweet, which basically amounted to publicly and unjustifiably humiliating his reporter, puzzled me. How do you publicly threaten to take “administrative action” against a reporter—and a smart, prolific, gutsy, go-getting one at that!—for something as innocuous as what he shared on Twitter?

Premium Times is one of only a few news outlets still doing real journalism in Nigeria. It would be sad if it undermines itself—and Nigerian journalism—through avoidable self-cannibalism.