Audit Reporting: Making Sense of the Figures

Sample opinions and the result you are sure to get is that the average Nigerian journalist is arithmophobic, (or numerophobic). Safe those in specialised areas of reporting like banking and finance, the economy, and the sciences, one can safely posit that majority of journalists have a morbid fear of figures or numbers. The reason they are journalists, and not mathematicians, medical doctors, engineers, or geologists and such related fields of study. Little wonder therefore, for many of us, a recent invitation for a workshop on Audit Reporting was received with trepidation.
The two-day workshop, “Audit Reporting Training: X-raying State Government audit reports”, which held October 5 and 6, 2022 at the Sage Hotel, Benin City, Edo State, was facilitated by FrontFoot Media Initiative, in association with the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism, and sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation.
As the about 50 journalists, drawn from Edo and Delta States, settled on their seats for the programme to kick off, some could not hide their unease about how it would pan out given their phobia of figures. “I hope these people would not come and dump figures on us because I hated mathematics in school and that is why I read English”, exclaimed one journalist as we waited for the resource persons – Emeka Eluemuno Izeze, Sonala Olumhense, Sally Abu, Chido Nwakanma, unarguably some of the best and most savvy in the profession – to come in and commence the business of the day. A few of us similarly expressed our diffidence.
For many journalists, these documents are nothing but some mumbo-jumbo; a haze of figures that make no sense, and therefore deserving scant attention. Understandably so, audit reporting has over the years, remained an uncharted or little explored area of investigative journalism, a narrative the group of experts lined up for the training programme sought to change. The goal is to build the capacity of the journalist in interrogating the facts and figures presented in an auditor-general’s report, for the purpose of exposing corruption, thereby fostering transparency and accountability in the system.
Izeze, a consummate journalist, and former Managing Director/Editor-in-Chief of The Guardian Newspapers Limited, in his presentation: “Audit Reports: Crafting a good story”, took the participants on a voyage of unearthing hidden stories of sleaze and fraud in a seemingly innocuous audit report. “News is everywhere now”, asserted the journalism veteran.
According to him, “What you need are those skills to source and to process the abundant information available to us. To do this, we need to make sense and give form, and give structure to the information around us. So, audit reports, how do you make sense of it? How do you give form to it? Are you just going to carry an audit report and start reading all those arcane figures which don’t mean anything to you, you don’t understand?
“You must ask yourself; if I have a copy of an audit report, you must know where to start reading from. At least start reading from the known, and then go into the unknown. If you are going to write a story, that is the only way you are going to do it. When you have made sense of the information, number two, you present it in such a way as to make it make sense to those who are following you, reading and hearing what you are broadcasting or publishing. Make sense of it yourself, then, present it in a way to make sense to the people, for them to understand it; and for it to be relevant to them”.
While stating that this process can be applied to any audit report, state or federal government, Izeze contended that “Audit report is audit report. We are taking state governments because we believe that the state governments are the least scrutinised of the arms of government”.
Stressing that the workshop was about “Data journalism”, which involved the use of figures, Izeze explained that “Data journalism brings out new tools, new skills, new techniques, new approaches to tell the story to assist people to make sense of developments around them”, adding that “We develop stories by wading through data; by sifting through figures, by focusing on what is important in all those to the people”. He regretted that “This is a new set of skills that many journalists haven’t been used to, and still are not used to – skills for searching, for understanding, for visualising where do I get sources; visualising sources that I need in this digital age. In this digital age, if you are doing audit report, how did they present audit reports in some places? All you need to do is just Google it – presenting audit report to the newspaper – and watch what you get there”.
Underscoring the import and relevance of data journalism, Izeze stated that “Data journalism allows us as journalists to discover unique story leads to effectively serve your role as the eyes and ears of the people”.
He was however quick to point out that “Data journalism requires strategy”. Outlining these strategies, he said first, you must get the data. “And the thing we are telling you now is how to get the data for audit report. And when you have got the data, you understand it. Number three, then, find a story in it. Stay on the story”.
And in writing the story, he suggested that certain ingredients must be present. “It must have a character. You must create a scene for that story. There must be a chronology of events – how did it happen? There would be a setting. There must be a motivation for what was done, and there must be a narrative; very powerful, suitable for the story to be written.
“You must determine issues, determine trends. Is there a larger picture to explore? Ask yourself: Is it tied to a larger context? There must be context. Is it bigger than this narrow thing? You must ask yourself; is it an opportunity to revisit a bigger issue? …Every good story, the structure must render an explanation. Is it an opportunity to explain why something happens or how something works?
“Number three, before you start doing your story, sketch a portrait of the profile – this is what I’m looking for. Number four; add powerful voices, not just any voice”. Izeze frowned at the frequently used alibi by journalists to the effect that ‘All attempts to get reply from so, so, and so failed; or we sent a text message to so, so and so and he was yet to reply as of the time of filing this report’, wondering “What if the person did not see the text?” He insisted that “Powerful voices will make your print or video stories ring a bell. It’s something that people cannot put away; unputdownable”. And the number five ingredient, “Give the story a vivid setting; a vivid description. Recreate what it looks like”.
On a conclusive note, Izeze emphasised that “You define a story by the way you write it. If you need to investigate further, don’t rush quickly to go and publish. Make your account narrative. Always do something unusual. Use visuals; use images – online, print, and of course on TV, Radio, use people’s voices; they are always very good. Use the graphics, use illustrations. Produce the data, if possible. Is the essence of the story better told with figures and numbers? If it is, put the figures and numbers. Even put a box; attach it to your story, or write it into your story.
“What we are asking you to do is not impossible. Your story being structured means that you must ensure that it is original. It is factual, and it is trustworthy. Even if it’s a fact, can people trust it when they read it? And that the process of getting it is transparent, and that it is modest”.
Olumhense, seasoned columnist, and former editor of the defunct This Week and managing director, City Tempo magazines, delivered his papers via Zoom from his US base. Taking the journalists through the topic “Audit Reporting Imperative for Nigerian Journalism”, he accentuated the role of Auditors-General as crucial in promoting accountability as so empowered by the Nigerian constitution. Highlighting six pillars of the legal and professional authority of auditors-general, Olumhense explained that “The Auditor-General has the authority to undertake periodic checks of all government statutory corporations, commissions, authorities, agencies, including all persons and bodies established by any law of the House of Assembly of that State”.
He said though the Auditor-General of a state is appointed by the governor on the recommendation of the state civil service commission, and confirmed by the House of Assembly, “The Auditor- General is not accountable to the Governor or supervised by the Governor or any other authority. The Auditor-General is responsible only to the people through the House of Assembly, and once appointed, can remain in office until he retires or dies. That makes him a powerful, independent institution, and servant of the constitution…In fact, state governors should be afraid of them; the House of Assembly should be afraid of them”.
Challenging participants on leveraging on the auditors-general’s reports to engage in solution journalism, which he described as a new paradigm in reporting, Sully Abu, another media bigwig, and a former managing director of New Age Newspaper and The African Guardian, said rather than bemoaning a situation, as journalists “we ought to have the fire in our belly to power the kind of journalism we should be practicing”. Underscoring the need for professionalism and integrity, Abu noted that “honesty and integrity have a price; lack of integrity has a price” stressing that “by electing to do the right thing, you are bound to suffer one disadvantage or the other. So, the choice is yours. All we are asking you to do is to do the right thing for yourself, for your family, for your country, for the future”.
Abu however believed that opting to do the right thing has its reward, noting that “good journalism makes good money because at the end of the day, everybody appreciates honesty”. He recalled a time “when The Guardian was making money more than banks, and this was not because Alex Ibru was a businessman, after all there were other businessmen; but because people respected the quality of The Guardian’s reporting”.
Though he admitted that it could be very difficult, especially in these economic times for a journalist to toy with his job, he insisted that there is a certain price that one has to pay. “Luckily for us, the media is expanding – online publications, more and more are coming out. The ones that will survive and make money in future would be the ones that are professional in their approach”, he stated. He therefore tasked journalists on integrity and courage of their conviction, advising that “When we are doing stories, let us ensure that we have all our facts. Pick up the auditors-general’s reports, read them; interrogate them. The projects they (state governments) claimed they have done or have not done, we take our time to see what the facts are…I think we should be resolved to help change the country. Please, let us have that anger in us that this place must change, and change for the better.
“Things have gone haywire in the country, but that is why we are here. We must have to start the process of rebuilding and reestablishing the principles of which this country can come up again; if not for our sakes, at least for the sakes of our children”.
In his paper “Principles and Purposes of (Public Interest) Journalism”, Chido Benedict Nwakanma, a communication strategist, marketer and scholar, said this had to do with serious issues having bearing on the quality and quantity of life that we live. Nwakanma, in another paper, identified transparency, fairness, and restraint as critical in audit reporting. Transparency, he noted, is something one can ordinarily see through; something that is clear, while fairness “demands using language that accurately tells the facts without favouring one side or the other”, stressing that “The goal of the journalist should be to inform. Tell people what they need to know. Do not manipulate them”.
Speaking on the topic “Fundamental Principles of Audit: Understanding budget and public sector finance”, Chukwuemeka Joe-Nsika, a Fellow of the Institute of Management Consultants, urged auditors to stick to the principles and rules of auditing which are legal and ethical in their audit engagements, and to sign only audit reports that align with their professional, ethical, and moral standards. Joe-Nsika also harped on the need for integrity, objectivity and independence in preparing audit reports, stressing however that integrity is where the problem is. Lamenting that corruption in Nigeria is “systemic and malignant” and rampant in revenue generating agencies, Joe-Nsika admonished journalists reporting such to also demonstrate integrity, and shun the “brown envelope” syndrome.
He opined that auditors-general in the 36 states, and the media were critical in ensuring accountability of public officers in the control and management of public funds. According to him, “Journalists and state auditors-general should follow the dictates of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to do proper audit reporting. While the auditors-general will report their findings to the state Houses of Assembly, the media will comply with Section 22 of Chapter 2 to ensure that citizens get the information they need”.
Taking his turn, Godswell Omenogor, a chartered accountant and auditor, whose paper centred on “Interrogating State Government audit reports”, challenged journalists to interrogate audit reports and ask relevant questions where necessary.
“These clamours can only be effective if all relevant stakeholders adhere strictly to the processes and procedures as enshrined in our laws and related gazettes. Relevant questions need to be asked, adequate information need to be provided; all relevant functionaries need to objectively carry out their respective functions,” Omenogor averred.
Presenting certificates of participation to the journalists, Abu thanked them for “this eye-opening session”, humbly admitting that “we have benefitted as much as you have”. The visibly impressed elder in the profession, expressed surprise at the degree of interest and enthusiasm of participants, stating that “sometimes, you get so cynical about the country, about the way we order our affairs. But to come here and see the level of participation and commitment as people are sitting down, taking notes, listening, even asking questions, shows that all hope is not lost, and makes this our effort worthwhile”.
Abu confessed that at the beginning, he thought it was a rather archaic subject that people might not be interested in. “But we have seen that this is a very important area of life because every human being has to be accountable… At every area of society, there has to be accountability for society to function. So, we can now see why auditors-general’s reports are very important an area for us to focus on in our journalism”. With high expectation that change would begin to occur in journalists’ attitude to audit reporting, Abu challenged the participants to “Let us see this as a step to a change in journalism for ourselves, for our nations, for our organizations”.
The training workshop was replicated in Awka, Anambra State capital October 17 and 18, 2022, for journalists in Enugu and Anambra States.

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