Why can’t we get it right?

By Edward Ssekalo

My first email Friday morning October 22 was to a lawyer friend that works from a wing adjacent to my own at the Arusha International Conference Center. In it, I declared I was going back to (Daily) Monitor. And that was the only part of that email that was meant to be lighthearted. The part that followed could, would, should provoke (contemptuous) laughter by the way, but no, the matter is so absurd it ceases to be funny.

I shared an extract with this lawyer friend because she is aware of my roots in the mainstream media, and raises her first objections to any anything inappropriate she finds in a Ugandan newspaper with me. This time I was pre-empting her, sort of. There’s a wonderful story idea that sought to explain the enigma that is Michael Ezra (See: Michael Ezra- the man behind the mystery). The idea was nothing groundbreaking, of course. A serious newspaper should be doing that sort of story about that kind of subject. Perhaps similar attempts I’ve missed have been made to provide some insight into Ezra’s life.

But here was a good idea whose execution is ruined by something as basic as bad spelling. Below I reproduce the extract I submitted via email:

In September 2007, Ezra caused a stir at Namboole Stadium when he was flown into the stadium minutes before the start of a match between Uganda and Niger in a helicopter. He was given a seat on the pitch with 15 well-built men, downing white truck-suits, baseball cups and dark sun-glasses making a semi, circle behind him. He had hired the chopper from Nairobi to catch the match after flying there from Kazakhstan.

As a reader with more than passing knowledge of what a newspaper article should or should not do, I’d rather be critiquing the arrangement of ideas, maybe questioning the veracity of statements like the one that closes the extract above: was Ezra from Kazakhstan any way? But when you’re served a piece of writing fraught with that many basic mistakes, you get sucked into doing a different review altogether.

That extract is emblematic of what the rest of the article in question offered in as far as quality (mostly lack of) is concerned, and by extension, what our newspapers serve up on a daily basis. It is almost too much to expect an article free of spelling or grammatical errors, and it doesn’t seem to matter whether it is a lead story or a feature piece in a weekly, bi-weekly or daily. But why? Why is it that what is or should be a basic issue festers? Is it inexperience of the writers (and sub-editors)? Is it carelessness? Is it outright incompetence? Maybe all three and more?

A journalist friend, Hussein Bogere, described the mistakes in the article as “embarrassing”, and put the errors in newspapers down to journalists being “careless and not paying attention to detail”. I’d agree. And I’d also admit I’m baffled to this day why journalists won’t get these basics right. Most of them are university graduates to start with. You could argue their outputs are an indictment on Journalism training institutions, but Mass Communication lecturers are not hired to teach their students how to spell.

I remember being burdened a few times with the feeling I’d be viewed as somewhat pedantic because I ceaselessly pointed out these careless mistakes via the Editorial mailing list while I was still in Monitor’s employ. The problem grew so big at some point that it was almost impossible to have a story without at least three mistakes of grammar/spelling anywhere in the newspaper. We aren’t even talking about facts or angles got wrong yet. At some stage I started feeling shy approaching fellow editors to point out these errors. Some shared in my exasperation. One particular editor, however, offered nothing but excuses. Stuff like mistakes are human blah blah blah. It provoked another colleague to quip: In that case the people at Monitor must be superhuman (Jan, that was a classic!).

Still, the matter would have some fleeting attention paid to it. Fleeting, because we’d have another error-riddled article after a fortnight’s breather or so. Looks like this article was an announcement our latest respite is over. And a reminder that we are forever trapped in a world of rationalising certain mistakes, a liberty which we should not be afforded in the first place.

You see, what happens when you’re forced to question someone writing cups to mean caps or Leads to mean Leeds, is that you start to view those who mix up collaborate and corroborate with greater understanding. You begin to (subconsciously) cluster mistakes: acceptable, bad, not too bad etc. You become more forgiving for the typo and, if an editor, find yourself too bogged down with small details to reprimand sub-editors or writers whose judgement of the news was off, for example.

In trying to get to the heart of this problem and understanding how some newspapers in the country (and the region) have managed to do better, the issue of human resource has always come up. The case is often made for more staff being hired. This potion has been shown up as insufficient. Emphasis then on a better skilled lot might help. But improving staff across the board (through training) would need time. So what happens in the immediate term? More revise editors? A case for rewrite editors perhaps?

In the meantime we are going to be stuck with articles like the one on Ezra which, ideally, should have afforded you and I the chance to rummage for holes; areas that could have been tackled better. But when you’re slaloming through diabolical grammar, you’re too worn to make any meaningful editorial analysis. In my case, I was so put off I didn’t even read to the end.

And my lawyer friend, oh, she wrote back: “In protest, I am not reading the story”.

About the Author: Edward Ssekalo is Web Editor at the East African Community. He has previously worked at Monitor Publications as Internet Editor.


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