In Conversation With Trevor: Chinaka speaks on falling journalism standards

Cris Chinaka

Cris Chinaka, the editor-in-chief and executive director of ZimFact, says journalism standards in Zimbabwe are falling because of a shortage of experienced hands in newsrooms.

Chinaka (CC), who is also a former Reuters correspondent in Zimbabwe, made the observations on the platform In Conversation with Trevor, which is hosted by Alpha Media Holdings chairman Trevor Ncube (TN).

 Below are excerpts from the conversation.

TN: Cris Chinaka, my brother, welcome to In Conversation With Trevor.

CC: Thank you. Thank you for the invitation and thank you for giving us time to catch up and review our industry together.

TN: Absolutely. I am so looking forward to that Cris.

  • Cris as I was doing the preparation, you know, invariably I found myself realising that you are a veteran that represents an amazing pedigree of journalists uh that this country has had.
  • So just help me go through some of these names. Tonic Sakayika, Emelia Sithole Matarise, who is still with Reuters hey?

CC: Yes.

TN: She is in the UK now?

CC: Yes.

TN: Davison Maruziva, Desmond Kumbuka, Geof Nyarota. Who am I leaving  out?

CC: John Gambanga, Charles Rukuni. Yeah, you could include in that group Ropafadzo Mapimhidze.

TN: Yes.

CC: And many more, most of them dead.

TN: Absolutely.

CC: And it is a passing generation.

TN: Sadly.

CC: Yeah. I was in the first group of journalists trained after independence. So we were a group of journalists transitioning from Zimbabwe...

TN: Rhodesia.

CC: [Rhodesia] to Zimbabwe, a  very interesting transition both in terms of the journalism, and just relating the whole Zimbabwe story.

TN: Tell me, when you look at that generation that you represent, looking at the transition from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe, and the state of play as far as our profession is concerned right now what goes through your mind?

CC: I think what goes to my mind immediately is first what has become of that older generation and its contribution to journalism generally.

TN: Right.

CC: To media work in the region. What comes to my mind is also a very unique thing that is happening, particularly in Zimbabwe, which is agism.

That while the rest of the world has space and time for their grey hairs and grey beards, in our case there is sometimes almost a desperate attempt to get experienced hands of a very complex story, a difficult story, and I think that makes us fairly unique in the way in which we have not been able to accommodate this transition, this generational handover from one generation to the other.

That you do not do it as you are getting in and shovelling out everyone else.

When you look at the rest of the world on their major stories they have a very interesting mix, a mix of their experienced hands on that story.

Their enterprising and energetic generation coming in, you have about three generations.

In our case increasingly you walk into any newsroom or look at any story and you see its treatment you do not find that mix, and its absence has a serious impact on the flavour and the treatment of that story.

 And I think we have a lot more to learn in terms of just structuring ourselves, relating ourselves to our story from some of the countries around the world, which have dealt with bigger stories.

You look at Western Europe, you look at Eastern Europe, you look at Asia, and you then come back and look at ourselves and you say I have no explanation for it, but you asked what do I feel……

TN: Tell me, powerful what you are saying Cris. So what is lacking in the storytelling ?

You are talking about flavour? Is that all? What else is the story lacking because of the absence of…..?

CC: Context.

TN: Context.

CC: Yeah. All stories are contextual.

TN: Yeah.

CC: Right. So, our stories are largely now talking heads, so we quote people saying this.

We do not put any background about where that is coming from, whether in terms of the positions they are taking on a particular issue, or the issues that they may be dodging.

Because we have sometimes in our newsrooms or in our media sector people who do not easily [or] cannot easily record that background off hand.

Which background do you have in terms of your grey hairs, your experienced hands.

Like I was saying, when you look at Western Europe, Asia, you look at Eastern Europe, you look at Latin America, they seem to have found a formula in which there is space for the energetic, space for the enterprising, but also space for your grounding experienced heads.

TN: Wisdom.

CC: Yes.

TN: From what you are saying, and push me if I am not getting it right, we are lacking, our storytelling right now is lacking depth?

 Is lacking analysis? And it is lacking a bit of insight as it were? Is that [it]? Am I right?

CC: Yeah. I would summarise it like that.

TN: Yeah.

CC: It is hyper sensational, sometimes the issues are presented in literally death and life context.

It is hyper partisan, because our youngsters have come in a highly political environment, and they think that is what journalism is all about.

 It is also hyper personalised, in the sense that every story is stuck to a name and not to a programme, and not to a context and that normally happens when you do not have in your newsrooms or in our newsrooms the sort of fellows there who have the temperament for the long haul.

The fellows who have seen it, and kind of calming everyone and say...

TN: We have been here before.

CC: We have been here before, and we have a greater responsibility to the public rather than to the persons that we are dealing with on a day-to-day basis.

 Whether those persons are in our political spaces, whether those persons are in our economic spaces, whether those persons are in our social spaces.

That the calling that journalism is, as a public, as a vocation, beyond being paid for it, that we earn our living from it as a profession.

That this as a vocation as a commitment to the greater public, and we must develop a temperament and an attitude that is able to relate to all the persons that we are identifying, but then marrying our commitment to the greater public.

I think that you can only do with experience, and I have been fortunate enough to have covered the Zimbabwe story at its most emotional, its most sensational, and the challenge always was not just on the person as a professional, but on the person in terms of your own attributes.

What sort of temperament do you require, do you need to develop, do you need to check yourself against in order to cover a story in which everyone is seriously emotionally invested in?

TN: Hmmmm. That says to me our profession has a leadership role?

CC: It has. It is that element where we are always asking, is the media a fourth estate? An estate leads.

Right, in our case I think there has sometimes been a dereliction of that leadership.

We have surrendered our profession to other estates.

Right, if you look at the judiciary, they lead with a set of ethics and guidelines that guide them.

You look at the executive, the commitment that they make initially to serve the larger public means they are making themselves accountable to the public.

And the judiciary equally is not making itself accountable to another estate.

We have in the media sometimes found ourselves subjugating ourselves to other estates.

I have been in spaces where I have been arguing that I think our aspiration for a fourth estate remains an aspiration for as long as we do not then get ourselves to say our commitment is to the larger public and that all the other persons and personalities that we deal with in terms of delivering our story is a matter of profession.

But that in terms of accountability estates becomes accountable to the larger public.

TN: We are accountable to Zimbabwe?

CC: That is what we should be.

TN: We should be committed to Zimbabwe?

CC: Yes. But you find sometimes our journalism answers to politicians, answers to sectorial...

TN: Sectorial interests.

CC: And that is not Zimbabwe. That is not Zimbabwe.

TN: What is your responsibility and my responsibility in drawing us back to the heart of the matter?

CC: Yeah. I think our collective responsibility in the media is one of reflection.

 A continuous reflection, a continuous retreating to finding the values that got us into these spaces, and then to saying where are the gaps [and] how do we fill up those gaps?

It is one reason I have stayed in the media space, even beyond my official retirement.

I think we all have a responsibility towards skills development, in mentoring, in motivating rather than demotivating.

Sometimes when you look at our media products, they compete with politicians in demotivating the public from just finding that energy which you need to carry on as human beings.

And I think we have that responsibility, that the media when it commits itself to covering not just politicians, not sectorial interests but the Zimbabwe story in its fullness.

TN: Telling the whole story?

CC: Yes. Then we are lucky in that we find our defence because we have expanded our defence line.

We must be defended by the public. Our role must be defended by the public not sectorial interest.

TN: Is it just demotivating or there is an element of incitement?

CC: There is.

That is why I was talking about the sensational.

 Sometimes people get sensational, sometimes it is an age thing, the things you Trevor and I would do in our young days...

TN: Youthful exuberance.

CC: Yes. We would all get involved at some stage, you get excited about little things and then we calm and then eventually we find kind of the right temperament to relate to the different elements.

So, when you look at the structure of our media today, and sometimes we have had politicians complaining and say these stories are not being covered. Your kids are covering the story so do not...

TN: Point at yourself.

CC: Yes. You are the last ones to complain about how the story is. Do your part and journalism will do its part.

TN: Cris, you have already spoken about [it], you indicated you retired in 2015 but you are back? Because you have a responsibility?

  • I want us to get into your 25 years at Reuters? The highlights of you being the chief correspondent for Zimbabwe for 20 years? What an amazing life you have had Cris? 
  • Cris you you got me thinking there, particularly when you say, when the politicians say these stories are not being covered.
  • We turn around and say no, but these are your children writing the stories.
  • Two questions Chris, so we are really being unfair by criticising the young people who cannot write stories properly?
  • Because you and I have absconded? And secondly, what is the role of the politician who is asking the questions here?
  • What is the role of the politicians in ensuring that we have got journalism that tells the entire story?

CC: Okay. I think the first is let us look at us. What is our role?

I think our role is helping and mentoring the youngsters rather than denouncing them and picking up on their skills gap.

I think in the newsrooms that I was citing, the best-case example around the world is you will find in those newsrooms your grey hairs being the ones who anchor the stories and therefore they are bringing the context, they are mentoring the youngsters, they are not kicking out the youngsters.

  • “In Conversation With Trevor” is a weekly show broadcast on  The conversations are broadcast to you by Heart and Soul Broadcasting Services. The conversations are sponsored by WestProp Holdings.

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