Did boy steal Arua bus? Why media must rise above the mob

Friday December 6 2019



Odoobo C. Bichachi

Odoobo C. Bichachi 

By Odoobo C. Bichachi

Last weekend, one of the “big” stories was that of a man (or boy?) who allegedly “stole” a bus in Arua Town, complete with passengers on board.
The online media especially made a meal of the bizarre act and the excitement of the media was palpable as seen in the headlines and intros!

The area of note, however, is how the story was covered online across all sites. One news site’s intro went thus: “Police on Friday arrested a 19-year-old boy for stealing a brand new bus that was being filled with passengers.”

Another went: “Arua police have arrested a 19-year-old man for stealing a brand new bus carrying passengers.” Yet another concluded: “It is the first time such a case of stealing a bus from its terminal in a broad daylight has been registered in Arua.” Et cetera!
But wait a minute, did the man or boy steal a bus? That was not the impression one got on reading the stories. From the published information so far, it is clear a young man jumped onto the drivers’ seat and calmly drove off the bus whose engine had been left in idling mode by the designated driver at the loading terminal with a few passengers already on board.

So did driving off the bus by the young man amount to stealing it as splashed? I decided to check out the definition of stealing in Cambridge English Dictionary and this is what it says: “Steal verb [I/T] (TAKE AWAY) to take something without the permission or knowledge of the owner and keep it or use it.” There may be other definitions, but they don’t fundamentally depart from this.

Clearly, the reporting on this story was a case of exaggeration, hyperbole or sensationalism and was likely driven by the desire to maximise or attract online “clicks” rather than tell what happened in a manner that brings perspective and meaning to the reader as well as does justice to the “suspect” whose photo in handcuffs was splashed all over.

Editors who are the media’s gatekeepers make decisions every day on stories to run and how to run them. In order to do so and make the right decisions, they evaluate all the information before them and most importantly, ask questions.
The questions that could have helped editors frame this story, therefore, include: What could have been his intention to drive away the bus?

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Did he want to disappear with the bus altogether, perhaps sell it off? Is the direction he took (Kampala) the best place to take a “stolen” bus? What about the passengers on board, was he aware of them and what would he do with them? Could they let him “steal” them? Et cetera.
When editors and reporters ask themselves these questions and evaluate the different answers that come to mind, then it becomes apparent that this was a case a young man perhaps with a mental problem and who has driving skills and that clearly he was out of his mind when he jumped into a parked bus and simply drove away.

In fact several stories quoted the police saying the young man would be examined to ascertain the state of his mental health.
How then do we write stories with this in mind; that the suspect may actually be a patient? Caution and a sense of responsibility! Stick to the facts and do not ascribe motive or pass judgment.
Withhold some information initially, especially the identity, considering that the young man is just between a minor and an adult, and that he could be ill.

Unfortunately, reading all the stories, the media behaved no better than the mob that descended on the young man and beat him up after he had been arrested by the police.
In all the online stories, they called him a thief that attempted to steal a bus and gloated over his failed feat.
The media’s triple role is to inform, entertain and provide a platform for debate. These roles come with a lot of responsibility.
Thus in covering events, journalists must always stand above the lynch mob and report in a manner that answers questions, rather than creates excitement.

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