My Unplanned Diploma To Ph.D Story – Obateru

Dr. Taye Obateru, Senior lecturer at the Department of Mass Communication, University of Jos is an experienced journalist, researcher, and teacher. For 27 years he was a correspondent of Vanguard Newspaper. In this interview with Lekan Otufodunrin, he speaks on media training, ethics of the profession, his newsroom to academics story, and other issues.

Experienced Lecturer with a demonstrated history of working in the higher education industry. Skilled in Breaking News, Journalism, Media Relations, Newspapers, and Storytelling. Strong education professional with a Doctor of Philosophy – Ph.D. focused in Media and Cultural Studies from The University of Salford.

You did something very dramatic recently by getting your final year students to recite the Work Affirmation for Journalists quotes based on the ethics of Journalism during their last class, what informed your decision? What impact do you think it will have on them?

The Work Affirmations for Journalists which were put together by Mr. Lekan Otufodunrin, is to me, what journalism is all about; how professional journalists should see journalism. As I read each of the affirmations posted on Twitter, I said to myself, this is something to impart to upcoming journalists. I had used Max Lerner’s “A Newspaperman’s Credo” which espouses similar commitments from journalists, for many years, and found the Work Affirmations by Otufodunrin even more detailed and demanding. I, therefore, included it in my course content and took the students through it. It stemmed from my belief that true journalism is about service to society and that journalism and its practitioners have self-assigned responsibilities, what scholarship refers to as the normative roles, which should guide them.

So, I found the work affirmation as something that exemplifies what journalists should commit themselves to as they practice the profession. I made the students to study it and asked them if they would be committed to those ideals if they ended up as journalists and they said yes, so I said, let’s take the affirmation as a sign of commitment to those ideals. I had taken the same class another course, Mass Media Law and Ethics, the previous semester, so it was a good wrap for the session and especially because they are the graduating class. If I had the power, I would recommend the Work Affirmation to the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) to use while inducting those just coming into the profession and even as a refresher course for older hands.

Let me use this opportunity to thank Mr. Otufodunrin for his thoughtfulness in coming up with the works affirmation and the many other things he is doing for journalism. I believe that taking the affirmation would let them understand that they have a duty to work ethically, responsibly, and with commitment. It will also influence their general attitude to work even if they do not end up as journalists.

There are indications that many graduates of mass communications don’t end up being core journalists. Many prefer to opt for Public Relations, Advertising, and Broadcasting. What could be responsible for this trend considering that many non-media graduates are flooding the profession and excelling and what can be done to get more interested as they should?

I have always said that journalism is a calling and not many people have what it takes to face the demands and hazards of the profession. People see other areas of Mass Communication as less demanding and therefore go for them. The challenge I always throw to my students is that, if non-Mass Communication graduates can venture into journalism and do well, then they have a responsibility to do even better as people who learnt the rudiments of the profession in school. However, we must be honest with ourselves to accept the fact that some of these other areas enjoy better conditions of service than journalism and it is natural for people to be attracted to where they would be better remunerated.

If journalism would provide better conditions of service than say public relations, I think it will make it more attractive to graduates of Mass Communication. But let us remember that Mass Communication is not about journalism alone. Those who do not end up as journalists have also been trained in other areas of communication and many of them are also doing well. Maybe I should add that the proposed unbundling of the Mass Communication Programme into about eight-degree programmes aims at producing graduates in specific areas of communication. So in future, we will have people graduating in Broadcasting, Public Relations, Journalism Advertising and so on.

There have been concerns about the inadequacy of the present curriculum for training mass communication students to make them industry-ready. What are the missing elements as an experienced media professionals yourself?

There is a wide gap between theory and practice and this is the missing link in most curricula not just in Mass Communication, but in other fields as well. Degree programmes are designed to instill in students, mostly theoretical knowledge, and even though students are exposed to hands-on experience through practical sessions, individual and group assignments, and industrial attachment, they do not have sufficient time to imbibe the practical skills to the level of being industry-ready. So being industry-ready to me is relative. No matter what one is taught in school, the field is another school where one gains experience and sharpens the skills acquired in school. But as I pointed out earlier, the unbundling of the Mass Communication Programme which is already on in some universities was meant to address this problem. Under the Mass Communication curriculum which has been in use for many years, students are required to take courses in different aspects of communication without really specialising in any.

What informed your decision to move into academics and what would be your advice for others who want to take a similar decision?

My movement to academia was kind of fortuitous. It was not planned. In fact, I didn’t like academia because my late father was a teacher (he was already a principal when I was in primary four), and I knew how he struggled to keep the family going financially. So I didn’t find teaching attractive. I was practicing journalism for which I had a passion and was hoping I could retire from journalism into public relations practice later.

While working as a correspondent of Vanguard newspapers in Jos, I was approached by two of my former lecturers in the University of Jos, (Professors Augustine Enahoro and John Illah) to participate part-time in the Mass Communication programme they were about to start in the then Department of Theatre Arts. That was in 2000. I was not excited and it took some persuasion from Professor Enahoro for me to accept. I accepted on the condition that I would quit once they recruited enough hands and I was given a course – Feature Writing – to handle. By the following academic session, another course was added and it continued like that. At a point, one of my mentors told me pointedly that they would not let me go because my students seem to enjoy my teaching.

Maybe because of the humility and down-to-earth traits journalism instilled in me over decades of practice, I somehow, bonded with my students easily. Over time, my passion for the job developed as I became kind of attached to the little impact one was contributing to building the students. My years of experience as a journalist (I was still practicing while I taught) contributed significantly to whatever I achieved because I could easily draw experience or examples from the field to illustrate whatever I was teaching.

However, it would not have been possible to be considered at all, if I didn’t prepare myself academically. From being a diploma holder (from the Nigerian Institute of Journalism NIJ, Lagos), I pursued undergraduate and post-graduate degrees. One needs a minimum of a Master’s degree to lecture in a university. A second Master’s degree and a Ph.D. came much later after I had settled in academics. Therefore, my advice to colleagues is to prepare themselves academically, to have the relevant qualifications to teach in a university if they want to follow that path (I’m happy many are already doing this). The system would benefit more if those who have practiced journalism venture into academia to share their field experience with students. This would provide a proper blend between theory and practice.

What is your advice for journalists on how to enhance their careers given the worrisome state of the industry due to economic realities and digital disruptions?

Continuous self-development is the key. The news media ecology has changed and would continue to change as technology evolves, so we journalists must continue to improve our knowledge and skills to remain relevant. For example, data-driven journalism is now a key component of investigative journalism and news media organisations are in need of data-savvy journalists who can give them a competitive edge.

The reality is that income of news media are dwindling and their ability to retain and pay journalists well and regularly are becoming more difficult. Many journalists have either been laid off or turned into freelancers because their news media can no longer afford to keep them amid the financial difficulty caused by digital disruptions. Journalists must not only improve their skills but also think of what they can do to earn additional income to augment the normal salary which may not even come regularly. Freelancing for different media organisations, lecturing part-time, editing, etc. are some ways to earn additional income.

We must stop complacency and take steps to improve our welfare by ourselves since most of our media organisations are themselves struggling to survive and might not be in a position to remunerate their workers well.

How can the relationship between media organisations and media training institutions be enhanced for the benefit of the industry?

Media organisations have been very helpful in accepting students for industrial attachment for hands-on training. However, I think the industry would benefit more if more experienced journalists can be engaged as visiting lecturers to teach practical courses and share their field experience with them. Some institutions are already doing this and it will be nice to see more.

What are some of your very memorable times as a practicing journalist?

I enjoyed journalism practice despite its downsides because I have a passion for it. This explains why apart from some months as a sub-editor in The Herald (Kwara State-owned newspaper where I was moved from being a reporter to sub-editor), I spent 27 years on the field working for Vanguard Newspapers.

I declined offers to move to the head office on promotion because I didn’t want to be on the desk) The practice was memorable. One of those moments was when I was picked up by the SSS, (now DSS) for a story I wrote on the allegation by the state branch of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) accusing the state governor of involvement in the diversion of petroleum products. It was the lead story of Vanguard for the day. I was in the office that morning when operatives of the SSS came to invite me to their office. I quickly contacted some colleagues on what was happening so that I will not just ‘disappear’.

I was kept for hours before I was asked to write a statement on the story. After a while, I was ushered into the office of the Deputy Director who had a copy of the story. “You wrote this story to embarrass the governor”; “how much were you paid?”; “did you make any effort to get the governor’s side or were you not taught to balance your stories?”, were the barrage of statements he confronted me with. Luckily for me, I actually interviewed the Secretary to the State Government to react to the allegation even though his response was terse and I quoted him. But just to pin something on me, the officer started counting the number of paragraphs I wrote on the NLC’s allegation and the two paragraphs’ reaction from the SSG insisting I was mischievous. After series of telephone calls, apparently to the governor, I was released unconditionally but warned to be careful. Interestingly, the governor seemed to have loved my guts (so I thought) and invited me much later. He didn’t discuss the issue, but we became close friends thereafter.

I cannot also forget the stress of sending stories by phone when telex, fax, and the Internet were yet to arrive and landline telephones by the defunct NITEL was the only way to send your stories. One would spend hours on the phone dictating a single story which is taken in longhand at the other end. Most times the reception would be poor and one would shout until one’s voice became hoarse. It was always a problem until a senior colleague advised me to eat what is generally known as ‘bitter kola’ to help my voice and it actually worked. I would pack them in my pocket and eat as I dictated stories to prevent me from losing my voice. There were also embarrassing moments too.

I would have lost my job for a particular incident but for God and the confidence my bosses had in me. I got a story from a hitherto reliable source whom I was very close to on a political development within the PDP. The person asked an aide to brief me, but that I should attribute the story to him. This had happened several times and he was always happy. I wrote the story and it was published, only for him to grant an interview when the story was published, that he did not talk to me. It was very embarrassing. I later learnt that the top politician involved, on reading the story, reached out and they had some agreements which led to the denial. They were happy that the story ‘worked’ but didn’t mind sacrificing me by denying it. It was a big lesson that one can become a sacrificial lamb of politicians in their chess game. There were several others, but I think these would suffice.

What’s your view on the move by the federal government to regulate social media and amendments to the Nigeria Press Council and Nigeria Broadcasting Commission Acts?

I would not support anything that would curtail the rights of Nigerians to free expression. Democracy thrives when the fundamental rights of the people are respected and upheld. Anything else would be counter-productive. I think rather than introduce harsh regulations, efforts should be concentrated on promoting media and information literacy among Nigerians to enable them to learn how to distinguish genuine information from fake.

Those in power now would one day vacate their offices and may need the same freedoms they are trying to abridge when out of office. Experience has also shown that draconian laws only survive the terms of those who make them. There will be agitations for their repeal when governments change. I am of the view that the laws we have in place are sufficient to check any infractions and there is no need for new ones.

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