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Thursday 23rd of October 2014 01:06:26 PM
 

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Why evidence is vital to journalism

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Although bar gossip and street rumours can be true, here is why journalists should always look for proof

Yusuf Serunkuma is a PhD candidate at Makerere University’s Institute of Social Research. In that capacity he also teaches students. He regularly writes commentaries in newspapers and features on radio and television discussions on major national issues. He is loved, admired and respected by his family, friends, colleagues and the wider Ugandan newspaper-reading public. Quite often international organisations seek his advice on public policy by hiring him as a consultant.

Haggai Matsiko is a 25-years old reporter with The Independent, a newspaper that is read by Uganda’s elite and aspirational classes, ambassadors, business leaders and the academia. While in a bar with friends, the discussion (kaboozi) comes down to Serunkuma. Joseph Ekomoloit, a friend of Matsiko, claims that Serunkuma is a very unethical lecturer who gives female students high marks in exchange for sex. Ekomoloit claims he has spoken to many students at Makerere who have told him this story.

Matsiko has hit a jackpot. He has a scoop. He writes the story and takes it to Joseph Were, the Managing Editor of The Independent. The next morning, the story is on the cover of The Independent with a screaming headline: “Serunkuma trades sex for marks: “horny MUK lecturer caught with his zipper down”. The newspaper sells like hot cakes. For the next week, radio and television stations lead with this story of a predatory lecturer; their talk shows host parents denouncing Serunkuma for abusing his powers to exploit their daughters.

Would Serunkuma approve of this kind of journalism based on bar gossip? What would be his view of the fact that The Independent did not give him a chance to answer back any of these allegations? Would it matter to him that the newspaper did not make any effort to verify this bar gossip and substantiate its allegations against him; allegations mind you that can destroy his career?

As journalists, we are trained to always put ourselves in the shoes of anyone whom we are going to publish negative information about. How would we feel if we were in the shoes of that story subject? In doing that, we are able to appreciate the value of truth and accuracy, of fairness and balance, and of providing context to our stories.

I present this hypothetical example because Serumkuma wrote an otherwise brilliant article criticising me for insisting on evidence as the basis of publishing a story (see Mwenda and his obsession with evidence, The Independent July 11-17”. At an abstract intellectual level I agree with every argument Serunkuma made.

However, Serunkuma misunderstood and vulgarised Michel Foucault’s analysis of the relationship between power and knowledge. Foucault was dealing with an intellectual problem at a higher level of abstraction.

For example, when we say that democracy is a better form of government than dictatorship or when we talk of human rights, what do we mean? Foucault’s argument is that there is a cognitive apparatus (representing power) that has shaped the normative values that shape our judgment.

Let us examine the five basic principles of journalism: truth and accuracy, fairness and balance, and providing context. At an abstract intellectual level, we can ask: Whose truths? Whose accuracy? Whose fairness? Whose balance? Whose context? All these are subjective terms influenced by shared mentalities, cultural understandings, political ideologies and power structures. However, we do not need to enter this abstract intellectual debate for us to address our responsibilities to our communities and the public figures we write about as journalists.

It is possible that Ekomoloit’s accusations are true and victims of Serunkuma’s sexual predation may feel fearful to come out and expose him. Should they be taken at face value? Ekomoloit may be lying just to tarnish the name of Serunkuma. He may even be speaking in the honest belief that his allegations are true. The point is that Matsiko has a good tip, but he does not have a story yet. Therefore, The Independent should not proceed to publish the story about him without verifying the allegations.

So what is the professional thing to do? First, aim to do no harm. Therefore, there must be sufficient evidence or confidence that this story is true. There is a difference between evidence and confidence; the former represents proof, the latter, faith. Someone you trust can give you a tip of something. Because of a long relationship of trust with this source, you can proceed to write the story even though you do not have evidence. But you can be fair to those whom it criticises by giving them a chance of reply.

In our case, the evidence cannot simply be that the female students in Serunkuma’s class are performing better than male students. That is possible even without a lecturer trading sex for marks. The Independent should demonstrate that mediocre assays by females attracted higher marks that better essays. This is also subjective but scripts can be taken to other professors for comment. If a pattern emerges that many mediocre essays by female students attract high grades, The Independent has a good story. However, it does not prove that Serunkuma awarded them in exchange for sex. The newspaper may need some minimum evidence that the over-graded girls frequent Serunkuma’s house. Here one can claim without evidence of a sex act (based on circumstance and opportunity) that allegations of trading sex for marks have a legitimate basis.

Second, if the newspaper is to make an error in publishing or not publishing this story, it should error on the side of caution. This is why a newspaper should insist on some degree of proof. Absence of evidence does not necessarily mean evidence of absence. There are many rumours and gossip stories that are true but cannot be proven by evidence. However, a newspaper cannot rely on this argument to publish every rumour or gossip they pick on the street. For then we would be setting a dangerous precedent that can be abused with catastrophic social consequences.

Third, the accused person must be given a chance to answer the allegations against them (fairness), however true they may be and regardless of evidence. This should not be a mere effort to get their comment but also to present their side of the story. Therefore, in defending himself, the subject of this story should be given sufficient airtime or newspaper space to answer each allegation – in fact as much space and airtime as the one that was used to accuse him (balance).

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Comments (31)Add Comment
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written by John Blanshe, July 21, 2014
This is a great article for all journalists who base on allegation to publish gossips. The public owes journalists the truth nothing other than the truth. As a journalism student, I am quicking getting into the system and I can now differentiate the truth and mere gossip.
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written by AD, July 21, 2014
All these simply because of what Daniel Kalinaki wrote (UBS Land saga...) about your sis Maggie in his opinion piece last wk? Eissh, I shudder!!
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written by Denis Musinguzi, July 21, 2014
I thought what Andrew is talking about is basic knowledge to journalists, or to put it differently, should be learnt in a first-year introductory course in journalism. Unfortunately I am not a journalist, and I don't know a thing about journalism. But taken within the intellectual sphere, with respect that Serunkuma is a PhD fellow, it should be common sense. A good and sound argument, or for that matter a 'trustable' and reliable story, should be assessed basing on the power of the truthfulness of its assertions. Seeming to disclaim this in his his rather tautological argument, makes it difficult to appreciate Serunkuma's analysis. A rumor can only be useful as a start-point for further inquiry, never a stand-alone as basis for conclusion!
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written by OPIO, July 21, 2014
HAHA KYOKA BANANGE--Andrew is of course talking abt that leaked State-House salary list which he refused to run in the Independent basing on this above arguement while NTV and Observer run it. This example Andrew would work if Sserunkuma was just an average normal uni proffoser , but wat abt a scenerio if Serunkuma has in the past been caught again and again bonking with lots of university women and using his official position 2 lie abt it and hide the evidence.Why then would a jorno be expected 2 go to Serunkuma and ask if this sex allegation is true or not b4 running the story. If there's some solid evidence as in the StateHouse list was not a foggery but issued by themselves then what more do u want??
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written by OPIO, July 21, 2014
If statehouse has been caught with its zipper down many times in the past then i think its the editor to use his/her judgement to make a that call wether 2 run the story or not. This mwenda agurment is just theory straight out of 1st yr journalism books in makerere does not count here. This is africa were pple in govt lie all the time and get away with it and when caught out they will falsify evidence to get off the hook. Either andrew know this or he's just protecting his buttered bread with these childish arguments.
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written by OPIO, July 21, 2014
Andrew let me add that bambi this frank tumwebazze guy may actually not be a corrupt crook but marely a very naive wide-eyed politico condom whom those very sharp mafioso guys(he calls them our technical pple) are using him and he doen't even know it. Apparently its them that discovered the TYPO ERROR after it had already been released and quickly corrected it. I am hoping 2 God that andrew u r not another tumwebazze and believe that rubbish. At least i can understand this defence u r putting up here becoz u r a bussiness owner and an employer who has to pay the salaries there4 u need 2 protect the revenue inflows from ABOVE or where-ever else they coming from.
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written by Tina, July 21, 2014
There are supposed to be 4 types of journalists Print,Photo,Broadcast,Multimedia who later on have specialty in areas like Business,Crime and so on. Andrew its unfortunate that the world seems bored with the above type of journalists they prefer rumors and following up popular celebrities save for some few intellectuals who prefer analysis and proper in depth stories go to face book millions are following Beyonce,Rihana and some how they make huge sells Tomorrow if Andrew is caught pants down, drunk,of caught in some crime newspapers would make huge sales you should just accept that there are some people who are followed a lot and you are one of them ask yourself why are other journalists not criticized and followed like you?
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written by Ocheto, July 21, 2014
And you are point is? Basically you have no (good) story here.
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written by Omeros, July 21, 2014
Bravo Andrew. Accuracy and fairness are, as you acknowledge, the glue that binds truth-telling journalism together. So, in view of the encouragement you give to the practice of a more careful, patient and ethically-minded journalism, it is somewhat confounding that you place as much value as you do on the guileless propaganda masquerading as news that is emitted daily from the studios of RT.
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written by Omeros, July 21, 2014
RT exists for no other reason than to countermand the news agenda set by Western media - a not unreasonable aspiration in itself, but one that RT routinely pursues in outright disrespect of the facts or even the most basic purpose to inform. But don't take my word for it (as if you would); take that of those who know RT best for having worked there, like former news anchor, Liz Wahl, who has said that the network is 'not a sound news organisation' and is merely interested in 'sugarcoating the atrocities of dictators' and 'whitewashing the actions of Putin'.
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written by Omeros, July 21, 2014
Or take the view of another former anchor, Sara Firth, who of the institutional practice at RT said, 'every day we're lying, and finding sexier ways to do it' and resigned over her station's reporting of the downing of Flight MH17 which she said amounted to 'the most shockingly obvious misinformation'. Or take the word of a current RT employee, the station's darling, Abby Martin, who in March described coverage of Russia's annexation of Crimea as 'truly disappointing from all sides of the media spectrum and rife with disinformation'. It is hard to believe that she did not have her own employers in her sights when she issued that broadside.
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written by Omeros, July 21, 2014
Yet you hail RT as an exemplar of 'balance' and the model of a new journalism to which Africans should aspire, presumably because they are prepared to say uncharitable things about the West. The enemy of your enemy is not always your friend.
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written by Omeros, July 22, 2014
Doubtless, the BBC may fail to achieve perfect balance or occasionally betray a cultural bias born of certain ideological commitments. But at its heart it is an organisation that takes seriously the business of news-gathering. Entire programmes are dedicated to commentary and feedback on its news coverage from its very own consumers. Thus programme makers account to their listening public and openly attempt to justify their editorial choices. No such introspection exists at RT. Which is no surprise since it is no secret whose bidding RT does. Your tubthumping for RT makes me wonder just how interested in fairness, accuracy, balance and context you in fact are.
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written by Raymond St. Pope, July 22, 2014
Andrew, I thought that sensationalization and imaginative concoction were the bread and butter of Uganda journalists!
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written by OPIO, July 23, 2014
No lessons from m9 about journalistic ethics. The notion that m9 can dare to lecture us on journalistic entegrity makes me sick and i condemn it with all the contempt it deserves. This from a journo who made his name by writing false propaganda and lies that obote would feed him from zambia. And then 2 white-wash a man with so much blood on is hands all thnks to the naive mwenda who published those interviews . obote who took uganda on the path of tribal dictatorship which brought abt the still-birth of our new nation up 2 now we've not recovered.Yet the young impressionable m9 just swallowed obotes outdated 60's socialist/communist siasa and just published going against all known ethics. Nowdays pple started 2 praise obote again as a hero all thnks to m9 job well-done.U MAKE ME SICK
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written by Winnie, July 24, 2014
1.The cold war was as a result of capitalism and communism Russia is just a country of big headed leaders since Boris Yonsin's time to Putin Russia is just a chaotic country imagine countries like Serbia,Yugoslavia,Bosnia were all under Russia but up to now they are still discovering mass Graves.
2. Even when obote sent Ugandans for training in Russia most of the Doctors and Engineers came back when they were impotent they even feared women.
3.For me i am just waiting for M7's reign to end so that we continue with our confusion it appears we are too dull to differentiate where we came from and where we are going for me i am a Briton by birth so if chaos begins i will leave you here.
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written by Andrew M. Mwenda, July 24, 2014
Omeros, you really do not need to lie or distort to score a point. I believe that without distortion you can still make your point. Please quote one single sentence where I have written saying that RT is a balanced news organization. I have said that CNN, BBC and other western media are very biased in their news, presenting us western propaganda. RT is refreshing because by presenting the propaganda on the other side, it balanceds the news. Surely an intelligent person like u would easily understand the context in which I used the word balance in their news converge
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written by Winnie, July 24, 2014
4. Opio i wish i could help you( are you high on kweete) Andrew does not beg any one to read his articles actually its you who is so obsessed with Andrew in that you cant miss checking this page this is a free world you can join Bukedde Andrew is different even Aga Khan will be forever be grateful to Andrew for marketing NTV and KFM Andrew is a very kind man and he is so generous with his information he will even go to heaven and will be seated at the right hand of the father surrounded by angels.
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written by Omeros, July 25, 2014
Your last response really does exemplify where your professional practice has gone badly wrong. Real news people would attach no importance, except perhaps at the level of a curiosity, to the claims of mere propaganda, which is RT's stock-in-trade. Mere propaganda is heedless of the truth. Mere propaganda seeks to advance its own narrative irrespective of the truth.
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written by Omeros, July 25, 2014
Strange then that you regard RT's coverage, with its motivated reasoning, as an appropriate counterweight to prevailing media narratives - unless, of course, you consider that the airing of flagrant distortions and falsehoods somehow enhances the popular understanding of current news events or that, in the quest for balance, lying propaganda carries weight.
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written by Omeros, July 25, 2014
But then I really ought not to be surprised. The type of person who is likely to find 'refreshing perspectives' in the coverage of RT is a person who, a matter of hours after the crash of Flight MH17, tweets, 'I this [sic] the Malaysian airplane was shot down by the USA to discredit Russia and justify their sanctions against it'. RT is such a character's mood music.
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written by Omeros, July 25, 2014
And another thing...it is bad form to accuse a person at the drop of a hat of being a liar. One would have thought that the experience of being incarcerated and prosecuted on multiple occasions for writing what you believe would have encouraged you to grow a thicker skin. But, then again, a thin skin is a feature of the precious and the vain.
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written by Andrew M. Mwenda, July 25, 2014
Omeros, I do not know where u get confidence to say RT distorts the truths. Is it because someone working there resigned saying so? If someone at CNN resigned saying the same thing, would that turn everything CNN reports into distortions? And why do u think CNN or BBC don't distort. None of us knows the truths of what is happening coz each media house is pandering to the foreign policy narratives of their nations. It is by listening to both sides that one gets to understand the different perspectives and RT has achieved this by breaking western monopoly over shaping the narrative. And propaganda need not be false anyway. It can be based on truths.
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written by Omeros, July 26, 2014
When influential anchors quit noisily complaining of being held to a suffocating editorial line, that is perhaps a cue to sit up and pay attention to their allegations rather than to plant one's institutional head in the ground like an ostrich and insist that there is nothing to see. These were not poorly paid people with an axe to grind. These were people that the station gleefully touted as 'key front-of-camera talent' (all the more so because of the enjoyment that it gave the station to broadcast Westerners saying critical things about the West).
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written by Omeros, July 26, 2014
Yet their assessments of RT's editorial practice were uniformly damning. The ploy backfired, it might be said. If two of your heavy-hitters quit citing a lack of editorial independence and the experience did not prompt you into a consideration as to whether you were running a 'sound news organisation', then that says more about your management style than anything else.
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written by Omeros, July 26, 2014
Now I acknowledge that the news coverage of the likes of the BBC evinces a certain bias. This is not remarkable. After all, narrative, like the language that constructs it, can never be neutral. However, bias does not equate with the purposes of propaganda. Propagandist narratives seek to manipulate their audience into a particular understanding of a given state of affairs. Whether or not the truth need be told so as to ensure that the desired narrative is delivered is a matter of indifference to the propagandist. Hence my earlier contention that propaganda is heedless of the truth; it works its purpose irrespective of the truth.
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written by Omeros, July 26, 2014
Current and former journalists at RT have described to the reporter Rosie Gray how, as a matter of routine, their scripts are edited so as to advance, where possible, an anti-Western/pro-Kremlin line. One journalist, Staci Bevins, was allegedly asked by her editors at RT to produce a story on how the German Republic is a failed state! She politely declined the assignment. Such a means of news production is by definition propagandist. The purpose is to portray an ailing, corrupt and decadent West and the journalist's task is to find (or invent) the facts to fit. And the results of such an approach are all too clear in the haranguing monologues of the likes of Abby Martin.
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written by Omeros, July 26, 2014
For all its bias, that's not how a BBC newsroom operates. If you think I am merely a naive Western apologist for saying so, carry out the following experiment: go to YouTube and do a search of Jeremy Paxman interviewing British cabinet ministers (those of Michael Howard and Chloe Smith are my personal favourites, but almost any interview will do). Then ask yourself the last time you recall a member of United Russia being interrogated in the same way by a journalist at RT. Furthermore, ask yourself the last time you saw a feedback programme on RT. I think that you will struggle on both counts. I see no propagandist purpose in the Paxmanesque approach, unless of course the purpose is to make British politicians appear venal or inept or both.
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written by Omeros, July 26, 2014
For my life I cannot understand why RT even figures in your consciousness. Perhaps its anti-Western motifs appeal to you. But the most terrible of your arguments is your notion that watching RT provides 'balance' and so 'completes the news'. Pace Paul Krugman, but in the interests of balance, would you consider it appropriate to report that 'views on the shape of the Earth differ' simply because a bunch of cranks at the Flat Earth Society deny that the Earth is round? Propaganda by definition can never provide balance because its true purpose is not to inform but rather to mould perceptions in a cast.
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written by Omeros, July 26, 2014
And if you are going to parrot Vladimir Putin, be a good parrot and quote him correctly. Putin's desire in establishing RT is 'to break the Anglo-Saxon monopoly on global information streams'. Putin is not menaced by all Westerners; just the English and their Antipodean cousins and the Americans. Which is why RT is seeking so aggressively to get a toehold in the English-speaking West and RT America is so central to that aim.
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written by Marvin ha kuku, July 27, 2014
If Putin fears English and America then the reverse is also true. That Putin uses RT to push the Kremlin line, sometimes dubiously, is therefore logical. Overall though, RT can be a source of differing views on some issues that balances everything from BBC or cnn. Outside of major political issues that impact foreign policy like Ukraine and Gaza, I see no reason to trash RT. In fact, if you are like Andrew who fears certain western attitudes, then RT is a God send propaganda and all!

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