The Ugandan media has had an early Christmas. This isn’t about food, drinks or other merry-making indulgence.
Big-ticket developments spinning in quick succession in the past week churned a dramatic flood of material in a December month traditionally flat or “dry” on news.
An unlikely contest flared. There were public tiffs in ink and altercations on social media, for instance, on which reporter or media house broke, or did not break, the story of the return from exile in the United Kingdom of Gen. David Sejusa.
It is not the intent of this article to interrogate the veracity of the claims and counter-claims, except to proffer that the fight itself manifests more of what has gone wrong, than right, with our journalism.
Obvious is the surprising competition for credit on a story, not investigative, after the fact of arrival. The consequences of clamouring for self-validation include hoarding of vital news tips within newsrooms by reporters unable or compromised to pull off a story, reluctance or hostility to share contacts and, in some cases, outright bad-mouthing of colleagues to sources.
The Sejusa story has many angles, even juicer ones. For instance, shouldn’t a better journalist be digging up contents of the spy’s London diaries – whom he met, what they discussed, what they planned to do together, whether his return has left hundreds of individuals both within and outside Uganda exposed/vulnerable and the likely ramifications for the future of the country and region. Put another way, what is at stake? Gen. Sejusa returned. So what?
Interviewing the general will not give the right or fuller answers. But it can feel fulfilling to a journalist seeking a name, and not issues, to be the first to interview him.
The purview of this article is seeking to realign the thinking of and relationship between the editor and reporter, reporter and reporter, and editor and editor.
Conversations on the closed Facebook “Uganda Journalists” page of 800-plus members registers spasms of spats between editors and reporters on who does the heavy lifting, who is superior, who knows more or less. It’s vanity, and worse, an embarrassing low if our individual and collective inputs don’t build highly regarded journalism.
I want to argue that the most significant editing happens at sourcing, angling and writing the story before submission for an editor’s scrutiny. Decisions on what questions to ask, whom to ask, and how to frame and position the issues in the body of an article are not just reporting and writing judgement calls. They are also fundamentally editing choices.
Thus the reporter is really the first editor. If a newsroom encourages and practices briefing and debriefing between editor and reporter, their work in harmony, as opposed to rivalry, produces the finest journalistic product for the news consumer.
Editing must be moved from a normative function of compliance with right grammar, punctuation, in-house style, page layout and word count to broader issues of newsroom mentorship and leadership. It’s about sourcing, resourcing, retooling, talent positioning and retention.
Some of these require simpler approaches. If in a senior position either as a reporter or editor, do you take the hand of a young up-and-coming reporter to go with and introduce to your highly placed sources?
That way, the cub reporter learns journalistic decorum: ways to approach important people, interviewing techniques. With time, the rookie reporter will build own contacts, earn trust and improve output.
If journalism succeeds at the foot-soldier level, everyone above will succeed because the stories turned in will be cleaner and complete even if submitted on the stroke of deadline.
The notion that the finest writers should be made editors, mostly as the only route for better financial or other compensation, needs to be banished. Remuneration in newsrooms must evolve beyond the hierarchical paper-conformist human resource models pegged to position rather than output and competence.
The second thing that requires ditching is the practice by most editors not to write stories because “it is a reporter’s job”. There is an artificial segmentation and entrenched fallacy in Uganda’s newsrooms that an editing job excludes the editor from authoring articles. Conversely, an editor’s name or voice should stamp authority on an article. That earns credibility for the media outlet. They don’t have to do it everyday, but editors can’t fail to do it all the time.
If we, as media practitioners, overcome ego and extend or receive help with honesty, the newsrooms will discover suddenly how they are saturated with talent.
The hallmark of successful editors or reporters, besides telling compelling stories, is taking rookies under their wings and helping them grow into fine journalists.