Deliver us from straight news

Two years ago, my friend Bill Ristow, who was a Knight International Journalism Fellow at The New Vision in Kampala, wrote the following in one edition of his weekly training newsletters:

“…if I were to make a sweeping statement about the Ugandan media, it would be that there is plenty of straight news (not fully perfected); plenty of opinion; and not nearly enough intelligent analysis.”

 

In fact this was no sweeping statement. Bill was spot on. Perhaps one of the weakest links in our journalism (and here I am not limiting myself to Uganda, but Africa generally) is the predominance of straight news or he said-she said reporting.

I call this stenography or megaphone journalism. That is, the media merely provide a platform for politicians, government officials, and other newsmakers to say whatever they want to say without any attempt by the journalists to provide context and perspective. Stenography journalism does not question what the newsmaker says; it simply records it verbatim and relays it to the public.

There is a case for elected leaders to have an opportunity to share their message with the public without it going through media filters. Indeed, in many countries occasions such as the ‘State of the Nation’ address are aired live on both radio and television.

However, the media would have abdicated their responsibility if they covered every event where a politician spoke as if it were a ‘State of the Nation’ address. It is incumbent upon journalists to include analysis and interpretation in their coverage.

And here we should not confuse analysis or interpretation with opinion. Analysis is based on solid reporting. The good journalist backs up claims with evidence from observation as well as authoritative human and documentary or electronic sources. The good reporter seeks credible and knowledgeable sources to help explain the events or issues he or she is covering. Analysis is about offering depth and providing context that makes the news meaningful to audiences. Analytical reporters explain to their audiences the meaning of the events/developments they are covering.

Another important element of analysis is background. This is relevant history that helps to explain an issue/event or place it in context. It is information that adds perspective. In some cases background involves comparisons with previous or current events/developments elsewhere. For instance, a reporter covering the tension in Bunyoro between the Bafuruki and ethnic Banyoro in Uganda could compare the situation to that in Kenya’s Rift Valley between the Kikuyu and Kalenjin. Background could also be information that shows patterns or trends. For instance, a reporter covering a case of suspected child sacrifice in Uganda could show that there has been an increase in reported cases of this crime in the last one year.

At the heart of analysis is asking the right questions. Some of the key questions that can help journalists provide context are the following:

  • •So what?
  • •What is the significance of the event/development?
  • •What does all this mean?
  • •What does it add up to?
  • •What are the implications of the event/development?
  • •What is at stake?
  • •Who cares?
  • •Why is this happening now?
  • •How is the reader/viewer/listener or community likely to be affected?
  • •How are concerned parties (including individuals and groups) reacting to the development/issue?

These questions have been even more important as audiences now have access to multiple sources of information including newspapers, FM radio stations, television, mobile phones, and the Internet.

With the proliferation of 24/7 radio and television stations, as well as the growth of the Internet and other digital channels as sources of breaking news in the last two decades, the mainstream media have to step up their journalism to move beyond making it possible for their audiences to KNOW the news, to helping them better UNDERSTAND the news.

And I am afraid for the most part our mainstream media are not doing a great job on this front. Some major newspapers try, especially on the first five pages, and so do some television stations such as NTV. But for the most part, it is still business as usual.

Most local journalists don’t interrogate official claims adequately, if at all, nor try to add context to what they see or hear. They don’t ask enough of the types of contextual questions above either because they are lazy, inexperienced, or because their editors don’t demand more from them.

Tradition is also a big part of it. In all parts of Africa, the media, especially radio and television started as government mouthpieces which were used mainly to air official pronouncements. A whole generation of journalists grew up with the view that adding anything to the news beyond what was said or seen was bordering on opinionating. And they didn’t think this belonged to the news pages.

Of course newsmakers, especially, politicians and government officials would prefer such a status quo. In fact, there are many cases in which reporters have run into trouble with the authorities simply because of their attempt to explain issues to their audiences. This is understandable. The more a reporter attempts to ask questions and explain issues the more he or she is likely to expose contradictions or even outright lies in official pronouncements. Newsmakers would, therefore, rather that reporters merely repeated what they said without any attempt at offering depth and analysis.

But the predominance of straight news could also be explained by conceptual confusion over the so-called 5Ws & H. Many beginners in journalism construct these Ws and H narrowly as:

  • •Who: Who said/did what or who was affected?
  • •What: What happened?
  • •Where: Where did it happen?
  • •When: When did it happen?
  • •Why: Why did it happen?
  • •How: How did it happen?

These basic questions are important. But as the veteran American journalism trainer Deborah Potter reminds us, in her Handbook of Independent Journalism “depending on the complexity of a story, a reporter might ask those questions in several different ways”. Indeed, each of the Ws and H could raise several other important questions.

WHAT:

  • •What happened?
  • •What is the point of the development or story?
  • •What does the audience need to know to understand this story?
  • •What is at stake?
  • •What is the single most important fact about this development?
  • •What are the motives of the actors?
  • •What is the history of all this?
  • •What happens next?
  • •What can different stakeholders do about it?

WHO:

  • •Who is involved in this story?
  • •Who is affected by this story?
  • •Who cares?
  • •Who is the best person to tell the story?
  • •Who should I talk to about this story?
  • •Who is missing from this story?
  • •Who has been involved in this kind of story before?

WHERE:

  • •Where did this happen?
  • •Where else should I go to get the full story?
  • •Where else has this happened before?
  • •Where is this story going next?

WHY:

  • •Why is this happening? Is it an isolated event or part of a trend?
  • •Why now?
  • •Why does this story matter?
  • •Why should anyone care to pay attention to this story?
  • •Why do I think this is a story?

WHEN:

  • •When did this happen?
  • •When did the turning points occur in this story?
  • •When should I report this story?

HOW:

  • •How did this happen?
  • •How did we get to this point?
  • •How widespread is the problem/issue?
  • •How will things be different because of what happened?
  • •How will this story help the audience?

A common fear among reporters is that analysis and depth require too much time or space. But this is not entirely true. A reporter can offer a good degree of analysis within the same time or space consumed by a straight news story.

Contextual information is more likely to help citizens make sense of important developments around them. And that is the essence of journalism.

***

About the Author: Dr. Mwesige is the Executive Director of the African Centre for Media Excellence. He has worked as Group Training Editor for the Nation Media Group, head of the Department of Mass Communication at Makerere University where he was also a senior lecturer, and executive editor of the Monitor in Kampala.

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