Breaking the rules of good reportage | Dailytrust

Breaking the rules of good reportage

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et us begin this column about communication from the obvious. We are in this because we are communicators. No, we are not just communicators but mass communicators. This means that it is our business to give the masses information about what is happening around them, where, why and how it would affect them as individuals and as a group. We call our product news; news is our business and our business is news. Our channel of communication in this case is called the newspaper. Perhaps the word evolved from news on paper but do not take that as a fact.

We communicate when what we give out to the people is understood by them. If they do not understand us, then communication has not taken place. We have merely talked to ourselves. The evolution of the press into mass communications has followed the human hunger and need for information and how best to convey that information so that the masses could understand what we serve them daily or weekly. If we manage to convey the information to the masses with a dollop of humour, they are entertained while being properly informed and educated.

Generations of mass communicators, by whatever name they were or are called in the annals of journalism, continue to worry about how best succeeding generations can be good and effective mass communicators. They continue to lay down basic rules for effective communications. In this week’s column, I want to discuss two simple but fundamental rules of reportage. Perhaps, they are not rules really since no one is ever punished for infringing them. Ever heard of an editor dragged to the police station by an aggrieved reader of his newspaper who has difficulties knowing what a particular headline means? Perhaps, we can regard them as hardened conventions that make for good communications.

The newspaper headline is the professional marketing tool in newspaperdom. Its basic rule should be familiar to all sub-editors. It is this: the headline must be in the present tense and in the active voice. The headline must grab the immediate attention of the reader from the comfortable distance that the human eye can take it in. Tabloid newspapers do take this to the next level and make their headlines scream. They are called screaming banner headlines; not easy to miss because they are bold and sensational. The staid newspapers read by decision makers find honour in sober headlines that befit the personality of their readers. The rich may scream with their expensive toys and gadgets but they like their newspaper headlines to be cool and sober like them.

A headline breaks the rule of mass communication if it is ungrammatical, ambiguous, difficult to take in at once or outright meaningless. A sub-editor cannot be too careful. A poor headline can ruin a perfectly good story. You have not seen an angry man until you see a reporter whose day’s work has more or less gone up in smoke because a sub-editor has slapped a dead or meaningless headline on it.

A good headline promotes a story. And it must deliver on the story it promotes. The easiest way to achieve this brings us to the second rule: the intro or introduction, also known as the lead. It must be the source of the headline. If a headline is taken from the intro, you can be one hundred sure that it would deliver on the story it promotes. The intro is a quick summary of the story. What follows after that is an expatiation. A feature writer can, of course, take liberty with a headline unrelated even to his piece. But that is an exception, not the rule.

Let us discuss some of such headlines and intro in some of the issues of the Daily and Weekly Trust this month. On page 40 of the March 13 issue of the Daily Trust, we found this headline: Over 200 girls reached in foundation’s 10-year plan.

Here is the intro to that story: Women and children continue to bear the burden of vulnerability in Nigeria as a result of poverty and insurgency that have rendered many families homeless.

You should have no difficulties in seeing that the intro has absolutely nothing to do with the headline. This is an unforgivable sin because nothing is worse than a newspaper story that forces you to scratch your head, trying hard to get the meaning. Check the headline again. The story has to do with a foundation’s plan to take care of some 200 girls in ten years. The headline misleads us because the way it is, the foundation has already carried out its ten-year plan.

On page 12 of the March 22 issue, we found this headline: “Zainab Ahmed, a factor-of-management type change in Nigeria.” I am sure you know what that means. I confess that I do not.

In the kicker to the story, we found this: “Zainab Shamsun Ahmed…makes an economic manager that is hard to find….”

Here is something even more meaningless: the intro to the story: “Since the viral outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19) in China with its attendant index case of the viral virus in Nigeria, the entire world has literally come to a sudden halt.”

Do you think the reporter and his sub-editor communicated to the masses? I do not think so.

On page 33 of the same issue, we found this headline: “Why Kebbi fishermen leave, return for festival.” That is plain enough English, right? But put the headline together with this intro and see what you get: “Out of the 30,000 fishermen who participated in the recent Argungu Fishing Festival in Kebbi State, 12,000 are from Argungu and environs.”

I thought the reporter wanted to tell us why the fishermen leave but return to participate in the annual fishing festival. Again, the headline had nothing to do with the intro and no communication took place here.

We will continue with this in the next column. Let me round this up with a few observations that are not necessarily goofs but could have gained the paper some mileage if properly used. On the front page issue of March 21, the Daily Trust promoted a story on the pipe line explosion at Abule-Ado, Lagos: “How Abule-Ado explosions shook Lagos.”  The promo carried the beautiful photograph of a young couple. I wondered why. I got my answer from pages 4 and 5 of the paper where the story of the explosions was published. The young couple, whose photograph was published again on page 5, were among those who perished in the explosion. The wife was identified as Chisom Udoakonobi. If the reporter dug out this information on his own, then he deserves our commendation. However, the reporter could have done better had he humanized the story by using the death of the young couple to underline the tragedy.

In my last column, I frowned at the use of one word several times on different stories on the same page. Someone didn’t think my frowning meant much to him. He must be right. On page 4 of the March 23 issue of the newspaper, he took it to the next level. We found these headlines:

a). Housewife allegedly stabs peace maker during a fight

b). Driver allegedly impregnates 15-year-old mentally challenged girl

c). Man allegedly defiles 11-year-old step daughter

d). Vigilante member allegedly shoots colleague to death in Ogun.

The word, allegedly, is usually used by reporters and editors to protect themselves from litigation should the story reported by them turn out to be either unconfirmed or false. But that point is made in the body of the story, not in the headline. In each of those four cases, the word should have been removed from the headline and used in the story.

Newspaper readers believe they are served with factual stories. A newspaper does itself great disservice if it publishes a story in which it raises doubts about the facts of its own story. We found an example of this on page 12 of the same issue of the newspaper: “Gunmen kill 1 policeman, injure 3 soldiers.” The intro to the story reads: “Renewed violent attacks by gunmen have reportedly occurred in Shiroro local government area of Niger State in which Galkogo and Zimba were said to have come under fire….”

The bolded words show that the reporter was not sure of his facts.

A newspaper cannot afford to sound familiar with very important personalities. The use of first names of such people in headlines or in the body of a story is a no-no. We bring the curtain down on goofs this week with a good example of this no-no found on page 7 of the March 20 issue of the newspaper: “After 87 days, Darius returns to Jalingo.” The governor of Taraba State is called Darius Ishaku. Why did the sub-editor use his first name in the headline? Carelessness, perhaps; or more likely ignorance.

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