A journalist with a prominent national newspaper who I will call John is investigating a multibillion-dollar oil sector corruption case involving key government officials and a well-known international firm in his country. He has been working on the story for months and hopes it will make front-page news and contribute to an ongoing debate on corruption in the award of contracts.
While carrying out preliminary investigations, a top official of the oil company offers to pay him a huge sum if he “kills the story.” John declines. John later submits the story to his editor, who refuses to publish the piece. The editor tells John to consider a “less controversial,” more “newsworthy” story. John later finds out the newspaper owner, a powerful politician, has friends who would be indicted by the story if published.
My media development experience has exposed me to many cases similar to John’s. Journalistic ethics provide useful guidelines on negotiating moral choices, but they do not capture varying sociocultural realities: the challenges faced by reporters in developing countries are obviously different from those in more developed countries, or in societies where politicization of the media is rife. And extractives-focused reporters often come under unusually pointed pressures.
Capacity development initiatives such as NRGI’s Media for Oil Reform project in Nigeria and media trainings in Ghana, Myanmar, Tanzania and Uganda are often useful. However, these learning opportunities are only effective to the extent that journalists operate within safe, free and enabling environments. Newsroom manager support for reporters’ professional advancement is also important.
Risks and pitfalls abound. Journalists who report on natural resources cover a powerful sector with influence beyond the extractives space. They are increasingly learning to protect themselves by exploring some security and safety tips and tricks.
It’s not easy to cover this space. Journalists covering oil, gas and mining issues in challenging jurisdictions often need some help to do so.
Lessons from NRGI’s media development experiences suggest that entrenching ethical reporting about extractives issues is possible where media houses are truly independent; newsrooms and media prioritize journalists’ capacity development, welfare and safety; and media ombudsman systems are strengthened to protect and defend journalists.
Ethics should be a major consideration in decision-making around media house financing and sustainability given that each financing option potentially affects the independence of an outlet and its journalists. NRGI has learnt, for instance, through research and our interaction with two media houses in Nigeria, that the nonprofit model of newsroom financing is helping some newsrooms stay truly independent, uphold their integrity and better support their journalists in navigating daily reporting pressures and ethical challenges.
In my media capacity-building work with journalists covering natural resources, I have also found that constantly emphasizing journalistic ethics is essential. It might seem self-explanatory, but we have found the need to underscore this point. At NRGI, we emphasize ethics within specific training and experience-sharing sessions. We also pair our trainees with mentors who have faced similar pressures and who can advise on personal digital and physical safety measures. Additionally, we engage with editors and media houses on ethics-related issues.
Journalists in these trainings share their day-to-day dilemmas and views, such as the need to interpret and contextualize ethics within different cultures and realities. We have discussed the practice of receiving cash gifts from sources, sometimes for favorable coverage. Known as “brown envelope journalism,” it is a key ethical concern, especially in Africa. Some of the journalists I have worked with have had to reject or actually received “brown envelopes,” in most cases presented and understood as “harmless gifts.”
Journalists covering oil, gas and mining topics, especially in challenging jurisdictions, often face ethical dilemmas. NRGI continues to work to equip them with the skills they need to navigate these tricky spaces.
Toyin Akinniyi is media capacity development associate at the Natural Resource Governance Institute (NRGI).