By Andrew M. Mwenda
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).