Journalists walk a slippery path in social media jungle

Friday May 22 2020

On Tuesday May 19, I was jolted by a journalist’s Facebook post of a video with the caption; “Ugandans start chasing truck drivers attempting to stop in trading centres”.

The video was certainly not originated by the journalist; he/she simply shared it, having come across it on social media. I only saw it 49 minutes after it had been posted and within that time, it had 155 views, nine shares, 14 comments and 20 emoji expressing different emotions ranging from thumbs up, love, horror, sadness and all.

The contents of the video itself were horrifying. A truck driver had stopped by the roadside and got out of the truck perhaps to walk across the road to buy water, a snack or to attend to nature’s call. He was, however, harangued and chased back into the truck by people at the roadside because he was assumed to be infected with Covid-19 which he could pass onto them.

The issue of ocean coast hauling truck drivers and Covid-19 pandemic has been a sticking issue in Uganda for weeks now with many calling for a ban on trucks and others – including President Museveni saying they are a lifeline delivering essential commodities to landlocked countries in the East African hinterland. The result is that public hysteria and stigma has been whipped up against the truckers.

Without going into the merits and demerits of either side, this video and caption could be interpreted in several ways by the people that viewed it. It could be treated as information of what is going on. It could be interpreted as endorsement of what “Ugandans” had started to do.

It could be interpreted as encouragement to other Ugandans along the highways to do the same. It could be an alert for protection to be extended to truck drivers. It could be a warning to truck drivers to keep away from Uganda. You could go on and on!


Social media has become perhaps the most ubiquitous news and information platform of our time and with it has come a lot of good, a lot of not so good, a lot of bad, not so bad, and a lot of terrible and horrifying stuff.

In this jungle of information, a lot of responsibility falls on each social media user but more especially on us professional communicators. How we use social media as journalists (I am excluding citizen journalists) therefore makes a difference as to whether we are purveyors of information and promoters of healthy debate, or we are simply part of the online hysteria that consumes or is consumed by social media with abandon.

To help journalists navigate the delicate world of social media, many media houses (print and broadcast) have developed social media policies spelling out the dos and don’ts. Nation Media Group (NMG) has a robust social media policy.

Its justification, inter alia, is that “…it is always difficult to draw a distinct line between professional and personal conduct. As an NMG journalist, it makes little difference whether you identify yourself on social media as such or not since your actions will almost always be linked back to your profession and ultimately to NMG as your employer.”

I shall share the general principles shortly, but first what the policy says about re-tweeting and sharing posts on social media just to bring the “truck post” in perspective. I quote:

“Retweets should be carefully worded not to seem like they are expressing a personal opinion. This is very unlikely to be a problem when you are “retweeting” a colleague’s “tweet” or a Nation headline. But in other cases, you will need to consider the risk that “retweeting” of third party content can look like an endorsement of the original author’s point of view.

Best practice is to contextualise the retweet to create some distance from any opinion it may contain. This applies to both Nation accounts and personal microblogging.”

Some general principles of NMG Social Media Policy
• When NMG journalists make personal use of the Internet they should be aware of the potential conflicts that may arise. They should do nothing that calls into question NMG’s core editorial values.

• There should be a clear distinction between “Nation” pages and “personal” pages. Personal pages should not use the Nation name or association or that of any of the group’s publications or programmes.

• Always assume that all that you do online will at some point become public.

• If you use a personal account in any way for work, you have to identify yourself as an NMG employee in your profile.

• Regardless of the site, no one should disclose any information or engage in any activities that bring NMG or its journalism into disrepute.

• Whether on a Nation or a personal site, NMG journalists should not be seen to support any individual politician, political party or cause. Editorial staff should never indicate their political allegiance or inclinations, even if they are not identified as working for NMG. This means that postings should not contain partisan political views.

• When someone clearly identifies their association with NMG and/or discusses their work, they are expected to behave appropriately when on social media, and in ways that are consistent with the Group’s editorial values and policies.

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