Commenting On Commentaries: What Is News On Ghanaweb?
As journalistic etiquette will have it, I should have sought permission from Mr. Sam Asante, a very well-intentioned Ghanaweb commentator and columnist, before writing this piece. I chanced on his email in my inbox - a mail that had been rerouted from the cyber accounts of Dr Kwaku Danso of Ghana National Party fame. In the mail, Mr. Asante had expressed great disquiet at our appreciation of what constitutes news on the Ghanaweb forum. Particularly, he had expressed concern about how feature articles and news stories that seem to treat important developmental issues are sidestepped for ‘trivial’ ones by Ghanaians who visit the website. Mr. Asante had attached a very good article written by Mr. Yao Sophism, in which the writer had discussed some important development strategies that could be adopted to help in the development of a poor country that is aspiring to achieve a middle income status. The article had been appropriately titled: ‘A Middle Class development strategy in Ghana’ and had received just twelve comments on the forum. The same article had been published by the Chronicle newspaper, and had been read by a handful of readers on the paper’s website. It will not serve our purposes to define news at this stage. Let’s assume the word news is an acronym: anything that is new, entertaining, wonderful or surprising. The BBC’s political editor and the host of the flagship Sunday AM talk show, Andrew Marr, describes news as the nervous system of urban humanity. That makes sense, even if you look at it from the most unlikely theoretical position. News governs us today in most of the things we do. In this internet age, news defines our very humanity. If you turned on your television set, and saw a morose-looking Francisca Ashitey-Odunton telling anxious viewers that Ghana Television was unable to get any news for Ghanaians, you would start wondering if everything was well with the Ghanaian media. You would imagine a lot of things: is the Director-General of that corporation a piece of cake sitting on a revolving chair and taking fat allowances for nothing? Or perhaps, the television station is playing a prank on Ghanaians. And what kind of prank will that be? That there is no news is a big news item. It is so much news that it is no news after all. So, you would want to ask: if there is no news, why bother telling us; just shut up and let us be. But, there is news everywhere. What we make of it is the problem. In many ways, news is also the industrialization of gossip. Sensationalism has long characterized the practice of journalism, because people want to hear strange stories or the not so strange everyday story cast in a strange way. People want screaming headlines: ‘President caught pants down with Veep’s wife’, ‘Pastor kills pastor over tithes’, ‘Dog marries cat and produce pig.’ Who cares about the implications of global warming? Apart from the technocrats at the ministry of trade and a few business reporters, who cares about the economic implications of dumping and the granting of subsidies on international trade? That kind of news is too boring for the gossiping ear. So, Nana Amma Obenewaa’s satiric piece on J.H Mensah, which he titled: ‘When aging Horses neigh, the Zebra poops’, was news enough to receive 174 comments, to the disappointment of Mr. Asante. The article was not about zebras and horses; it was about a certain old man we know. The man himself is not much news these days, so ‘Mr’ Nana Amma Obenewaa decided to choose a newsy headline. If you didn’t know what ‘neigh’ and ‘poop’ meant, it made sense to ditch your dictionary to find out their metaphoric meanings, as the writer had used them. Well, may be, Nana Amma Obenewaa would be news anyhow; he is a bearded Mr. Asamasi who writes under a pseudonym. He still wears his moustache and has a lot of hair on his chest. He wears boxer shorts instead of sexy lingerie. He may even be pushing metals, for all you care. I think I like him. Recently, an old friend who is studying for a PhD in a London university wrote to discuss issues of readership on Ghanaweb with me. He asked whether we judge the number of people who read articles on Ghanaweb by the number of comments the articles receive, or we have another readership barometer. He had been following my writings for a long time, and had been weighing the issues I have been discussing vis-à-vis the number of comments some articles receive. At a point, he suggested I use a pseudonym because of the flavour of some of the comments and the political nature of some of the issues. I took his advice seriously, because he is a jolly good fellow who had seen me struggle through my fresh moments at Sunyani Secondary School, and has remained my foundation and my support since then. Even so, I wonder if it is not too late to burry my thoughts under Mr. Quesi Ntsiful; my idiosyncratic style will give me away any day, anywhere. How genuine are these comments anyway? On my lunch break, I stumble on an article that looks good, at least judging by the headline. I read the nose (the opening paragraph) and I find it quite revealing. I scroll down with my curser to see the length of the article and I notice that it would take as long as the hours I spent traveling from home to the office, to finish reading the entire piece. Well, so what do I do? I flip through the comments folks have made and decide to make a contribution. Somewhere I notice that one Akosua Mpanyinsem had said something about rape and had criticized a particular tribe for being the known perpetrators. What, how could she have said that? I belong to that tribe, and I know hers is the worst. So, I also hide under cyber anonymity and type a terrible response. Afterwards, I decide on what name to use against the comment. I would usually have couple of names in mind: from Joe Paemuka of Atlanta to Akua Ampebre, Kwashieman. I finally settle on Kofi Obiarankabi of Belgium. I have finished telling my story just before my break time finishes. I haven’t read the article but I managed to piece certain pieces together to get an idea of what the writer was talking about, the same way we used to trick our literature masters into believing that we had read our text books before class. You could always rely on the contributions of the brilliant bookish students during class, and you did just as well as they did in the exams. There was often no point spending time to read Shakespeare’s Coriolanus or Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Most importantly, Mr. Asante’s fear was that if we don’t spend time to engage our brains in things that edify the brain, we risk delaying our development as a West African country. In the peculiar circumstances we find ourselves, we would need a lot of debate on why our structural adjustment programmes have failed to adjust the living conditions of the poor, than the tantalizing pleasure-laden sexual pilgrimages of some control freaks. In a situation where the poorest people in the our villages have no idea what a W/C toilet looks like, we would serve their purpose talking about how to extend basic services to our kinsfolk in the villages, than pleasuring our ears with news of the son of a former president who has a website. We would do well debating how to ensure that folks who consider using a toothbrush the luxury of their lives would get a decent life, than making merry with billons when we are 50. It would make sense to see a high-ranking public official in Ghana go on a hunger strike because the masses are hungry, than to see him filling his stomach with gallons of beer and sponsoring girlfriends abroad. It will be great to see a politician moot the idea of a free newspaper in Ghana than to see him threatening legal battles against the few existing ones. These are issues of development that have far reaching implications for our country. Of course, you don’t want a sermon on development strategies everyday. We have had too many of those since the beginning of time, and we have seen nothing, except those same cosmetic measures which we have been made to believe could pass as strategies. There are times you need something to cheer you up after a hard day’s work when the food is about digesting. You would not have time to digest anything technical written in esoteric language. Those essays are usually meant for those who wrote them or the presumptuous scholars who are scholastic enough to decipher the wisdom of the writer. As soft as they are, soft news items are good for the soul and they help in the relaxation of the mind. I find it not surprising that my articles on journalism usually receive an average of 16 comments. Who cares about journalism; what people care about is what you make of it. People want news, and they want it hot and ready. They want it controversial or intriguing. Compare senior writer Prof Kwame Okoampah-Ahoofe’s articles on Kwame Nkrumah, especially the ones on his relationship with Fatima with his other articles, and you would notice what readers love to read. The Fatima articles always receive a lot of comments even though Nkrumah is no more. Nkrumah is news, so before I finish this sentence, an Nkrumahist has readied his fingers to comment: Who told you Nkrumah is no more; Nkrumah never dies. He is the best. The next ten comments would be about Nkrumah, even though the article itself may be about somebody else. And mark how Ahoofe titled the Fatima series. They were inviting and titillating at the same time; you simply had to find out what he had to say about her, or him, or both. We haven’t quite answered what is news on Ghanaweb. Mr. Asante had written that he is never going to join any political party until he is certain that a particular political organization has successfully directed peoples’ thinking to appreciate developmental issues. He would want to see a lot of discussion on poverty alleviation strategies and fiscal policies, and very little talk on sex and sensationalism. That is positive thinking and I hope he would kick start the process somehow. The fact is, it is difficult to do certain things in a society where book reviews are rare in newspapers. Once in a year, you would find a tiny book review in the Daily Graphic. The tabloids are allergic to such reviews; they care about headlines than substance. Pick up a copy of the UK’s Guardian newspaper, or the New York Times, and compare it with any of our newspapers, and you would wonder if the word journalism is only a swear word in some parts of the world. The problem is we don’t write books in that country. It is a shame that none of the 17 gentlemen seeking the flagbearership of the NPP has written a good book. Gordon Brown wrote about four books, in addition to a PhD thesis, before he put himself forward to lead Britain. Even Kate Price, Aka Jordan, a woman who is only popular for growing watermelons in her breasts and farting into a microphone on television, has written three books. Well, may be, Sam Asante was right. Benjamin Tawiah The author is a freelance journalist; he lives in the UK. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org / email@example.com
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