Monday 8th of February 2016 02:33:23 AM

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Recapturing professional journalism

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What the new executive editor at Daily Monitor is doing and what it means for our profession

The new Executive Editor at Daily Monitor, Malcolm Gibson, has begun a very important conversation about journalism at that newspaper which may be important for our industry generally. He wrote accusing journalists at Daily Monitor of relying on street rumors and idle gossip to shape their opinions about what is happening in the country. This has generated a lot of debate at Monitor and on social media. Rather than reflect on the issues he has raised, some journalists launched stinging criticisms of his assertions.

Gibson is an American with limited understanding of the intellectual culture of Uganda even though he has good instincts about it. I suspect that his cultural distance is both an asset and a handicap. It is an asset because it allows him to see our weaknesses without rationalising them as part of our overall psychology. It is a handicap because to change people, you need to understand their ways of understanding reality. Yet his criticism may turn the Daily Monitor newsroom it a zone of low intensity resistance. It will be unfortunate if his genuine efforts falter at the altar of bad approach.

One reason for this is that Gibson opened himself to legitimate criticism when he made a sweeping generalisation of all journalists instead of using more nuanced words like “many” or “some” journalists. There are many journalists in Uganda – and at Daily Monitor – who try their best to be truthful and accurate, fair and balanced and to provide context in their stories. They often make mistakes or misunderstand some issues – we all do – but they are honest and have integrity. However, they do not form the dominant opinion makers and shapers on social media, on radio and television talk shows.

There is a small but loud group of journalists in Uganda, across all media institutions, who are heavily opinionated but their opinions are based on rumour, gossip, prejudice, emotions, ignorance, stupidity, shallow thinking and lack of a rigorous examination of issues. You find them on social media – always engaged in ad hominem debates (attacking personalities rather than their ideas). They are very sensitive to criticism, however mild, about their lack of ethics and professionalism – because it is true. They make false, wild and unreasonable allegations, accusations and imputations about others. But they get extremely agitated when their stupidity, ignorance, shallowness, and lack of professionalism are pointed out. As the Baganda would say: ensonyi bazifula busungu (they turn their guilt into anger).

Gibson may have been referring to this group of journalists although he referred to the entire newsroom, which was unfair. But journalists with serious concern about the future of our profession would ignore his generalisation and pick the important aspects of his message i.e. that we must be rigorous in our investigation of the facts behind a story, we must stand above the crowd mentality that characterises public debate in Uganda, we must bring depth to the discussion of issues, that we must be sober and reflective, not angry and quarrelsome and finally, we must be the light of our society, not the ones to regurgitate its prejudices, biases and ignorance.

I criticise public officials – and often harshly. Therefore, as a principle, I allow all criticism of me in the newspaper I own and manage – The Independent. If you want to find the most stinging criticism of me – even unfair, untrue allegations – you read The Independent in print and online especially below my column. It is intriguing that journalists at Daily Monitor who live off criticising others cannot take even mild criticism of their actions and writings.

Many journalists in Uganda have undermined their careers by not making a distinction between themselves and a tomato vendor on the street and a pickpocket in the taxi park. They make arguments that make you wonder whether they have ever opened a book at all. It is common among many Ugandan elites to listen to rumours and take them on their face value. A serious journalist needs to distinguish himself/herself by taking emotional distance to assess issues deeply. Without such emotional distance, the journalist inflames passions instead of illuminating the salient issues in the debate.

I admit that journalists can only reflect the values of their societies. If a society depends on rumour and gossip to make conclusions and judgments about vital issues, journalists and journalism will reflect such tendencies. Indeed a more analytical (as opposed to programmatic) person would say I am moralising. Ugandan journalists do not come from Norway or Sweden. They come from Uganda and therefore are mirrors of its idiosyncrasies, attitudes, prejudices etc. – to expect otherwise is to be naïve.

However, I also believe that society is never uniform or univocal as such sociological analysis may suggest. It always has change agents – people who do not seek to change the form but the substance of that society. These are persons who pry into issues, questioning certainties, and unearthing assumptions. They may not constitute a majority during their lifetime but they plant a seed. Gibson initiated a vital conversation about the challenges of our profession. And unless we are willing to discuss this issue analytically and a lot more dispassionately, we shall not improve journalism in Uganda.

The most opinionated journalists in Uganda on such vital issues as pension sector reform, electricity tariffs and subsidies, oil and gas policy are equally the most ignorant, shallow and emotional on these subjects. If they wrote an essay on this subject to an informed lecturer in a university (and I mean a university), they would not even score 30 percent. But in our country, because incompetence has penetrated every letter of our lives and existence, there are universities and “universities”. So any mediocre argument can find a “professor” to give it a credit if only to satisfy some egos that they are worth something.

I have deliberately decided to sound harsh because I think we need to learn to take criticism from others, however harsh and unfair, because we make our careers by criticising others especially those in government. Every day we make such sweeping statements like: the government is corrupt and incompetent. I am a leading writer and speaker of this line. But there are many people in government who are honest and competent. So we should not hang Gibson for telling us that we form opinions based on rumour and gossip – first because we always do and second those who don’t are actually not complaining. It is not Gibson’s job to massage fragile egos.

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Comments (16)Add Comment
written by Martin Andy, June 02, 2014
Very well articulated Andrew. I think you have given Mr. Gibson more credit than is due to him. It is not just about nuances, but it is deliberate that he uses that sweeping statement about everybody. He probable believes like many of his Western peers that we cannot have quality journalism in Uganda even if we tried. Your points are not even harsh because they are realistic even with a slight hyperbole. But thats not what Gibson is saying. He says we do not have the class of making opinions on issues like policy etc. I watch CNN, MSNBC, CBS, FOX and that type and I don not believe they are better placed to comment. The Sean Hannity's of the world and Alex Jones. I think journalism is being killed by the clusters that we have formed for ourselves and it is not specific for Uganda.
written by Michael, June 02, 2014
Food for thought Andrew. Leaves me wondering whether we are not dealing with a failure of professional socialisation. Society will always have its ways but right from Biblical times, the early scribes or prophets as some would like to call them, rose above the prejudices of their society to advance contratrarian but oprogressive views.

written by ronnie mkidi, June 02, 2014
A couple of things to say here. 1. This article had to come from a journalist like you. I do not agree with you all the time, and there are aspects of your journalism I am critical of, but I think you are one of the few Ugandan journalists - probably the only one - who take(s) evidence and facts extremely seriously. Not even your mentors – and you know them – can match you 2. Most Ugandan journalists (including senior editors) simply do not have the ability to reflect deeply and soberly on claims and ideas of their own and of others (without emotion, prejudice and subjectivity) in order to better evaluate them for their truth, reasonableness and validity. 3. The article is well written. You had the time to cross the ‘t’s’ and dot the ‘i’s’. Sometimes your articles are not well punctuated.
written by Rajab Kakyama, June 02, 2014
Maybe, the most important question would be: How do we decipher (work out) the truth from the lies? It is most likely that any true story will start as a rumor, but as a journalist how do you accord it the balance and the reflection it deserves? I might not know as to why Mr. Mwenda decided to exclude himself from the "small but loud group of journalists in Uganda, across all media institutions, who are heavily opinionated but their opinions are based on rumour, gossip, prejudice, emotions, ignorance, stupidity, shallow thinking and lack of a rigorous examination of issues." Yet there are indications that if he's not their mentor, he's definitely a follower.
written by Rajab Kakyama, June 02, 2014
There are two stories that attest to this. "Holding the IGG to account", where Mwenda lambasted the ombudsman of misusing her office investigating "petty" complaints. The story was so loop sided that as a reader, you got the feeling that Mwenda wrote it with one hand cross-shouldering Mr. Byarugaba. No one from the IGG's office did Mr. Mwenda cross examine. Mr. Mwenda took what he knew as the gospel truth. How fair and balanced was he in this story? He followed it with "Lessons from the Umeme's SPO" the following week, where he painted a rosy picture of Umeme's performance. He conspicuously, missed out on the debt- equity ratio of Umeme which stands at 70:30.
written by Rajab Kakyama, June 02, 2014
How fair can a writer be to the public? If Mr. Mwenda is for genuine change in the Media industry, let him respond to the rumor quickly and directly by adducing evidence using clear and succinct methods. Let him break down the cultural walls by setting positive examples- be a role model and treat his work with honesty and respect (stop name calling.) Doing so might as well encourage us to do the same.
written by Marvin ya Kuku, June 03, 2014
How do we decipher (work out) the truth from the lies? Very easy. We do not! Freedom of speech. Take the newspaper to court if you have been slandered! If you want completely sanitized, scientifically generated news then you should move to mars for even in Gibson's own homeland gossip and rumour outsells "serious news". Ditto if you want robotic and unemotional journos.
written by Ocheto, June 03, 2014
Is this paranoia or just typical Mwenda knee-jerk reaction? This is a new hire addressing a new stuff and Mwenda goes bananas over it. What was he expected to say?but make general remarks and about his new staff. If anything by conflating general remarks meant for a specific company audience into a rant about journalism in Uganda you are the one who is being the generalist. On tabloid journalism: it sells papers because a good chuck of the readership is interested in reading about what feeds into their biases be it fiction or factual. These are the people yellow journalism targets for easy exploitation.
written by Namara, June 03, 2014
Gibson’s sweeping generalisation of “all journalists” clearly shows not only the stereo type he has towards Ugandan /African Journalists (typical of most approach of people from Western Countries) but importantly, it also shows how unfit to be an executive editor of a big news paper like The Daily Monitor. Unlike in most African countries, In western countries the use of generalised statement is highly discouraged right from nursery schools. How could Gibson who attended western Education make such a generalisation, well knowing that it did not apply to all journalists at Monitor? I suspect Western Stereo type and if not, incompetence and carelessness and/or dense By his showing, he does not deserve to be an executive editor of a news paper as big as The Daily Monitor
written by Namara, June 03, 2014
Coming to street ramous and idle gossip shaping the opinions of journalist on major policy issues & the need for emotional distance to assess issues deeply, reminds about a year or so when The Independent Under Mwenda watch run 6 or 7 consecutive headlines, publicising Museveni as a forgiver, incl. the one Mzee Byanyima Called a rumour by Mwenda. The most interesting was a conclusion by Mwenda that Museveni was doing all that to step done in 2016. He even went to the extent of asking Onyango Obbo to write about it, remember? What about Mwenda betting $10,000 that Kagame wont contest in the next elections? Mwenda, you have lots of specs in your eyes and need to clear some of them before see them in others.
written by Maceni, June 05, 2014
The rules and standards that govern the business of journalism are clearly different from those that govern the craft. It highly presumptuous and infact prejudiced to think all Ugandan journalists don’t know the difference. Ultimately journalists write stories that sell papers – why inundate a cynical population with an appetite for gossip and hearsay with facts and lose sales?? Why do think Fox News has among the highest ratings—it’s not for the facts and in-depth research they present! Seems to me the Dummy here is Gibson – Commandment No 1 of Business thou shalt understand thy market.
written by Winnie, June 05, 2014
1.Most journalists have low self esteem and have reached mid life crisis they think that by associating with the rich then you are compromised.
2.Even at functions they never discuss with CEO's you see them with drivers and waitresses (Obaa) discussing what.
3. Most of them never went to Buddo.
4.They are even not married they are just cohabting or fornicating.
written by Mushabe umar, June 07, 2014
Gibson's comment was spurious because these journalists are professional but are all journalists of this news paper not trained and why did he generalized?,should we blame universities they studied in?,or blame their employers,or Uganda media centre or the government.if so do other journalists from newspapers like New vision,Observer,Red pepper etc, produce out quality articles and news.This is an eye opener to all Uganda journalists and Ugandan media houses at large, to improve on their quality of journalism.
written by geoffie, June 09, 2014
Lovely piece,indeed.
Criticism is what stirred all this, SAD but true that much as we are all human, WE are individuals, so the emotional levels we go through especially in times of "fight or flight" are all different, thats why ONE will either punch you or be patient with HIMSELF and see the other's view before he says "or, thats quite a view I never thought of?"....and GO ahead to adapt for better.

This Issue is not only about journalism but I think HUMAN NATURE inclusive.
For God and my country.
written by Sabiiti, June 09, 2014
To Martin Andy, those folks you refer to at Fox News and MSNBC are not journalists. They are "talk show hosts" and so is Andrew Mwenda when he is on his NTV show, "NewsNight". In America they call them "talking heads". Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, Chris Mathews, Rachael Maddow... They push a certain agenda. Most Right-wing republicans were shell-shocked when Obama's reelection was announced by most networks in 2012 because watching Fox News, they lived in an alternate universe where Obama was all bad! Fox itself dithered on calling the election for Obama!
written by Ngoga, June 30, 2014
"Most of them never went to Buddo."

Does she mean Kings College Budo? Obviously she also never went there, poor woman.

Great article. Some of us have given up on reading Ugandan newspapers or watching programs with Ugandan journalists. Stupid, shallow, ignorant, and trivial bunch.

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