Reuben Abati’s revolt against incumbent broadcasting conventions


ARISE TV presenter and former presidential spokesperson, Dr. Reuben Abati, sparked conversation in Nigerian journalism circles a few days ago when he blamed an Arise TV correspondent on the spot by the name of Mary Chinda for addressing him as “Reuben” instead of “Dr. Abati.

In Western broadcasting conventions, which Nigerian broadcasters have adopted, status, position and title differentials are bracketed on the air between colleagues. It is an intentional inversion of the norm of daily interactions where social superiors, elderly people and strangers are usually addressed by their titles and surnames unless they give permission to be addressed by their first names. .

Addressing people by their first names signifies interpersonal familiarity, friendship, lack of power distance and co-evenality.

During stand-ups (a part of the show, often at the end, where the reporter appears on the scene and talks to the presenter in the studio), Western broadcasting convention requires that reporters and presenters address each other by their first names. In my scriptwriting classes broadcast here in America, I penalize students who flout this rule in their scripts.

Abati studied theater arts, not journalism, and was a print journalist for most of his working life, so he can be forgiven for his lack of familiarity with broadcast conventions.

But I disagree with people who think his backlash against the culture of irreverent flippancy in broadcast convention speeches is triggered by titular vanity. The fact that a professional culture is embedded in the West is no reason to accept it as a divinely ordained and inviolable article of faith in Nigeria.

Every culture has the right to insist that professional conventions be sensitive to local customs and daily traditions. Because of the power asymmetries rooted in relational encounters in Nigerian society, the first name convention in broadcast journalism has always struck me as rather artificial and abnormal.

I bet Chinda doesn’t call Abati by his first name outside of on-air interactions. But an imported and culturally extravagant convention requires it to do so during broadcasts. In a sense, neither Abati nor Chinda are wrong. The problem lies in the inability of Nigerian broadcasters to change an inherited Western journalistic convention and make it Nigerian.

There is no reason for there to be an unalterable broadcast convention, especially one that is nurtured by widespread and discourteous informality, at least from the perspective of most Nigerian cultures.

In print journalism, for example, there are two major conventions in the use of headlines in news copy. The Associated Press Style, which we like to call the bible of American journalism, prohibits the use of courtesy titles such as “Mr,” “Mrs,” “Ms,” and “Miss.” It also limits the use of professional and academic titles such as “Dr.” and “PhD” on occasions where such titles help lend credence to what expert sources say.

The New York Times and The Washington Post, meanwhile, use courtesy titles and honorary titles, although the New York Times recently dropped them for their pop culture stories because they found “the use of courtesy titles was distanced”.

It betrays a lack of imagination and cultural creativity to always imitate without posing everything that comes from the West. When the Lagos Guardian instituted the silly singular “Simply Mr.” titular policy (which stipulated that every male name would be preceded by the title “M.”, regardless of professional, academic, or cultural achievement—with the exception of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Mallam Aminu Kano, and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe), they were simply shy to copy the West.

It didn’t take long for the policy to be scrapped as it aroused strong resistance from Nigeria’s cultural and intellectual elites.

Today, native digital publications like Premium Times and Peoples Gazette have resurrected this unimaginative monkey of Western title conventions, and routinely prefix bland Western courtesy titles to every news source.

When I read stories about “Mr. Obasanjo”, “Mr. Buhari”, “Mr. Alex Ekweme”, “Mr. “Goodluck Jonathan”, “Mr. Dangiwa Umar”, or “Mr. Attahiru Jega” in a Nigerian news media for a Nigerian audience, I cringe at the lack of creativity and the imitative buffoonery that this reveals.

In Nigeria, some people’s titles are an integral part of their identity. Removing their titles risks confusing them with others who share similar names to them, not least because studies have shown that when people read online, they often don’t read in a linear fashion, i.e. say from beginning, middle to end; they jump around the page.

Productive creativity comes from an introspective self-awareness of one’s culture and environment and conventions of crafting to show sensitivity and appreciation for the uniqueness of culture and environment.

An example of this is Mallam Mohammed Haruna’s little style booklet he prepared for the Daily Trust, which has a unique and creative approach to headlines in Nigeria. He recommends that when Nigerian-only titles such as “Mallam”, “Alhaji”, “Chief”, “Asiwaju”, “Prince”, “Princess”, etc. are used in news stories, they should be used with the full name first. reference and first name only in subsequent references.

This is a reversal of Western convention where courtesy titles and honorifics are used with full name on the first reference and surname only in subsequent references. His reasoning for overthrowing Western convention is unassailable. He said that in all Nigerian cultures, titles are personal achievements that are often tied to the individual, not the family.

If Mohammed Abdullahi goes to Makkah for the hajj, the glory is his, not his father’s, so it makes sense to call him “Alhaji Mohammed Abdullahi” when first referencing and “Alhaji Mohammed” in references following. This is even truer for women. To refer to a Chief Alice Abiola as “Chief Abiola” in later references is nonsense because it is Alice, not Abiola, who is ennobled with a chieftaincy title.

Of course, when we use Western courtesies and honorifics, it is appropriate to refer to titles and surnames only in subsequent references.

Just like in the media, universities in different countries have different address traditions for university teachers. In the UK, professors encourage students, including undergraduates, to address them by their first name.

It’s a no-no in the United States. Here, undergraduate students should address their teachers by the teachers’ titles and last name. Only colleagues – and sometimes doctoral students – can address teachers by their first name.

However, despite it being the norm for colleagues to call each other by their first names, I couldn’t bring myself to address one of my Nigerian colleagues here in the US who is old enough to be my father by his first name – even when he insisted. It didn’t come off the tongue easily, so I begged him to allow me to violate the norm. He understood.

A relative of mine who has spent most of his college career in the United States was puzzled when he moved to Nigeria a few years ago and discovered that his colleagues at the university where he was teaching called themselves ” teacher”. “doctor”, etc. and weren’t thrilled about him calling them by their first names or introducing himself by his first name.

He asked me what was going on because he was really puzzled, having been culturally uprooted from Nigeria for decades. After I explained it to him, he agreed that each culture has the right to shape its conventions according to its particularities. He’s gotten used to calling people by their titles now.

My mother-in-law, who is American, loves this part of what I call Nigeria’s titular onomastics, that is, the practice where titles become substitutes for names. Being American, she had trouble remembering many Nigerian names, let alone pronouncing them with native phonetic fidelity. She tells me that she is grateful that it is considered the height of respect to simply call Nigerian men by honorific titles such as “Mallam”, “Chef”, “Alhaji”, etc. and the women “Mallama”, “Hajia”, “Madame,” etc. without ever mentioning their real names.

Dr. Reuben Abati challenges Nigerian broadcasters to challenge their received and stereotypical conventions. Sometimes it takes an outsider to inspire us to think outside the box in order to upend stilted traditions, overturn taken-for-granted assumptions, and overthrow established, ossified and often mistaken certainties.


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