On May 5, Saturday Vision published a lengthy piece, “Press and state not adversaries”, in which the Minister of Information and National Guidance, Ms Mary Karooro Okurut, noted her “…frustration (and stress!) with some journalists; something many of my colleagues also suffer”.
Although this was not the gist of her statement, it was a legitimate concern.
She wrote: “You accept a request (on phone) for a response to a report or news item on a matter of national importance. Then you spend some good minutes explaining everything the Government is doing to solve whatever it is the journalist is asking you. Only to find out the next day that your contribution has been reduced to one sentence, completely devalued in meaning and importance…”
I share her frustration, but I don’t think the laws the government has proposed will address the “way forward” she wishes to see: “an improvement in accurate, factual reportage, laced with in-depth and quality analysis of the issues of the day”.
I think all of us in the industry should continue strengthening mechanisms – from newsroom training, continuing education, mentoring to performance criticism – through which we can give self-regulation a chance. This article is an attempt to help journalists give less stress (on the accuracy front) to Minister Karooro and her colleagues.
A day ahead of the World Press Freedom Day celebrations on May 3, a reporter from one of the local dailies called me to ask for a comment about a newly released report that indicated that self-censorship was on the increase within our newsrooms.
We talked for about 15 minutes. Our conversation went along these lines:
Q. Is self censorship due to media owners or government intimidation?
A. What do you think?
Q. I think it is due to government intimidation.
A. Well, I actually think both factors come into play. Yes, the government can be quite jittery about dissent, but I think some media owners (together with their managers) have failed to figure out professional ways of navigating intimidation from the government. Self-censorship is an easy or lazy way out. The professional thing to do to try and reduce the risks that come with annoying the government in environments such as ours is to try and be fair and accurate. Talk to all sides in a story. Many media owners, especially those who own radio stations in the countryside, don’t want to invest in such processes. So when they are told by the government about no-go areas, they simply back off. They are not willing to risk their investment by annoying the government.
Q. Is there press freedom in Uganda?
A. What do you want me to say?
A. I think the Ugandan media enjoy a degree of freedom but it continues to be under threat. Some of the limitations that the state wants to impose on the right to freedom of expression are neither constitutional nor justifiable in a democracy. There would be nothing wrong with outlawing hate speech or expression that manifestly is intended to promote ethnic division, sectarianism or genocide. But it would not be justifiable to claim that a media house that has exposed corruption in the army is injuring national security.
Here is what the reporter attributed to me in the following day’s story:
“Dr Peter Mwesige, the executive director of the African Centre for Media Excellence, noted that the challenge lies with the limitations which come with available freedoms. He added that owners of media enterprises upcountry are also not willing to risk their investments.”
Obviously, the reporter did not capture my comments accurately or even fairly.
Several days later, I asked the reporter whether she thought what she had written “accurately and captured the gist of my answers” to her questions.
She replied: “I am sorry, I think I did not bring out what you said appropriately especially because I did not use complete sentences from what you had told me. I promise that it won’t happen next time.”
I recommend this approach for the Minister and her colleagues as well as other sources who often get quoted out of context. That is, register a complaint with the reporter and the supervisor (editor). A good editor (and we have many in our newsrooms) would talk to the reporter and establish the problem. A good number of reporters will learn from their mistakes.
The complainant could also write a letter to the editor or an opinion article to correct the distortions.
Of course, reporters and copy editors need to pay more attention to accuracy. They need to appreciate detail, nuance, and context. And to do this, reporters need to improve their listening and comprehension skills. It would also help if reporters backed up their notebooks with recorders.
Some reporters quote people out of context out of sheer laziness, carelessness or fear of asking for clarifications. Some call sources with only one aim—to get a sound bite or quotable quote, regardless of whether it makes sense. A few choose to deliberately hear only opinions that fit their own expectations or beliefs. Others quote people out of context because they simply catalog views from different sources without attempting to build an overarching framework to anchor these views.
In the case of the story about the self-censorship report, for instance, the reporter talked to the chairperson of Human Rights Network-Uganda, the managing editor of Daily Monitor, the executive director of the African Centre for Media Excellence, the chief executive officer of Vision Group, the managing editor of the Observer and the President’s press secretary.
Obviously she could not have reported every word each of these sources told her.
On the basis of what was in the report and her own interviews with different media players, the reporter could have mapped out the story into different sections.
These could have included the scope of newsroom self-censorship; its manifestation; causes; significance; its consequences; and what can be done about the problem.
The reporter would then determine first whether there was agreement among the sources on the issues, and second which of the people she had talked to best spoke about each of these different aspects of the story.
In order to avoid distortions, it is also sometimes important to mention the question that the source was responding to. Was the source responding to the question of whether self-censorship is on the increase, or whether there is press freedom in Uganda, or whether limitations on freedom of expression are justified? Or was the source simply reacting to what other sources had said? This context is important.
In short, reporters need to be good listeners who take care to organize their ideas and those of their sources coherently, and to present them in a context that gives them meaning.
About the Author: Dr. Mwesige is the executive director of the African Centre for Media Excellence. He is a former head of the Department of Mass Communication at Makerere University, where he was also a senior lecturer, and a former executive editor of the Monitor.