Don’t feed readers on one-sided stories, they want balanced diet

Friday September 6 2019



Odoobo C. Bichachi

Odoobo C. Bichachi  

By Odoobo C. Bichachi

Last week, Uganda Airlines returned to the skies after nearly 20 years. While there was fanfare among the promoters, officialdom and a section of the public, media – both mainstream and social literally peed on the party!

It was all negative! This prompted many commentators online to call on the media to show some “patriotism” and positive reporting.

Makerere University Business School economist, Ramathan Ggoobi, tweeted: “Now that the airline is back, all it needs is good press, not these headlines. Almost all countries we admire were built by nationalist industrial policies that were supported by citizens or at least by key opinion setters like [Daily] Monitor. Let’s drop this attitude”.

He was referring to a Daily Monitor story pointing to the small number of passengers on the inaugural commercial flight from Entebbe to Nairobi – only eight out of a capacity of 76!

The story was followed with a cartoon showing a literally empty aircraft. A day later, Daily Monitor still highlighted the fact that only 33 passengers were on the return flight from Mogadishu to Entebbe! A positive editorial leader calling for the Airline to be given a chance, was missed in the sea of negativity!

While some argued that Daily Monitor was truthful and that “numbers do not lie”, numbers on their own do not tell the story or the truth; they need context, comparison, parallels, etc. How many passengers were on the return flight from Nairobi, for instance? Or how many were on the flight to Mogadishu? How many passengers did the inaugural Kenya Airways or RwandAir flight have? Etc.

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Social media has its own dynamics, but mainstream media is deliberate in its reporting because it has gatekeeping and assigning mechanisms and can, therefore, be judged rightly. Thus by throwing around selective numbers, it is easy to say – and justifiably so – that Daily Monitor had chosen to use negative frames on the Uganda Airlines revival story.

Frames or tones are a feature of news reporting intended to give readers a specific perspective of the story and often blanket off the other perspectives, which a reader/viewer must get from multiple other frames. A broader or balanced frame that combines the different tones (negative, positive and context), therefore, gives the readers the best perspective.

In February 2015, the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME) released a report of its study titled ‘Baseline Study of Media Coverage of Public Affairs in Uganda: July 2013-June 2014”. While the study was revealing on many things, including areas that are most or least covered, it also had interesting findings on the tone of public affairs reporting by four media houses – Daily Monitor, The New Vision, The Observer and The Independent. It is interesting to look at these findings in light of the coverage of the Uganda Airlines story.

The study captured 2,843 stories that were reported during the one-year period between July 1, 2013, and June 30, 2014, and found that overall, 42.9 per cent of the stories were neutral in their tone of reporting, 25 per cent were positive and 32.1 per cent were negative. Very good! Viewed per publication, the scores were as follows:

Daily Monitor
Negative: 52.8 per cent
Positive: 17.1 per cent
Neutral: 30.1 per cent

The New Vision
Negative: 17.4 per cent
Positive: 31.5 per cent
Neutral: 51.1 per cent

The Observer
Negative: 25.1 per cent
Positive: 32.7 per cent
Neutral: 42.2 per cent

The Independent
Negative: 9.6 per cent
Positive: 10.9 per cent
Neutral: 79.5 per cent

Studies have shown that the tone or frame of reporting impact readers both in the short and long-term and too much negative reporting drives away audiences.
I shall quote what a few people had to say about this in an article by Joshua Benton in a Nieman Foundation at Harvard lab report titled: ‘Why do some people avoid news? Because they don’t trust us — or because they don’t think we add value to their lives?” (www.niemanlab.org).

Quotes:
- “I stopped reading newspapers or watching the news when I realised that facts don’t matter anymore. Pressing a political or commercial interest is all they’re good for, and that isn’t healthy.”

- “There is never anything positive in it. It’s always negative, and I’m not a negative person — I hate hearing or reading a paper that constantly has nothing but bad reports in it.”

- “I dare you to look through the titles on the Metro newspaper. I guarantee every page and headline has a negative word embedded in it. Mainstream news is a waste of time and energy - so yes, I avoid the news.”
While these sentiments may be from American readers, human beings tend to respond to the same stimuli in the same way so this may explain why many people just want to avoid news.