Interview: Bichachi on what he brings to the media table as Public Editor

In September 2018, Nation Media Group (NMG) announced the appointment of former executive editor, Charles Odoobo Bichachi as the Group’s public editor in Uganda. ACME caught up with him for a chat on his new assignment.

 Did this appointment come as a surprise?

There had been discussions and so I had been preparing myself by reading up on the position.  I was appointed into this job effective October 1 and I spent the first week in Nairobi for orientation with Peter Mwaura who is NMG’s public editor there. He has been on the job for four years so he has experience to share.

Why introduce the position of Public Editor now?

The Aga Khan [the proprietor of NMG] thought that the media seem to be distanced from the audience they serve. Editors are in their cocoons, on their high horses or call it glass houses. They don’t relate with the people they report for. This position plays the role of mediator. The position was rolled out in Nairobi four years ago, in Tanzania about a year ago and now here in Uganda. This position was actually advertised twice last year but was never filled.

 What exactly do you do as Public Editor?

I ensure that NMG lives by its principles and editorial policy guidelines.  I recommend retractions and clarifications and work with the legal team to make sure it is properly done.  I interface with the public via email and social media on issues that seek answers or complaints about NMG. Editors like to criticize but don’t want to be criticized, so I also point out their mistakes.  If public is wrong, I will tell the public; if the media house is wrong, I will tell the editors.  I also engage with the government and media council in regard to any of the NMG platforms.

Media houses nowadays get direct feedback and interact with the public via social media platforms; isn’t the office of the Public Editor redundant?

Social media feedback to individual editors or writers is not properly filtered or even responded to if left to whomever. Advertisers and readers have issues with media houses but because they don’t know the channels through which to address the same, they just switch off.  This position is more than just feedback.  It’s also to do with educating the public on what happens in newsrooms and why certain things are done so that the public can understand the processes. It demystifies the newsrooms.

How has the newsroom responded to the position of Public Editor?

The attitude of editors towards the Public Editor has been mixed. Some have been open and receptive while others have been cold, but that is expected.

I read a lot about other public editors and have realised that you can’t be an effective public editor and still be loved by the newsroom. It’s a bit uncomfortable but editors have to appreciate what the position entails.  I am like the guy at the morgue who deals with the end result. It will be uncomfortable but the aim is to address quality for the journalists and the public. It’s not supposed to be an adversarial relationship.

How do you maintain neutrality?

I have little engagement with the newsroom. For instance, I don’t attend the planning meetings. It’s hard to criticise people with whom you sat to plan. It’s hard to be objective; in fact you wouldn’t have moral authority to point out their errors.

What do you do with the feedback collected?

I track feedback and report to the board and group editors. It’s the responsibility of managing editors and managers of the newsroom to see how that feedback is handled.  I have no jurisdiction over them. I only tell them it is important to make this or that correction but I can’t force them. Editors must have the attitude to address issues raised.

We recently had a Twitter chat where we publicised the role and I picked many issues from the public which I shared with management and the Board.

I also have a weekly column that runs every Friday where I write from issues that have come up from the public.  As a member of the public who is not involved in the process, I can also pick up issues to write about.

public-editor@ug.nationmedia.com 

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