By Julius Mucunguzi
There are four skill sets that are slowly but surely dying today: listening, taking notes, remembering, and doing simple arithmetic or what our primary school teachers called mental work.
As a trainee journalist at Makerere University in the late 1990s, tape or audio recorders were very few, and perhaps not more than 10 journalists in Uganda had one.
There were certainly no smart phones with recording capabilities. Mobile phone handsets that existed then could not even send an SMS. The phones were not connected to the internet, and as such, you couldn’t use them to Google — oh I remember that even Google was not yet born. Yahoo too. There was only msn.com which hosted Hotmail email accounts. Those functionalities were not there.
So, when you went to cover a function, like at this event at State House Nakasero in 1998 (see photo), your ears had to be alert, 100 percent, to listen and take notes simultaneously, without missing the main points.
We had colleagues whom we had nicknamed ‘I beg your pardon’ because of the frequency with which they used those words, asking newsmakers to repeat what they had said. There were some other annoying colleagues who would keep interrupting us asking, “what has he said?” The most annoying were those who would ask you in vernacular, “yagira ngwenki?” “agambyeki?” when the newsmaker would still be talking.
Taking exact notes is an important skill in journalism because it prevents you from committing the common sin of ‘misquoting sources’.
Along the way, in order to catch up with fast-talking people, like when covering a rally where John Ken Lukyamuzi ‘The Man’ would be addressing, we had to evolve our own shorthand, which only you could read and comprehend. A child would look at your notes and think it is some kind of volongoto. I have a huge pile of notebooks in my library that I too struggle to read and understand what I wrote.
The absence of auto recording technology trained our brains very well. For background information, we depended on what we could recall from memory, or you had to hit the library to read up the texts. For simple calculations, like BODMAS, you multiplied, added, subtracted or divided in the head and just put the answer there.
Today, I see journalists coming to an event with no pen or notebook. Imagine! They just come, place their phones on the table or behind loudspeakers, switch on auto recording, sit back, cross-legged and engage in small talk as the press conference or any type of briefing is going on.
Others even go to the extent of spending that time on WhatsApp. So while they are covering or attending an event their minds are elsewhere — and comprehension and picking up the nuances at the event are lost.
Today, many people can’t do simple mental additions. Some people will have to look for a calculator to work out a simple task like ‘27×34’ or ‘102-17’ or ‘3,656 divided by 7’!
For memory, many can’t tell simple things such as which districts border Lake Kwania or which districts one crosses from Kampala to Mbale. They have to first Google!
The laziness has gone even to greater heights that there are apps where instead of writing, you just ‘Ask Mr Google Sir!’ Someone will even ask you, “why should I remember when I can do a Google search?”
To be able to tell a good story, you need to see and watch every movement of the eyes and lips of the speaker, including other elements of body language. The body language can sometimes betray the message. You can tell that a speaker is cooking up lies by looking closely at how he or she winks, closes and opens eyes, the size of the eyeball and pupil, and the speed of the movements of the lips.
A person who speaks while shrugging his shoulders or kuteera katima, as Bakiga would say, may be demonstrating that they don’t care what the hell is going on. Another one who speaks while tapping his left foot on the ground, may be sending a signal of lying, while the other who squints, quickly opening his eyes and closing them, with occasional yawning may also be sending some signals.
A good journalist should and can incorporate the graphic body language descriptions to take the readers to the scene. To do this, you must be paying attention and taking notes.
I love technology because it eases work, but there are cases where it is causing laziness of body, mind, and memory. That we may pay heavily for.
Julius Mucunguzi is a communications advisor to the Prime Minister of Uganda. He has previously worked as a journalist at Daily Monitor in Kampala, and communications specialist at the Commonwealth Secretariat in London.
PHOTO: A scanned copy of a photo from Daily Monitor archives of 1998. It was republished on Page 2 of Daily Monitor on 6 August, 2020. In the photo, Julius Mucunguzi (centre) takes notes as President Museveni and President Denis Sassou Nguessou of the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville) addressed the press.