Thursday, May 3, 2018

WhatsApp groups with journalists and their sources should stop

By Esther Nakkazi

As we celebrate this years' World Press Freedom day, I say WhatsApp groups with journalists and their sources should stop.

In the current era, WhatsApp groups are formed pretty much after every engagement and for any cause to exchange information, debate issues, network or even fundraise.

Some are just timely, they run for a short while and for a worthy cause. I particularly like the baby shower WhatsApp groups. We discuss everything from the sex of the baby to its gifts. On the D-day, we ‘surprise’ the mother.

After the baby shower is over, happy moments in pictures are shared, the group is deleted and we move on. It is interesting that some people forget about the whole issue and probably check on mother and born baby a year later!

While the exchange of ideas and debating issues via WhatsApp is very good and has changed the way audiences consume news, giving feedback and wider visibility through more eyeballs, I am afraid that WhatsApps groups with journalists and especially the people supposed to give them information is outright wrong.

Ethically it has never been a good idea for journalists to cozy up to the people they cover. I thought journalists are supposed to keep some professional distance? But now the opportunist and savvy public relations officers have mastered their WhatsApp game. Don't also forget that journalists can be lazy.

They set up their own groups, send minute to minute updates - these can even be a voice WhatsApp and by the end of the day all radio stations will be singing their story with the same voice quote like a song.

If the groups only kept the conversations to news discussions maybe it would make sense but the reality is that they move beyond that and engage in ‘lugambo’ and getting daily compliments or updating each on a minute by minute basis, because that is what WhatsApp almost does to us!

The defenders of these groups were journalists are bedding with their sources say these keep the journalists and the people who give them information in constant touch in this era of fast news and they are so much alike press conferences but only in virtual space.

I have been on WhatsApp groups where posts deepen not only to family issues but also to uncomfortable topics where the public relations or communications person will blame the journalist for bad publicity - however truthful the story may be and even pressurise the journalists to apologise or retract because their ‘bosses are angry’ and job security has been threatened. 

I guess it is okay to send a personal WhatsApp to the source but manipulation of a whole group to cover what they want and the way they want it is demeaning good journalism.

Until we understand that the two groups have completely different roles, only then will journalists stop bedding with public relations or communication officers in the same WhatsApp group.

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