By Robert Madoi
On July 31st 2018, Uganda woke to an unusual story on pages three of the leading dailies—Daily Monitor and the New Vision. Julius Achon, a lawmaker for Otuke County, had—as per Daily Monitor—“killed a stray dog that attacked and bit him during a jogging session” the day before. This was, Daily Monitor, proceeded to note “about one kilometre from [Achon’s] home in Namugongo, Wakiso District.”
Achon’s verbatim account was as colourful as they get. He told Daily Monitor thus: “I saw the dog attack other people who were ahead of me. When I bypassed it, it started running after me. It jumped onto me and bit me on the thigh. One of its teeth broke in my flesh. I had to punch it before it could get off me.”
On how he gave chase to the canine, Achon added with a melodramatic flourish: “The dog was fast but I chased it and stoned it to death. Some residents laughed at me during the chase but later praised me for killing the dog that has been terrorising them, especially school-going kids.”
When the aftereffects of the rabies vaccine started to dissipate with the fading of afternoon into evening on that July 31st day in 2018, Achon was quickly drawn to the newspaper stories from his hospital bed at Lifeline. Research continues to show that page three is where the eyes of a reader first settle when they open a newspaper.
So the question that invariably follows is: why? Why did a lawmaker from a little known constituency get to page three of our leading dailies. More on that shortly. For starters, it is instructive to know a bit more about Achon. This reductionist concept of identity, in part, answers the theme of the simple if loaded topic I was presented with—a glance into the mind of a reporter/editor.
‘Who’ is one of the classic five Ws (along with what, where, when and why) and one H (how), recurring questions that journalists seek to answer using established and hierarchical sources of information. So who the heck is Achon? The soft spoken Otuke East lawmaker is the very embodiment of a gentleman. It helps a great deal that he rarely lies through his teeth.
Although he never reproduced the razzmatazz he dropped at the 1994 World Junior Championships where he won gold in the fifteen hundred metres, Ugandans have always had a soft spot for Achon. This could principally be down to the fact that his was always bound to be a compelling story. Aged only 12, Achon was conscripted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels. That was in 1988. A skirmish between the LRA and UPDF that same year precipitated Achon’s escape from the shackles of servitude.
As Achon ran away from bondage to Otuke, little did he know that the legs helping him escape from Joseph Kony and Co. would win him acclaim. On those very two legs—the ones that carried him from the jaws of despair to the wide arms of hope—Achon ran to a junior world championship title and two Olympics Games in 1996 and 2000 for good measure.
But when he ran after a supposedly rabid dog on the 31st day of July in 2018, he was also—perhaps unintentionally but not unsuccessfully—meeting a couple of the time-honoured news elements. If this was not dramatic, it sure as hell was an oddity. An oddity in the time-honoured conceptualisation of journalism is when man bites dog.
Between Alfred Harmsworth (a British newspaper magnate whose influence straddled the latter part of the 19th century and early 20th century) and John B. Bogart (who occupied the same centuries), it’s unclear who coined the phrase. The phrase goes: “When a dog bites a man, that is not news, because it happens so often. But if a man bites a dog, that is news.” In the curious case of Achon, we got a bit of both worlds. But there are no prizes for guessing why the story made it to page three in both Daily Monitor and the New Vision. Achon sunk his teeth in the dog—both literally and metaphorically.
So, if it needs to be spelt out, the subconscious lens through which people view news has led journalists to the conclusion that if it bleeds, it leads. The manner in which the death of a dog at the hands of an affable lawmaker passed Ugandans by, convinced me that we have become subconsciously desensitised to death, violence and pain with constant exposure to the worst parts of humanity.
As Managing Editor of NMG Uganda’s weekend papers, the circulation figures I’m furnished with reflect the limits to which industry players are prepared to push anything but the ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ approach. Whenever we splash feel-good stories—as was the case recently with one around Joshua Cheptegei—they fare significantly worse than their cousins that do some bit of haemorrhaging—literally and metaphorically.
Make no mistake, we encourage our journalists to place greater emphasis on exercising compassion and empathy in their reportage. But above all, we seek only the strictest fidelity to the truth. This essentially means doing public-interest reporting that compels our journalists to hold those in positions of power accountable.
Writing a commentary around the Monitor at 30 theme, I recently illuminated “a seductive authenticity about telling stories of the powerless, and holding the powerful to account.” I offered that this is what attracted me to the profession of journalism. I wrote thus: “I had always been struck by how the dispersing of information to a large group of people can have such an equalising effect.”
I hastened to add: “In a sense, I still am. Maybe not quite the same scale of democratisation I accepted—almost unquestionably—during my freshman year as a mass communication scholar at the ivory tower.”
As I noted in that commentary, whilst times have changed; the Monitor’s values haven’t. The newspaper still finds purpose in holding power to account. We do this in extremely hostile circumstances and at the considerable cost of friendships.
I count myself amongst the legion of Ugandan journalists Kevin Aliro (RIP) left an indelible mark on. Aliro was the co-founder of the Monitor and The Observer newspapers. Fondly referred to as KA, Aliro ruled respective newsrooms with an iron fist in a velvet glove. He would at once fill a foot soldier with inexpressible terror and joy unconfined.
Feelings did not just bubble on the surface on his watch; they shot up like spewing volcanoes! Aliro pursued truth with a theological sense of conviction—once memorably revealing in The Observer newsroom that he would not think twice about naming and shaming his mother if she was caught shoplifting. Given how he always spoke glowingly about his mother, a few of us (newbies) almost gave in to the temptation of accusing KA of hyperbole.
I dispensed with such undercurrents after one profound incident established KA as a fierce and implacable opponent of what he felt to be wrong. The Observer was to run with a front-page splash of Micho Sredojevic being complicit in the reported exploitation bordering on abuse of two Ugandan players—Joseph Nestroy Kizito and Philip Ssozi—who were keen on joining the paid ranks in Serbia.
The story pulsed with details that were a damning indictment on an SC Villa outfit KA not only devoted himself to supporting but once served as an organising secretary. After getting wind of the unwelcome news, the Jogoos sent a high-level delegation to The Observer’s premises. Current Villa president Omar Ahmed Mandela and his predecessor William Nkemba were among the Villa officials who looked on with increasing unease as KA refused to give them audience until the next day’s print was put to bed.
More than being left speechless, the episode evoked in yours truly a sense of introspection and reappraisal about the place basic moral principles—such as honesty and truth-telling—take in this space we call journalism. Biases have to be put aside to face [and tell] hard truths.
A glance into the mind of a reporter/editor is of course bound to return decidedly mixed results because while the dominant expression is that this is not a paper that can be bought; not everyone pulls in that direction. We are alive to this fact. We know that not everyone can navigate the commercial and personal conflicts with KA’s theological sense of conviction.
If Wafula Oguttu’s powerful and hopeful editorial in the maiden issue of The Monitor in July of 1992 is taken as the paper’s foundational prospectus, one thing is clear. Our moral existence at Daily Monitor is hinged on a sense of duty to both the reader and the community. Our moral conviction rests on the faith that our endeavours are aimed at creating a better Uganda.
The paper also has a material existence, and that’s why it interfaces with entities like Absa Bank. But much like it purposely separates the two worlds of news and editorial, so does the approach with its moral as well as a material existence. The journalists—editors and journalists alike—are more interested in moral existence; although we are mindful that material existence impacts us.
Ultimately, our pursuit of a Uganda that is free and fair informs the paper’s values, beliefs and ideas which—as previously mentioned—are well-established and enduring. We know that the new era of hyper-connectivity that has information—in whichever shape at our fingertips—demands a different type of moral urgency.
While editorialising the subject matter in my Monitor at 30 commentary, I wrote thus: “As Daily Monitor enters a new decade, it’s imperative that we—the foot soldiers—be mindful of what lies ahead. We have to be alive to the things that represent what is now a lost innocence. Clickbait and alternative facts—the staple of digital journalism—ought to be eschewed…”
What I didn’t mention—purely because of limited space more than anything—was the impact on the material existence. If algorithmic ads end up being the holy grail, as widely feared and expected, will this mean that editors and reporters whose mind you seek to explore will feel the urge to push out stories tailored at getting a great deal of clicks? Your guess is as good as mine.
The urgent question now, then, revolves around how to ensure that moral existence and material existence live side by side. Trust in the media—like other institutions, including high street lenders like yourselves—is, we are told, at an historic low. Have we failed to grasp consumerist shifts around age, gender, consumption and presentation?
We keep being told that most of our weekend columnists are middle-aged men in ill-fitting suits. How do we get more younger, female voices out in our pages? Perhaps some of you would be comfortable writing Op-Ed columns…The numbers I keep being furnished with indicate that our audiences are principally female. How do we—legacy media—reach out to chronically underserved audiences such as women and youth?
Besides the recurring questions that put the ‘man bites dog’ Achon story on page three a little over four years ago, asking ‘so what’ has taken on added resonance. Editors and reporters have learnt that telling the second-day story necessitates being explanatory, visual and keepable in print. The news breaks on our socials, and the analysis is done on day two. Just don’t ask me how an analytical piece around a lawmaker killing a stray dog would look like. I thank you for affording me your time and the opportunity to share my two cents. God bless you all!
Robert Madoi is an Assistant lecturer at Makerere University, Department of Journalism and Communication. He is also the Managing Editor of Nation Media Group, Uganda’s weekend newspapers.