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Long-form journalism and cultural depth

I don’t know how long it will take us in Nigeria to understand that bad journalism is worse than bad government. But that viral video of…

I don’t know how long it will take us in Nigeria to understand that bad journalism is worse than bad government. But that viral video of a morning show encounter between General IBM Haruna and two Arise TV presenters got me thinking, again, about our peculiar form of political journalism and its consequences. I will return to this incident by looking first at one example of good journalism: the long form.   

‘Long-form journalism’, is a genre that incorporates news reporting, analysis, commentary, research, etc, into a single article.  James Bennet of The Atlantic, describes it as a “narrative and expository and deeply reported journalism”. A long-form article takes a small issue and says almost everything there is to say about it. The reader reads just a single article and he or she can speak intelligently about the subject it addresses, even if they knew little about it before.

Needless to say, longreads, as they are also called, are long. Most long-form pieces run between 3000-6000 words, or about 10-20 A4 pages. Some are yet more long-form than others. Andrew O’Hagan’s 2014 profile of WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange in the London Review of Book runs into 26,000 words. James Verini’s 2017 article in the New York Times Magazine on the battle of Mosul that finally ended ISIS’s reign of terror in Iraq was long enough to cover an entire edition of that magazine. Tim Urban, who once wrote about the idea of ‘class’ in Nigerian society (it doesn’t exist, he thought), also once published a two-part article of about 50,000 words about Elon Musk on his blog ‘Wait But Why’ in 2015.

Perry Anderson is probably the world’s master of this genre. His analysis of Brazil under Lula da Silva is unmatched, as was his commentary on Israel’s trajectory in the 21st Century. His withering critique of the American Foreign Policy establishment grew into a full book, and sparked dozens of rejoinders and commentaries. More recently, his trio of articles on Brexit and the European Union, now published as Ever Closer Union? Europe in the West, should be compulsory reading for all those talking about “restructuring” and building “democratic institutions” here in Nigeria. Political institutions like those of the European Union, he says, can perform admirable democratic functions without being democratic in origin or form themselves—an important message for us here at home.

Yet longreads are not just long; they are mostly readable and offer a rewarding experience equaled only by books or documentaries. Previously the stuff of literary publications, long-form journalism has since gone mainstream, enabled by digital publishing. The Guardian (the real one) publishes one every Wednesday and Thursday, and the New York Times even more frequently about serious topics in culture and technology, politics and the economy. The New Yorker is almost entirely based on long-form where a legion of staff writers like the author Malcom Gladwell and the historian Jill Lapore have gained critical acclaim for their writings. The Browser website reproduces five long-form pieces every day, and in fact, Le Monde Diplomatique, a small French newspaper that specializes in long-form articles, even comes with references and bibliographical notes!

All longreads are ‘investigative pieces’ because of the rigour associated with the reporting (some take months to complete). But not all long-form pieces constitute ‘investigative journalism’, which is strictly about exposing wrong-doing by those in power and calling for systemic reforms. A long-form article may do all these, but the objective is broader. It is about what Michael Schudson, one of the world’s leading media scholars, calls “contextual journalism”, that is, the form of journalism that sets problems, policies, people, places and ideas into their wider contexts, and by so doing better informs the reader, which in turn better serves democracy and society. In this sense, long-form journalism doesn’t really need to be long at all; it just needs to be sound in depth and elegant in tone and style.

The import of long-form journalism, then, lies not in its length but in what it suggests about a given society. It thrives only in a media culture and society that value facts, logic and reasoned analyses, regardless of length or direction. In short, the long form is the stand-out symbol of a society’s cultural and intellectual depth. This doesn’t have to apply to everybody in society; just enough people in critical sectors like the media, the universities, the think-tanks, the professions, and of course, politics, business and the economy. No society can make progress of any kind without depth in these areas, and the media is most important of all.   

We have, so far, arrived where we began: exactly what kind of journalism do we do here in Nigeria? The problem with our journalism is that it knows only one thing about Nigeria: a society that must remain perpetually at war with itself. Far more than the actual challenges we face as a country, the Nigerian media knows only to keep Nigeria at war with itself. And it does this by presenting what would otherwise be non-issues as society’s most pressing problems; by actively courting and amplifying the voices of difference and division; by presenting idiots as ‘experts’ and charlatans as ‘rights activists’; and by simply refusing to learn that good news is actually very useful news for society, and that even bad news can be made useful for society too.

Our media repeatedly and often unjustifiably and unnecessarily pitches the interests and aspirations of Mr A against those of Mr B and C, and then present that as the only possible outcome for all three. This is not the real Nigeria, of course, but it is the only one our media knows. Every day, the average Nigerian interacts with other Nigerians of different cultural or social backgrounds: at work, at school, in the market, on the bus, and even in the spaces we call home. These interactions are mostly mutually enriching, productive and peaceful, and are re-enacted millions of times daily in our individual and communal lives.

But our media lacks the creativity to tell these stories as news, as films, or in other cultural forms that bind a society together because the media itself lack the cultural self-awareness and intellectual refinement to imagine a different Nigeria from the only one it knows. And lacking these, our media can only judge our progress and development as a society by the standards and experiences of other people. So, again and again, on the pages of newspapers, on the airwaves, and on the blogs of social media, the tendency is to see nothing good about Nigeria, to constantly tear at the very foundations of both state and society, and to present the country as a hopeless case; the worst place on earth to live. All of this, in turn, has created a restive and rudderless civil and political culture that value and respect only that which lies beyond our shores, however unfit or untrue it may be.

This is what General Haruna was railing against. But it isn’t new. Anyone who read our newspapers in the early 1960s would be forgiven to think the country was at war. That kind of reporting, in fact, prepared the ground for the military coup and the actual war that followed. But it is the same sense you get if you read the newspapers in the 1990s, or today. And since both negativity and positivity are self-reinforcing prophesies, depending on which you chose, it is no wonder we are still a solution looking for problem. I don’t know what tomorrow would look like, but as a society, it will help if we realized for once that bad journalism can have worse consequences than bad government. I rest my case.