About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Recapturing professional journalism

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 na├»ve.

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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