A lot has been written about the credible claim that the future of media is digital. Sadly we still appear to be paying more attention to the medium than to content.
Take the treatment that our leading newspapers gave to the story of the boda boda rider who doused himself with petrol and burnt himself to death at a police station in Masaka last Thursday.
It is one of many stories that make me wonder whether our newspapers are doing enough to remain relevant in these times when readers have plenty of alternative sources of information, particularly social media.
Hussein Walugembe reportedly burnt himself to death after police refused to release his motorcycle which had been impounded when he allegedly violated curfew regulations.
Traffic cops reportedly wanted a bribe of Shs150,000, which they are said to have reduced to Shs40,000, to release the motorcycle.
Somehow, Walugembe ended up taking his life in a brazen act of self immolation.
On Friday, New Vision, didn’t carry the story but had a “promo” directing readers to find the “detailed account” of the “shocking story of a bodaboda cyclist who opted for self-immolation rather than paying police officers a bribe to regain his bike” in that day’s Bukedde.
Bukedde (See “Owa boda yekumyeko omuliro n’ayokya ne poliisi”, 3 July 2020) and Daily Monitor led with the story on their front pages But both papers kept it at the basic 5Ws and H i.e. What (happened)? Where? Why? Who (was involved)? When? How?
The story was pretty much stripped of all background and context at a time when readers, bombarded with all sorts of versions of the incident on social media, need more of it, not less.
Here are some of the questions that should have been answered:
- How widespread is corruption in the police, and in particular in the management of cases related to the Covid-19 curfew and other related directives?
- What are the current government directives on boda boda riders in response to the Covid-19 pandemic?
- How have boda boda riders responded to the directives? [Many have simply ignored the government directives, especially against carrying passengers. There are recent reports that some boda boda ‘gangs’ had, in protest, started targeting government vehicles with petrol bombs.]
- How have police reacted to the growing defiance of the Covid-19 response directives by boda boda riders?
- How many boda boda riders are there in Masaka and the rest of the country?
- What is the place of the boda boda in the Ugandan economy?
Clearly there are many questions that should have been answered in order to provide the reader perspective.
Still, none of them placed the Masaka boda boda rider within the context of Uganda’s Covid-19 response, the high-handedness of the police and security apparatus enforcing the government measures, and the growing cries against them. Bukedde, however, did carry ‘vox pops’ that spoke to some of these issues, especially police corruption and high-handedness.
The traditional 5Ws and H are no longer enough.
Beyond what has happened or changed, readers need to be told why it matters. So what? Where is it coming from? Who is affected? Who loses? Who benefits? What’s the scope? What are the consequences?
Newspapers, and other news media, have to help their audiences make these connections.
The BBC did just that in their story.
In recent interviews about newspaper coverage of Covid-19 in Uganda, local reporters and editors told ACME that newsroom operations have been affected by lockdown restrictions as well as the recent layoffs or salary cuts by some media houses. Others talked about the inexperience in the newsroom and the over-reliance on freelancers who mindlessly sacrifice depth and context at the altar of story count.
These challenges are real and indeed they affect the output of our media houses.
So does the mindset that continues to look at the newspaper as a breaking news medium.
Whatever the challenges, if news content is not improved, newspapers will continue losing loyal readers.
About the Author:
Dr Mwesige is ACME co-founder and executive director.