‘He said, She said journalism’ a danger to media credibility

By Jacobs O. Seaman

In a postscript to a Facebook statement that Yoweri Museveni made in the wake of the chaotic Arua Municipality by-election in August, the president said, “PS: Hon Zaake escaped from police custody.” Museveni didn’t explain what his assertion meant beyond adding that, “Police are looking for him.”

Quite a cliffhanger for an editor coming across such a claim in a statement from the head of state. Days earlier, Mityana Municipality MP Francis Zaake had been found in Kampala in bad shape and “dumped” at Rubaga Hospital at 3am. Daily Monitor quoted the Leader of Opposition in Parliament Betty Aol Ocan saying that Zaake was severely beaten and tortured during his detention after he was arrested during the Arua by-election violence.

The MP was on life support; so when the president claimed that the same incapacitated man escaped from police custody, what gives to a journalist? For many, it all grounds to ‘He said, She said journalism. While some journalists would make the effort to call up Don Wanyama, the president’s senior press secretary, for a clarification on the bizarre claim; for many,  ‘He said, She said journalism’ would provide an almost divine reprieve.

The temptation is high for journalists to assume that this type of news writing and reporting removes them from the burden of proof or challenge from the public. And that is partly true. In the case of Museveni’s claims on MP Zaake, the public questioned the president’s mental faculties and they did not challenge journalists to seek clarification for better understanding of what Museveni really meant.

While it is easy to get away with ‘He said, She said journalism’, the public is an insatiable consumer, a kind of connoisseur who demands more and is ever alert. President Museveni followed the first letter with several others in which he kept making strange claims. On the assault of photojournalist James Akena, Museveni said soldiers thought he was a camera thief.  This claim, too, found its way in headlines. In this case, the public didn’t just sit contented with the ‘He said, He she said journalism’ applied; they demanded more from the media. They challenged journalists to question the president’s narrative instead of reporting it at face value.

New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen in his article, He said, She said journalism: Lame Formula in the Land of the Active User; demands that journalists make deliberate effort to assess claims rather than setting themselves as polarised messengers between the one claiming and the public.

Unlike news analysis that provides context, the traditional ‘He said, She said journalism’, is largely face value reporting, and often, with damning effect. The Observer newspaper in October tested the wrath of its readers when it quoted Dr. Caroline Birungi, a lecturer at Makerere University’s department of psychology, estimating that about 10 students commit suicide monthly from different faculties at the institution.

“Come on @observerug, what kind of reporting is this? So is it realistic for 10 people from a pool of approximately 50k people to commit suicide monthly? How is this not yet a national problem?” Twitter user @jib_sentamu asked.

Screen grabs of the headline did rounds on social media with many users damning The Observer for publishing a face value story. Some couldn’t believe that an academic at Makerere could make such a claim when it is almost impossible to pass wind at The Hill without a peasant in Jinja smelling it over the radio bulletin. The newspaper  published an audio recording of the interview with the lecturer, to show that they neither misquoted Dr Birungi nor exaggerated the statistic.  Indeed, they didn’t, on both fronts. Unfortunately, the audio evidence was not sufficient exoneration. A way around this would have been for the reporters to question the figure (even when it came from an expert source) and to interrogate deaths (of any kind), at Makerere University to ascertain if the reported deaths by suicide that was the subject of the story, makes statistical sense.

In the news and information business, readers pay to be fed and fed it must be to the spoon. They’ll demand for more when they feel unsatisfied. And such was the case for New Vision readers when  their appetite was not met in an article titled, ”5000 fishermen die on Lake Victoria every year – survey”.

The survey, which was done in fish landing sites in the islands of Bubeke, Bugala, Bukasa, and Misozi, notes that the deaths occur due to storms on the lake. The article quoted a researcher at the fisheries institute in Jinja saying Uganda has a population of 56,957 fishermen directly involved in Lake Victoria. The 5,000 deaths against a fishing population of 56,957 would have been the first red flag for a careful tread and an interrogation of the numbers.

Researchers publish their findings in many ways but when they reach the media, ‘He said, She said journalism’ has to be relegated in favour of a more inquisitive reporting approach. ‘He said, she said journalism’ is face value journalism; it does little to boost truth and facts that the media strives to sell to the public. And yet a quick look at our media stories any day, reveals the endemic problem of face-value journalism.

Like seen in the above examples, one can never know when the public will go for the neck of the source who gives face value information, or for the journalist who relays it.  This means skepticism and inquisitiveness about every information received, even from the most trusted or expert source, is a must for journalists.

Whereas face value journalism might fill up column inches, lengthen broadcast time or generate traffic online, it leaves many readers yawning and when they yawn long enough, media credibility suffers.


Jacobs is a journalist



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