Journalism educators strive to equip students with the necessary skills and knowledge to enable students to perform in the industry, be it in print, radio or television. However, emerging practices in the industry, mostly unknown in classrooms, seem to be creating a gap between classroom theory and industry practice. Panellists at the Conference of African Journalism Educators – from Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Zambia and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – outlined several challenges faced in their respective countries regarding the appropriateness of journalism training, with respect to emerging practices in the industry.
One emerging practice panellists dwelt upon in the discussion is what is commonly referred to as the “brown envelope”, where news sources pay journalists to have their stories published or broadcast. The participants agreed that the practice is common in African countries.
In her presentation on ethical practice in Cameroon, Manka Tabuwe from the University of Buea said while students are taught in class about ethical professional practices, what they find in the industry challenges their ethical beliefs. She said the practice of “brown envelope”, known as “gombo” in Cameroon, is rampant in the country and mainly stems from the inability of media organisations to pay journalists decent salaries, as well as the new sources eager to have their stories covered especially in government owned media.
Tabuwe said the implications of the practice include: journalists not being able to do investigative stories, the rich being favoured as news sources while the poor are alienated, and that the practice disfavours women as most of them don’t have money to pay for stories.
She said having identified the practice as a major obstacle to the growth of journalism, the University of Buea’s Department of Journalism and Mass Communication came up with propositions to curb the practice at an early stage, including:
- Advocating for journalists associations to come together to reinforce ethics and sanction journalists who practice “gombo”;
- Not to send students for internships in media organisations practicing “gombo”;
- Partner with media organisations to help curb the practice;
- Promote ethical discussions in classrooms.
During discussions, participants concurred that the “brown envelope” is not limited to economic situations, but it is also a moral bankruptcy that needs fighting. The participants also agreed that policies in media houses should make it clear on when to accept from sources and outline sanctions for journalists involved in the practice. The participants also posed the question of how they would ensure good ethical practice in the face of economic recession and globalisation.
Being unethical often leads to public mistrust in the media and this is what the DRC is experiencing. According to Mubangi Betukany Gilbert from the University of Kinshasa, a reticence is felt by the Congolese people towards the media due to journalists practices, including taking bribes, which do not bring much credit to the profession. He said this also stems from poor salaries, and that in some instances, journalists do not have contracts with their employers, hence making it difficult to negotiate for better packages.
In addition, journalism training in DRC remains poor, said Mubangi. There is no journalism training institution in the Congo with radio, television or newspapers as tools to train students, hence there are low-quality graduates. Thus media houses depend on foreign sources for their news. Mubangi called for mobility in training on issues of governance, ethics and news gathering skills.
In response to Mubangi’s presentation, participants advocated for the media in DRC to work more to gain public trust, and talked of the need for journalist unions in the country to get organised and address journalists problems with regard to working conditions.
Talking of the Zimbabwe experience, Zvenyika Eckson Mugari from Midlands State University expressed worry over:
- The coverage and distribution of the media, which is urban and elitist in focus;
- The political ideologies in newsrooms affecting ethical standards;
- The repressive regime of media regulatory laws.
Mugari said the situation in Zimbabwe’s media industry raises questions about the suitability to purpose of the journalism curriculum. He questioned whether the journalism curriculum in Zimbabwe is attuned to what is happening in the industry, such as the void between the urban and rural areas. He argued that, because 65 percent of the populations is outside the loop of the media, it would appear that journalism departments are training for a media industry that does not exist or is on its way out of existence. He said the content of the journalism curriculum is full of ideas that are a negation and denial of the meaning and purpose of rural existence in a continent that is typically rural.
Mugari added that media scholars in Zimbabwe are beginning to ask whether it is the role of media educators to involve themselves in media activism and if the scholars are teaching in a manner that would empower journalists to become activists on behalf of society.
The situation in Zambia represents a different dimension to the fit between classroom and the working environment as it mostly concerns gender roles in newsrooms. In her presentation, Rose Nyondo from the University of Zambia said most trained female journalists branch off to public relations and other specialisations in the communications industry after graduating.
Nyondo said the change of careers by female journalists is not only based on monetary basis but is also a question of gender roles and detrimental newsroom practices such as male chauvinism and sexual harassment. She argued that the working environment in newsroom is mainly suitable for men and that for most women the gender roles of being a perfect wife and mother infringes on the expectations of being a good journalists. She then proposed that:
- Society work on attitudes towards female journalists;
- Media houses rework their work schedules to support working mothers;
- Media houses provide child care facilities at work;
- Salaries for both men and women should be improved;
- Journalism curricula be changed to incorporate gender as part of course content.
While one participant questioned whether women should be given preference in newsrooms, a number of women educators argued that it is difficult being a female journalist in Africa and balancing work and gender roles is very tricky in newsrooms, a situation one does not experience as a student.