ACME research shows significant imbalance in public affairs coverage in Uganda’s press

Stories about criminal justice, police, politics and democratic processes received the lion’s share of public affairs coverage in Uganda’s print media from July 2015 to June 2016, a study by the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME) has found.

The study that assessed more than 30,000 stories from four newspapers and one weekly news magazine found that more than half of all public affairs issues focused on justice, law and order, and people and power. Similarly, close to a quarter of public affairs stories assessed were framed in the context of human rights and the rule of law.

Speaking at the release of the preliminary study results at Golf Course Hotel in Kampala yesterday, Dr George Lugalambi, the lead researcher, said the heightened political activity around Uganda’s general elections during the study period likely influenced the nature and form of public affairs reporting.

ACME’s research on press coverage of public affairs issues in Uganda, now in its fourth year, is intended to gather evidence on the quantity, quality and nature of public affairs in Uganda. It also seeks to assess conditions that foster or impede the coverage of public affairs.

The research project, funded by the Democratic Governance Facility, is part of ACME’s Enhanced Media Reporting for Transparency and Accountability programme.

“After four years of monitoring and analysing the coverage of public affairs, we now have a good understanding of the performance of the media, strengths that need to be reinforced, areas of weakness that need to be improved and gaps that need to be addressed,” Lugalambi said.

Two previous studies explored coverage for the periods of July 2013 to June 2014 and July 2014 to June 2015, respectively. Data for the third study was drawn from coverage of public affairs by Daily Monitor, New Vision, The Observer, The Independent and Bukedde newspaper.

The research found that energy, extractives, defence and security were the least reported public affairs issues from July 2015 to June 2016. However when these subjects were covered, they were more likely than other topics to make it to the front page of all publications.

The study also found contrast between government’s funding priorities, citizens’ concerns as outlined in the 2016-2021 Citizens’ manifesto and press coverage. For instance, only 3.3 percent of the stories focused on public works and infrastructure, a sector that consistently receives the largest proportion of government budgetary allocations. Health and education, priority areas in the Citizens’ manifesto received 7.5 percent and 6.5 percent coverage respectively. Agriculture, often touted as the backbone of Uganda’s economy, was the fourth least reported public affairs issue during the study period.

Mr John Baptist Wasswa, a media trainer said the media could be making wrong assumptions on what their audiences want, causing a slant in coverage. “How much do editors know about the less covered issues like agriculture so that they can debrief reporters appropriately?” he asked.

He added: “Editors need to get out of their comfort zones and guide journalists appropriately.  The beat system is important because it helps in understanding issues.”

Ms Joan Akello, a reporter at Power FM, said most media houses are financially constrained and therefore focus on easy stories.

She said: “If you look at the resources of a media house, justice law and order stories require the least resources. How many media houses have money to put aside for editorial functions and investigations? So the police beat becomes an easy way out because, well, the police has media briefings every Monday.”

ACME’s research also shed light on the origin of public affairs reporting in Uganda. According to the findings, nearly half of the stories originated from three sources: four generic sources:  journalists’ independent reporting, research or investigation (17.1%); spontaneous newsworthy occurrences (17.1%); government events and activities (13.1%); and news conferences (12.4%).

There appears to be a link between the story origin and reporting formats used in public affairs storytelling in the press. Conventional reporting dominated coverage, increasing dramatically from the second study (61.3%) to the third (86.4%). As a result evidence of enterprise/interpretive and investigative reporting significantly declined.

Lugalambi said that more investigative reporting is needed “especially in this day when calls for accountable government are growing”.

The study also shows that while sourcing from local government officials was still relatively low (16% of all sources), it has consistently improved over the past three years, nearly doubling in each round of the study.

However, sourcing from women, another aspect of representative journalism, stagnated in the three years of the study with women quoted in only 3 out of 10 stories.

Ms Lydia Namubiru, ACME’s programme officer for research and data journalism wondered why in a country that has 51% women, only 20% of sources are women. “There are some things about good journalism that should be considered the bare minimum, for example the inclusion of different voices and diversity of content,” she said.

Only 6.6% of stories assessed during the study period quoted documentary sources, and even smaller proportion made use of data analysis.

Some journalists, who attended the meeting to share the preliminary findings, attributed the limited use of data in stories to lack of knowledge in the area by decision makers in the newsroom.

Mr Joseph Elunya of Reality Check Uganda, an online platform, said editors “do not know anything about data, so how can reporters use data in their work?”

Ms Fiona Wamayi of the Centre for Media Literacy and Community Development said there should be deliberate efforts by editors to implore their reporters to use data in their stories because “data is available”.

As a parting shot, Ms Namubiru appealed to media houses to make time for editors and journalists to get out of the newsrooms and learn.

“People need time off to learn, both the substance of what they publish but also the craft. Journalism is facing many existential crises, and the only thing that will save us is when we become learning organisations and learning individuals. Pay attention to research like this one and look for more of it,” she said.

ACME will release its final third report on coverage of public affairs in Uganda’s press later this year.

Harriet Anena

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

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