PR Is Journalism Nemesis — Elizabeth Ikem

Dr. Elizabeth Ikem, immediate past Provost of a leading media training institute in Nigeria, Nigerian Institute of Journalism (NIJ), Lagos, shortly before leaving office spoke with Lawrence Amaku on problems bedevilling journalism practice in Nigeria and how NIJ is boosting the growth of media practice with the desired human capital.

Is it still appropriate to refer to journalism as a craft today?

This is quite controversial. I think it has gone beyond a vocation, because the days when it was basically regarded as a vocation people were trained on the job; you didn’t need a tertiary education. Then, just anybody could come in and practise – people who didn’t have any form of education; may be the best they had then was a school certificate.

No doubt, they were great men in their own rights then when it was the exclusive preserve of men. But when people have sat down to draw up a proper training line with well-researched and well-aligned curriculum to train people to come to practise in a particular way, you can’t call it a vocation anymore. It’s a matter of time, and I see it coming very soon. Interestingly, these days, we see people who have been in the industry practising for years now finding it necessary and needful to come back to school to be trained as professionals.

Was NIJ basically established to address the issue of professionalism? Well, I wasn’t a part of those who started NIJ – the old NIJ – because this is the new NIJ. The institute was established in Nigeria by the International Press Institute and in some other African countries such as Ghana and Kenya. The whole essence was to give some training and take people away from the notion that ‘oh, I can write,’ ‘I have a flair for writing,’ and then you come into the profession and start writing. You know the way the profession started— it lent itself to any comer. Anything you think needs training cannot be assumed to be a craft when you have taken it to tertiary level (of education); people go to the university, the polytechnic and monotechnic to study it. So, it has grown beyond being a vocation.2372

Don’t you think that those who hold the view that it is a craft or vocation feel that it is the passion for the profession that is the motivating factor and not necessarily the formal education one has acquired?

You cannot be a good doctor if you don’t have passion— if you don’t love people; you can’t be a good lawyer either, if you don’t have the passion to defend the defenceless.

But passion is not enough. You can’t say ‘I have passion’ and stand before the judge or pick up the stethoscope; you’ve got to be trained. Your passion can only make you excel in what you do. Some people have high sense of description or gift of oratory. So, if you take that gift and go to school and learn what it takes to be a journalist as a profession and you add that to your passion, you are going to excel.

How has NIJ contributed to the production of manpower in the industry?

I want to say it is our passion. We are not just producing any kind of journalist, but journalists that will make a difference. And we are doing so well, since we re-opened the institution in 2003. We re-engineered and re-positioned it and got approval for the institution as a full-fledged monotechnic licensed to train and produce journalists and mass communicators at National Diploma and Higher National Diploma levels.

Of course, we help those who were trained in other areas to get some professional skills to practise as journalists. Each time we release our students into the industry, we get good feedbacks. We are doing just beyond the traditional aspect of journalism. We are also developing skills for those already in the industry. We train and retrain. One place we’ve carved a niche for ourselves is in the area of photojournalism. We believe a picture is better than a thousand words. Along the line,

we had collaboration with the World Press Photo. They picked us among other institutions in Africa to train our students in photojournalism. That is what is unique about us. The photojournalism programme is our own niche and original contribution to the industry. Through the programme, we’ve been able to produce award winners. We’ve also had photo exhibition and three months intensive training in photography for amateur photographers, as ordinary as photography may appear to people. Above all, we instill professionalism, moral uprightness and character in our students. We observed that character is missing; it is a rare commodity. We will like to see the industry back to the way it used to be. That glory must come back.

As the first female provost of the institute, what have you done differently from your predecessors?

First of all, I wouldn’t say the institute ever had a provost before. I’m the first provost and female provost at that. We’ve never had a provost before. What we used to have was a director. It won’t be fair to compare with my predecessors who were directors.

I came in too as a director for some months, but as soon as the school was repositioned, the nomenclature changed.  However, under the leadership of the Chairman of the Governing Council, Mallam Ismaila Isa, and others, we have been able to turn the institution around. When I came here and when they took over the institution, NIJ was left for dead; there was nothing to desire. What you see in the institution today is the hand of God using men to rebuild.

So, what we’ve done is to rebuild the institution. We practically brought NIJ back to life. Not only did we resuscitate it, we gave it a footing to stand as a full-fledged monotechnic so that it can stand among the comity of tertiary institutions in the country.

Before we came, the problem was that the institution was not recognised and students began to have problems. We felt it needed to be transformed. We are proud that our students can hold up their heads wherever they go. We have qualified lecturers and international collaborators. Our students are accorded same privilege with students of other higher institutions; they go for the one year National Youth Service Corps programme – NYSC.

Aware of the emergence and growing popularity of the new social media, which is often touted as the future of mass communication and an obvious threat to the traditional media, has the institute been able to redesign its curriculum to accommodate it and prepare students for this new reality?

Apart from internally designed curriculum, as a licensed institution, you have a regulatory body. So, you know that no institution can just begin to do what it likes; there are regulations. We have the approving body that says ‘this is what you teach.’

But they also allow you, to some extent, to design some, depending on what you desire to do or the flair you want to add to it. The National Board for Technical Education (NBTE) has designed a programme to take care of online journalism. Within us, we also have some programmes that take care of it. We are working in that direction; we are encouraging our students. We have computers and digital labs.

However, I have reservations about the social media taking over. The traditional media has the power to intrude into the lives of individuals but the social media does not. For instance, it is only when I log on to your blog that I will know what you are saying, but you listen to news on radio or TV willy-nilly. That’s the power of the traditional media. Whereas, if the populace don’t go into the computer, smart phone or tablet they won’t know what is happening. They both have their usefulness, strengths and weaknesses, and are above all more complementary. But it is wrong to say that the social media will wipe out the traditional media as many perceive these days. None can take over the other.

2374How can the falling standard in the journalism profession be addressed?

It is part of what we are saying. It is not only in the profession. It is across all professions and all facets of life. When students have not imbibed the culture of hard work and they come into the tertiary education, the teachers cannot help them either. Instead, we integrate and reinforce that culture of lackadaisical attitude. In NIJ under my leadership, we enforce hard work, we demand it. You must sit UTME; you can’t even attempt the post- UTME screening without the minimum requirements. We take you through our own screening and the painstaking process of having to interview all students.

Attendance is very important because the policy is that only those who have been taught can be examined. So, you can’t register and disappear, banking on handouts. We don’t sell handouts here.

The impression out there is that journalists are poorly remunerated. How can this impression be corrected and the profession made more attractive to youths?

It is not facing challenges more than any other. Don’t forget that the economic hardship is biting across. However, ours is peculiar. How was it possible for the newspapers and magazines in the 70s and 80s to do well? It was advertising, until PR people came in and felt that “what advert was doing PR also can do it.” That’s what brought the problem. In my days at Daily Times, people would beg for advert slots in the newspaper and we would refuse them due to space constraint. So, what happened? What did we do wrong? Those days have gone. We should draw the line – the journalist should know that when you ask a client to do editorial for what he should do advert for, you are killing the industry. That is the core of our problem. They forget that it is the money generated from adverts that sustains them.

If you watch foreign media stations you will observe that there are many adverts taking place behind the scenes. So, where is the middle line? The PR person wants a good image for a client. For goodness sake, buy a page and paint whatever image you want to paint and let the client pay. But you collect money from the client and put most of it in your pocket and you begin to pay the journalists peanuts for what you should have bought a page to do.

But there doesn’t seem to be a billing system in those newspapers?

Yes, they have; buy the page, do whatever you want on the page. If you can’t, do supplementary for them. There are ways we can help each other; we’ve killed ourselves. We have to go back to the drawing board. That’s food for thought.

[ad id=”667″]What’s your assessment of the Nigerian media?

I think the Nigerian media is trying against all odds. We are such a vibrant industry. We are very passionate, we are doing well. What we should do is to help ourselves to keep our heads above waters. Once we are able to take care of the economic aspect of it, we will be better. I think we are doing well; we are serving the nation. We can do better.

What can government do to avoid foreign influences on our cultural values and heritage from the broadcast of foreign content on our airwaves?

That’s a problem. It boils down to the fact that we must be able to develop programmes (locally). It is cheaper to bring those foreign ones and censor them before being aired.

However, we need to begin to develop those ones that speak our culture. This also calls to task the Nollywood industry.  They can come in here and help us with good local content.

Is there really a market for our own local content?

There is. For instance, in those days, there were some programmes like Tales by Moonlight and Village Headmaster. It is the harsh economy that is hampering this effort. Rather than the media houses looking for money to develop those contents, I think Nollywood can intervene.

The youths today are more occupied with the TV, video games and the Internet. Does that not rub off negatively on the reading and writing culture which is key to the journalism profession?

I agree with you. For instance, here we have a course that encourages students to read, even if it means taking them outside their curriculum. Today’s youths are satisfied with plugging something to their ears and walking about in the streets. We discourage that on campus here. By the way, as a journalist, you need to know about things happening around you, and you can’t do so with your ears blocked.

As an advocate of greater participation of women in government, do you think that to get women more involved in politics requires a policy like the present administration’s 35 per cent Affirmative Action that aims to reserve 35 per cent appointive posts for them?

I think what the policy will do is to get some measure of commitment on the part of those in power. If you don’t make a policy, people won’t take you seriously. But if it is a policy it is written, and it is not only in Nigeria; it’s all over the world. In 1975, there was a United Nations policy that declared the year of women. And the entire nations of the world agreed that women had been discriminated against. It is just as cultures have been discriminating against women.

So now, it is wise for government to come and say “no more for those cultures; let’s find ways of integrating the other half of the populace into the mainstream.” So, that policy is good. Now, to what extent is it being pursued? I think there is remarkable improvement in that.

It appears the improvement is only noticeable in appointive positions where the President can influence things and not in elective positions?

Don’t forget, that it is a process. When you want a breakthrough, it doesn’t happen overnight. These are strongholds you need to break down gradually. Thankfully, there is already a policy that you must allow women to come in by appointment. Considering the trend in Nigerian politics, what we need is to have women participate in their parties first, make their impacts and with time the woman will get the sanction of the party to run for a post. And you know we don’t have independent candidates. In other words, women who have the passion should come out, learn the ropes, work their way up and prove their worth.

Daily Times is back on the newsstands after years of being defunct. As a former member of staff of the Newspaper Company and administrator in journalism do you see their return reshaping, the journalism landscape in Nigeria?

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Are they really back to stay? If you count five to six journalists, five to six of them passed through Daily Times. Majority of the great journalists we have today cut their teeth there. Why should such institution fold up in the first place? It stood as the icon then. It is not enough to say we are publishing two or three editions because somebody gave us the money. But we do not always remember the business side of publishing.

We journalists must know that without the business angle of journalism, a newspaper can’t survive or be sustained. Often, we eat our seeds; we don’t believe in delayed gratification. The business side of it is planting that seed and making sure that it yields and continues yielding. So, we should take the trouble to have a proper business plan.

Journalists who are lured by high salary into joining newly established newspapers thinking that the stream of income from the sponsor will keep flowing end up disappointed. Nobody will continue to put money when it is not yielding dividends. There is a business angle to whatever we are doing, and we should begin to nurture it.

In NIJ are there programmes or courses that focus on media business? 

We tried it initially. It was this understanding that drove me to introduce it. In fact, the regulatory body made it mandatory for a course in entrepreneurship to be introduced. Sometime ago, we started financial journalism but unfortunately, we had to stop it along the line because there were only few students. We are working on Centre for Management Development (CMD) to fashion out a programme whether on full-time or part-time basis. I think the business dimension to whatever we are doing is crucial.

You are a mother, wife, administrator and minister of the Word of God. How do you combine all of these?

It is the grace of God. It is not an easy task. God will never call you into what He knows you cannot do.

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