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
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
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
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).