Despite bright spots, UNJA judges call attention to declining quality of journalism

The 238 entries submitted to this years’ Uganda National Journalism Awards showed that journalists are aware of the most important issues in the country, according to the judges. 

The panel of 16 judges also commended the improvement in investigative journalism, particularly for the broadcast entries, and the lively reporting in the stories submitted by radio journalists. 

“The vibrancy of many of the (radio) reports shows a breath of fresh air in this important medium,” said Dr Charlotte Ntulume, a lecturer at Makerere University’s Department of Journalism and Communication who chaired the panel of judges, in a speech delivered on her behalf by Dr Emily Maractho, a fellow judge. 

“So, with radio as the most widely accessible media platform in Uganda, and therefore the main source of news and information for citizens, we cannot overemphasize the significance of this medium in people’s day-to-day lives.”

Despite these strengths, the judges noted that the quality of journalism in the submissions has declined compared to the previous awards. The decline was reflected in the lack of depth and insightful reporting, lack of enterprise journalism, poor sourcing, inadequate editing, and the limited use of the many storytelling tools available to journalists today, according to Ms Ntulume.  

Winners of the Uganda National Journalism Awards 2020

Chief Judge’s full speech 

Good afternoon to you all. It gives me great pleasure to share with you a few observations gleaned from the judging process of the Uganda National Journalism Awards 2020. 

The panel of judges comprised 16 members who included news professionals, former journalists, and journalism educators that have among them several decades of experience in the fields of journalism, media and training. They know what outstanding journalism is, but also appreciate the challenges that journalists encounter and obstacles they must overcome to produce good work. Therefore, in judging the entries, they combined their sharp eye, critical mind and empathy — as people that have been in the trenches themselves and are passionate about good quality journalism.

Before I proceed, please allow me to quickly mention their names, even though some might not be present today because of the circumstances in which we find ourselves. They are: Ms. Emilly Comfort Maractho, Mr. John Baptist Wasswa, Mr. James Tumusiime, Mr. Benon Oluka, Mr. Richard Kavuma, Mr. Simon Kaheru, Ms. Rose Mary Kemigisha, Mr. Paul Kimumwe, Ms. Laura Walusimbi, Mr. Gerald Owachi, Mr. Edward Ssekalo, Ms. Evelyn Kiapi, Mr. Wairagala Wakabi, Mr. Gilbert Kadilo, and myself (Charlotte Ntulume).

The panel received and assessed a total of 238 entries in 19 categories, namely: agriculture reporting; arts reporting; breaking news reporting; business, economics and financial reporting; data journalism; education; energy, oil, gas and mineral resources; and environmental reporting. The others were: explanatory reporting; feature writing; health reporting; investigative reporting; justice, law and order; local reporting; national news reporting (broadcast); national news reporting (print); photo and video journalism; political reporting; and sports.

We selected the winning entries based on accuracy of the information, initiative, originality, clarity of interpretation, storytelling ability, public benefit or impact on society, audience engagement, innovation, and the journalists’ writing and creative flair. I would like to assure all the journalists that participated in the competition that we read, watched and listened to each entry carefully and thoroughly, and assessed your work with the scrutiny and rigor that is expected of the most anticipated journalism awards in the country.

I would now like to draw your attention to the panelists’ main observations from the judging process. I will begin with the strengths we identified.

We noted that there has been a general improvement in the quality of work that journalists submit for the awards over the years. It is evident that journalists are aware of and capture the issues, even where they fall short on delivery or reporting technique, as I shall elaborate later.

Secondly, the stories entered in the investigative reporting category demonstrated that journalists’ aptitude has improved in this area. In particular, the broadcast entries in this category showed a good level of enterprise, with evidence of relentlessness, courage, commitment and initiative, as well as good interviewing skills.

Thirdly, radio entries across the categories exhibited the best effort to go the extra mile to air colorfully reported stories. The vibrancy of many of the reports shows a breath of fresh air in this important medium. According to a study by the Afro Barometer Uganda in 2017, 52 percent of respondents got their news from the radio every day. So, with radio as the most widely accessible media platform in Uganda, and therefore the main source of news and information for citizens, we cannot overemphasize the significance of this medium in people’s day-to-day lives. It is heartwarming to see that radio journalists are doing their best to give the audience a good show.

This is not to say that print media have been left behind. There was visible effort by print journalists to use different techniques to package their stories, and this was noticeable across the categories.

NMG journalists who took part in the awards

I would now like to quickly highlight some of the shortfalls that the judges observed, and this is where the journalists ought to pay close attention:

Declining quality: Despite the improvements noted above, the judges agreed that there was a general decline in the quality of journalism at least going by the entries submitted this time round, compared to last year’s. The panel identified the following shortcomings as possible reasons for the decline:

  1. Depth and insightful reporting was largely lacking. Instead, many entries revealed a lack of understanding of the subject or topic about which the journalists were reporting. This resulted in the so-called ‘he-said, she-said’ kind of stories that are not of much benefit to the audience and society.
  2. Related to this was shallow coverage: There was a repetition of story ideas, and the scope of issues was narrow. This might be indicative of limited knowledge, lack of curiosity or a nose for news, and a poor reading culture among journalists.
  3. Lack of enterprise: There was a stark lack of enterprise reporting especially in print, and in the national news-reporting category. Enterprise reporting involves journalists digging up stories on their own, as opposed to relying on press releases, news conferences, workshops and meetings. Enterprise reporting goes beyond merely covering events. It explores the factors shaping those events. While there was evidence of this in the broadcast entries, it was lacking in print.
  4. Basic journalism: Some categories had a number of impressive entries, while there was a glaring gap in others. In many cases, what was lacking were the basics of journalism, like the 5Ws and the question, “so what?” The judges singled out entries in the Explanatory Journalism category as largely insufficient in this regard.
  5. Sourcing is also a basic facet of journalism, yet it did not seem obvious to several journalists, telling from the entries. Diversity of sources remained critically short across the board, with some stories using a single source. Even where journalists used multiple sources, they generally failed to present a diversity of voices. Balancing stories to give all sides an equal opportunity to respond did not come naturally to some journalists.
  6. Editing: The quality of a number of entries left the judges wondering about the efficiency of the editing and gatekeeping roles in journalism, based on the stories that made it to publication. While this may cast the spotlight on subeditors, it should also remind reporters, especially for print, that they must always assume the role of self-editor in order to improve the quality of their reporting and writing.
  7. Lastly, the use of Journalistic tools: At least going by the entries, journalists did not explore the new media tools available for reporting and presentation – for example Google Maps and other visualization tools.
BBS Terefayina’s Culton Scovia Nakamya- Winner of the local reporting award

Suggestions for addressing the shortcomings

The panel of judges suggests the following as ways of addressing the shortcomings in order to uphold good quality journalism in Uganda. They are addressed to media institutions, to journalism trainers, and to journalists themselves.

Editor-training programs. The input of editors, producers and other contributors to the final work is significant and may contribute to whether or not the entries win. But even without the awards, these news professionals play a major role in the quality of journalism. There is, therefore, need for training programs aimed at editors to update their skills in order to better support reporters. This might ultimately improve the quality of journalism and, henceforth, future UNJA entries.

Digital tools for journalists: Today’s journalist should have a good appreciation of new media tools to enable him or her work efficiently. A plethora of tools, apps and platforms now exist, which journalists can use to find stories and sources; to search for information, including background and context; for fact-checking; for data visualization, and so on. Journalism trainers, and in this case, ACME as well, ought to include in their curricular and programs, training journalists in how to use these tools. For example, the inadequate use of data visualization tools to give quick context or useful information to the audience could be the reason for the low participation and mediocre performance in the Data Journalism category – an issue that different UNJA judges’ panels have highlighted for the last few years.

As I end, I would like to thank all the journalists that participated in this process by submitting their work for scrutiny. While this is not an easy and comfortable thing to do, it is an important step in your own professional development. We congratulate you.

We are also grateful to DGF and all other partners of ACME for the support and commitment to training of journalists and, ultimately, to strengthening journalism and the media in Uganda. As people that have interacted with journalists at different points in our careers, either as editors, trainers or peers, we, the judges, sincerely appreciate the investment and interest to see journalists improve. We also appreciate the team at ACME for the determination to equip journalists with skills they may not have acquired in journalism school, yet are vital in an industry that is constantly evolving.

On behalf of the panel of judges, I congratulate all the finalists and wish you the best this evening and in your career. To the journalists that will emerge winners, your hard work has been well rewarded; please keep it up!

Thank you.

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Photos by Katumba Badru

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The Uganda National Journalism Awards were supported by the Democratic Governance Facility.

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