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Breaking News, Breaking Hearts: How Ghanaian Media Handles Tragedy

My colleagues at Ultimate Radio watch the television as news breaks of President Mills' death Tuesday afternoon

Journalists make the news. They find the issues, gather the reports, and tell the stories. But how they do this can have a lasting impact on audiences – sometimes as resonant as the stories themselves.  At jhr, we care a lot about how the news is told, so I was naturally interested in the media’s reaction yesterday when Ghana’s president, John Atta Mills, passed away unexpectedly – just months before the December 2012 national election.

“This is the first time it’s happened to us. We had heard about other presidents in other African countries who had died on the job, but it was quite distant from us. So when this happened, it was a blow to me as a Ghanaian,” explained Kofi Owusu, the head of Ultimate Radio.

“I actually shed a tear when I heard the news,” he added. “I was shocked into a state of helplessness, of not really knowing what to do.”

But Owusu is not only a Ghanaian – he is also an award-winning journalist and a prominent member of the media – and he knew he had a responsibility to carry the story as quickly and professionally as possible. He promptly called some contacts in Accra to confirm the news.

“When as I was confirming with friends there, I was typing my [radio script] intro already,” he said, “because news has to go on.”

Ghanaians have been long been speculating about the state of President Mills’ health. Last month, he travelled to the United States for what his party deemed a “routine check-up,” and upon returning to Ghana was seen jogging on the tarmac in front of the press. But many remained skeptical, as he noticeably stopped speaking on the campaign trail, opting only to wave to the public instead.

[pullquote]”Don’t overdo it. Don’t get carried away by the sensationalism.”[/pullquote]

The media have been on the frontline of the mania, analyzing Mills’ every action and attributing each one to his deteriorating health. There have been several reports of his death in recent months, but each time he resurfaced to dispel the rumours. In a country where horror always sells, this kind of sensationalism thrives.

Despite speculations, however, the confirmation of Mills’ death still came as a shock to the majority of Ghanaians.

“I was speechless. You hear people talking, he’s sick, he’s not sick … but we were all thinking that we could see him run for the NDC in December,” said Ultimate Radio journalist Nana Oye.

Production staff rush to plan the station's coverage of Mills' death. Within minutes of receiving confirmation, we were able to broadcast the news.

I was with her when the news first broke. She was immediately overcome with emotion, but within minutes, was able to join a handful of others in the studio to calmly and composedly discuss the event on air. I was impressed by their tact in doing so.

“It’s not enough to just break the story,” noted Owusu. “It’s what you do from then on – because once you break the story, people would like to know more about what’s going to happen,” he explained.

He said the station aimed to take a levelheaded approach to the story. As for dramatics, he said, “Don’t overdo it. Don’t get carried away by the sensationalism.”

Unfortunately not all editors in Ghana think this way, and it is difficult to avoid sensationalism after such an event; other stations played the frantic cries or incomprehensible babble of callers throughout the day.

But none of the Ghanaians I spoke to expect to see an extreme national reaction to the President’s death. They hardly expect it to impact the December elections, let alone instigate riots or instability.

“Traditionally, and by customs, Ghanaians respect the dead a lot,” explained Owusu. “And Ghanaians being who they are, they’re going to observe that [mourning period] out of respect. If there’s going to be a state burial, you’ll see Ghanaians from all sides coming up to file past the body or to pay homage to the President,” he said.

[pullquote]“It’s not enough to just break the story; it’s what you do from then on.”[/pullquote]

The death does appear to have quelled the inter-party aggression characteristic of Ghanaian politics. Nana Akufo-Addo, the leader of the opposition New Patriotic Party, has suspended his campaign to mourn with Ghanaians.  Owusu expects that, if anything, the Presidential death will have a pacifying effect on the upcoming elections.

“[Previously,] there was so much divisiveness and the debate was just vicious,” he said. “Now the man who was at the receiving end is gone. Your enemy is down – you don’t keep flogging him. So it’s believed that it will tone down the hot exchanges. The acerbic tone will be considerably reduced, towards elections, which will have a common effect on the political landscape for all of us,” he predicted.

“There are even calls from leaders that Ghanaians should use this occasion to unite,” he added.

That could be a blessing in disguise in a country where most news sources are visibly split along partisan lines, and fail to push beyond the bickering of party rhetoric to the real political issues.

But if Ghanaians are to use the death as an opportunity to unite, and to look beyond political divisions to their common goals and challenges, the media must play a role as well.

“I think that, as the media, we have to stay focused,” said Owusu. “Because, as I’ve said, matters of state must go on, things must be done. We’ve sworn in the new President; [now] there should be some kind of assurance from the presidency that everything is under control, because that is what we expect of our leaders,” he said.

Will the ruling party, the National Democratic Congress, hold a congress to elect a new candidate, or will John Dramani Mahama, the newly acclaimed President, remain as the party flag bearer?

Owusu said the news stations should not dwell on the shock factor, but rather begin to ask the important questions at hand.

“After the death has been announced, what’s going to happen in parliament? What’s going to happen with the next person? We went to the Constitution, which clearly had steps to be taken to swear in the Vice-President, so we knew that was the procedure, and decided to stay with it and make sure that our listeners were informed,” he explained.

“There are questions to be asked in the days ahead – and they should be asked,” he added.

Ghanaians could use the untimely event as a source of unification. They could take the opportunity to step back from the frenzy of political campaigning and remember what they are really fighting for. They might just be able to do so – provided the media upholds its responsibility, and begins to ask the right questions.

Kofi Owusu and his fellow journalists crowd into the studio to break the news to the nation. Owusu (second from right) said the media has a public duty to address the story as tactfully as possible.

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