What background should the journalist choose for a story?

Friday December 7 2018

Odoobo C. Bichachi is the Nation Media

Odoobo C. Bichachi is the Nation Media Group-Uganda public editor 

By Odoobo C. Bichachi

One of the many things you will often hear an editor demand of a reporter in the newsroom is to “add background” to his/her story. Background in journalism-speak, generally refers to information an editor/reporter has gathered off the record, from a secondary source or from a past report that is added onto a story to give it context so a reader is able to connect the current story to preceding events of related nature. It may be attributed or not depending on the source or judgement of the journalist.
Background information, therefore, helps situate the story and allows new readers to glide in smoothly without having to ask many questions. The assumption in media is that there is always a new consumer coming on board every day for the first time after long or short breaks.
That is exactly what the Daily Monitor did with its story of December 4 headlined “FDC makes U-turn on party dialogue summit”. However Shawn Mubiru was unhappy with the way it was reported. He wrote a note complaining firstly that the story was not structured in a way that informs readers why FDC is staying away from the IPOD summit. Secondly, he says it was single sourced [to FDC] and failed to inform readers about what the other parties think of FDC’s decision, and thirdly that the breakaway faction “New Formation” and internal disagreements in the party have nothing to do with the IPOD story which is about dialogue between parties represented in Parliament. “New Formation” was mentioned in the story as part of background.
The first two issues Mr Mubiru raises relate to completeness of a story, while the third relates to the issue of context/background.
It is generally good journalistic practice to bring the different aspects of the story (at least the most important) into play to give readers/viewers a [near] complete picture. This is the basis of the saying that every story/coin has two sides (sometimes more!) and many media organisations pride themselves on delivering this.
The NMG Editorial Policy Guidelines cover this in the following provision: “The fundamental objective of a journalist is to report fairly, accurately and without bias on matters of public interest. All sides of a story should be reported….”
FDC having pronounced its position at its weekly press conference on Monday, it was, therefore, important to get the reaction of the other parties that comprise IPOD (Inter-Party Organisation for Dialogue) to give this story completeness. A follow-up story from the Democratic Party (DP) press conference the next day did provide this context, though. Press conference pronouncements should, therefore, always act as a tip or entry point to a story. It is not the whole story.
The aspect of background, however, is one of the things reporters and editors must be very judicious about because there is a lot of background material available about any story or newsmaker but not every aspect of it fits in every story.
Therefore, knowing what background to include or exclude in a story very much determines whether the readers will get the proper context of the story or will be lost in truthful but disconnected or mundane facts.
A very graphic illustration of this point, perhaps, is assuming a journalist was writing a story about the expected return of Jesus Christ to Jerusalem next week and there is a myriad background information to “beef up” this story from biblical reports. The journalist chooses as background that Jesus was hanged on the cross alongside two thieves! While it is a fact, it is a little out of context. The better choice would be to add that Jesus promised he would return and churches have spent the last 2000 years talking about this day!
Background can, therefore, be irrelevant or useful and reporters and editors make this judgement every day with every story. Misjudgement of what background information may have various consequences ranging from simple disapproval to sometimes legal suits simply because an old or irrelevant piece of information was given life in a completely different context.
In the case of the IPOD story, a history of failed attempts at talks between government and the Opposition would, perhaps, have provided more useful context.

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