Sunday, September 28, 2008

At last, Masaba gets a name…a lesson in news writing

Mallam Bello Abubakar Masaba Bida has been in the news since the first half of August 2008. Yet, until the end of September, he was never referred to in the headlines by his name. Rather, he was known by all the papers as “man with 86 wives”. Common headlines: “Man with 86 wives dares JNI” “Etsu gives man with 86 wives 48 hours to divorce 82” “’Your safety is not guaranteed’ Man with 86 wives warned” etc. In casting headlines, editors and sub desks are warned to opt for the shorter and the catchier. Why did Nigerian editors opt for the long-winding description? Louise Bourgault in her book Mass media in sub-Sahara Africa criticizes African radio and TV interviewers for preferring long and winding questions to short and punchy ones. She even mocks them for causing interviewers to fall asleep during interviews. I disagree with Bourgault, not only on this point, but also because the whole book smacks of Western triumphalism. But that is slightly out of my concern here.

News writing students are taught to append a description or an appellation to the name of an actor when they write the lead of a story if the actor is not prominent. The appended description brings the actor within the readers’ frame of reference and makes a piece more comprehensible. For instance, it is better to say, “Henry Bida, a sergeant in the Nigerian Army has been honored for his bravery…” than to say “Henry Bida has been honored for his bravery”. The latter lead keeps the reader wondering who the Henry is because Henry is not prominent. If it is a known person, for instance, Umar Musa Yar’adua, no description needs be appended.
Not many people knew Masaba. It was therefore understandable that editors chose to describe him by his unusual feat. But why did this last so long? Why did it take Nigerian editors almost two months of consistent reporting to give Masaba a face and a name? My guess: ascending Masaba’s act above his name would sell the story. Even if it makes the headline clumsy, the story would sell, and for many editors, only that matters. But the sad consequence of this is that, to many readers, Masaba has come to be not a human being, but a bizarre creature without a name. He is not one of us so he cannot be sympathized with or understood. And are the courts not treating him like that? Maybe that is why rejoinders and letters to the editors that are sympathetic to Masaba are very few. And maybe that is why his case is being championed only by “a coalition of northern human rights group”, and this coming about six weeks after his ordeal began.

However Masaba’s case ends, whether in his death with which some have threatened him, in jail or in freedom, Nigerian editors should know that, remotely or not, they robbed the man of his human face.
This article was published in Thisday (Monday, October 13, 2008)

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