Ugandan media braces for threats to journalism

In April 2014, Daily Monitor’s Executive Editor Malcolm Gibson embarked on reorganising the newsroom based on “transparency”, as he and his team pursue “quality journalism”.

He released an editor/reporter checklist, which journalists at Daily Monitor are to refer to in sourcing and publishing copy. The checklist contains snippets from the paper’s editorial policy.

Barely a week ago, the Vision Group launched an editorial policy, noting that “…Increasingly, journalism is becoming an open profession where anybody can produce and package media content from any source; this therefore necessitates a simplified and documented editorial policy that all media practitioners at Vision Group can follow on a day-to-day basis”.

As the survival and credibility of the traditional media come under increasing attack, these steps are seen as a way of ensuring that journalism stays rooted in its good old tenets.

In an email to ACME, Mr Gibson explains: “All my newsrooms have had them [editorial policies], but frankly, they seem to be more important for the Daily Monitor because I don’t think all the journalists have the same consistent foundation of accepted journalistic practices and vision that my U.S. journalists had.”

Mr Richard Kavuma, editor of The Observer, says although the paper does not have an editorial policy, guidelines are necessary in avoiding ambiguities.

“As newsrooms become larger and journalists more ‘transient’, it helps if a new member clearly knows how to deal, for instance, with a company official that calls to offer Shs500,000 in appreciation for a story well-done. Or how a reporter should react when he/she is asked to sign for transport refund even if his/her newsroom has already [provided facilitation].”

Media educators, editors and analysts say the proliferation of social media is a particular challenge to mainstream media, necessitating emphasis on implementation of guidelines even as new technologies are embraced.

In its new editorial policy, the Vision Group notes that the “challenges of running a multi-media house are compounded by the exponential rise of social media which makes the gatekeeping role of the traditional editor obsolete”.

The above point is emphasised by Mr Joachim Buwembo, a former senior editor, who argues that “the first assault on good journalism is social media”.

The retired journalist also cites corruption, politics, business interests and sloppiness as threats to journalism but adds that “if strong editorial policies are in place, then good journalism can be protected”.

Mr Kavuma, on the other hand, argues that the changing media landscape is testing conventional values and truths.

“Media houses need to proactively recognise new slippery grounds and provide clarity where necessary. How, for instance, does a reporter share content between their newspaper and their personal blog?” he asks.

Dr William Tayeebwa, the head of Mass Communication Department at Makerere University, agrees that editorial policies “are more pertinent now more than ever” owing to the changing dynamics in newsrooms.

He adds that the industry has become more competitive, leading to the tabloidization of the media and “the emergence of sleaze journalism; where journalists are seen to focus on the trivial rather than the bigger issue”.

It is because of the above realities that Uganda Radio Network (URN), a news agency, says it is working on its editorial policy.

The Editor in Chief, Ms Barbara Among, says “every media house must have it [editorial policy]. If you don’t, then what are your guiding principles? What is the journalistic compass of that media house?”

Mr Charles O. Bichachi, the Managing Editor (in-charge of content) at Daily Monitor, agrees with Among’s point, saying editorial policies “serve as anchor points for reporters and editors as they put out stories…[they] give credibility to the media and are also a reference point”.

Ms Julie Nabwire, an editor with The EastAfrican newspaper, says editorial policies are like radar to a ship.

“They [editorial policies] keep journalists on the right path while ensuring they stay true to the values of the profession and that of a given media house,” she says.

However, questions arise as to whether some of these guidelines are enforceable.

How, for instance, does a media house ensure that a guideline such as one that bars journalists from being on the payroll of NGOs and politicians is enforced amidst poor facilitation and low pay?

How does a media house ensure that persons with disabilities are not referred to as ‘disabled persons’, and persons living with HIV/AIDS are not labelled ‘HIV/AIDS victims’?

How does a media establishment ensure that “gifts/tokens of appreciation, exceeding $50 in cash value, given without any conditions attached, shall be declared to supervisors who shall advise on whether the recipient shall keep them or not” as stated in the Vision Group editorial policy?

Media analysts say the issue of enforceability of editorial policies remains a challenge but having them in place is one huge step in the right direction.

Mr Gibson explains that at Daily Monitor, the emphasis is on insisting that the policies be adhered to and that journalists are held accountable.

And to lessen the temptation of journalists breaking the rules, say on taking tokens, Mr Gibson says the long-term remedy lies with better remuneration.

“…I think MPL [Monitor Publications Limited] and NMG [Nation Media Group] has not done a good job in adequately compensating its editorial employees for the work they do… I am “professionalising” the staff – more full-time, adequately compensated staff; much fewer retained (perhaps none) and free-lancers. That’s my goal, and I think it will help.”

For Ms Among, editorial policies can be adhered to “if professional journalists are allowed to run newsrooms.”

Other than in-house editorial policies, media practitioners worldwide make reference to the Journalists Code of Ethics as guiding principles for their day-today-work.

 

Extracts from the Vision Group editorial policy

  • It is unethical for them (journalists) to be on the payrolls of politicians, businesspersons, organisations and NGOs.
  • If a staff or freelance journalist refused to write a correction, clarification or apology for an error which has been brought to their attention, the journalist shall be guilty of an offence and may be reprimanded, warned, suspended or dismissed.
  • All gifts/ tokens of appreciation, exceeding $50 in cash value, given without any conditions attached shall be declared to supervisors who shall advise on whether the recipient shall keep them or not.
  • Vision Group shall endeavour to recognise journalists’ contribution by giving them a byline/credit on the content they produce. However, the byline/credit shall be withheld:
    • c) In case of newspapers, where a journalist has more than one story on a page, only one shall carry his/her byline.
  • A journalist may decline an assignment if he/she feels it is unsafe or that it puts his/her life in danger.
  • All staff and freelance journalists on official assignment shall be insured…
  • Showing stories or content details to sources for approval is totally unacceptable.
  • Advertising spend on any Vision Group platform shall not guarantee an advertiser positive news coverage and free publicity.
  • Staff and freelance journalists shall ensure their conduct on social media is not detrimental to Vision Group’s image.

 

Extracts from the Nation Media Group editorial policy

  • Unnamed sources should not be used unless the pursuit of truth will best be served by not naming the source or in the event the source requests his/her anonymity to be respected.
  • The media should not publish anything that is obscene, vulgar or offensive to public good taste…
  • …in principle, journalists should avoid paying for information.
  • Plagiarism: Using someone else’s work without attribution – whether deliberately or thoughtlessly – is a serious ethical breach.
  • In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries should be carried out and approaches made with sympathy, empathy and discretion.
  • The media should generally avoid identifying relatives or friends of persons convicted or accused of crime, or otherwise unfavourably featured in news stories…
  • The media should avoid presenting acts of violence, armed robberies, banditry and terrorist activities in a manner that glorifies such anti-social conduct.
  • Children should not be identified in cases concerning sexual offences, whether as victims, witnesses or defendants.
  • The media will not allow any advertisement or commercial that is contrary to these ethical principles.

Harriet Anena

Harriet Anena is ACME’s Special Projects Officer hanena@acme-ug.org @ahpetite

2 thoughts on “Ugandan media braces for threats to journalism

  • October 27, 2014 at 9:19 am
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    Hi Rowan, there is appetite for transparent practices in Ugandan newsrooms, at least from my observation, and as this article shows. And, the introduction and emphasis on editorial policy guidelines, hints at a move towards transparency. Definitely, transparency prepares a media house for any (threats of) punches, not just from government, but from political, economic and technological spheres.

    Reply

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