You have probably encountered this statement in news stories: “The spokesperson (or minister) was not available for comment and his known telephone number was switched off.” Why is the reporter telling us so? What does it add to the story? Is there no other way of accessing the person or the office?
Well, this statement is dictated by three requirements of good journalism – accuracy, fairness and balance – all well captured in Nation Media Group’s Editorial Policy Guidelines as well as in the code of ethics of the moribund Independent Media Council of Uganda (IMCU).
NMG Editorial Policy states: “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. It is important to obtain comments from anyone mentioned in an unfavourable context.”
IMCU code on the other hand states: “In the spirit of fairness and balance, the journalist shall endeavour to seek and include comment from the affected individuals or institutions in the same story or as quickly as practicable.
Fairness shall also include reporting facts in the proper context. Where the affected party declines to comment or where the media house genuinely tries but fails to extract a comment, such position shall be explained in the story published or broadcast.”
This statement, therefore, indemnifies the news media against accusations of lacking balance for having failed to present the other side of the story. However, that is only if the reporter can prove that they indeed tried and failed and given circumstances of time and production, the story could not wait.
Unfortunately, this well-meaning provision by the media to ensure accurate and balanced stories is sometimes abused by journalists and news subjects. How?
Many news subjects know that a reporter is required to speak to all sides in the story – especially those adversely named – before the story can be published. So they try to hide by switching off their phones or putting a “Do Not Disturb” notice on their office door in the hope that the lack of their voice will kill the story. It will not! It only deprives the audience your side of the story to your detriment as all a journalist needs to demonstrate is that he/she did everything possible to reach you but you declined or were unavailable.
On the other hand, journalists abuse this provision by using it as an excuse for their failure to reach out to news subjects for one reason or the other, but many times out of laziness or affinity for “desk journalism”.
Indeed there are times a news subject will walk into to the newsroom to complain that there was no attempt to reach them, their phone was switched on all day, there is no record of a missed call alert, and that they were in office all day.
Of course, there are instances when a news subject may lie, but editors are able to fairly determine this and routine abusers get to be known in media circles.
One such news subject – who journalists of my generation remember well – is a one-time State minister for Defence (name withheld), who would answer the phone and in a muffled voice pretend to be the bodyguard of “the minister” once he noticed the caller was a reporter!
“The minister is not around, I shall inform him to call you back,” he would say. He would not call back!
Reporters and editors must, therefore, not just throw this statement in the stories to get away with imbalanced reporting. Mobile phones are the only access to news subjects! Similarly, news subjects should understand that their silence will not kill a story.
Jacob Othieno sent me a note I wish to convey to reporters and editors: “Allow me express my sincere support for your article last Friday. Yes, use of bombastic (big) words does not help any journalist who has a good message to convey to the public. In fact, it discourages people from reading your news articles and eventually even buying the newspaper altogether.
“Not everybody is an expert in English and nobody will want to waste his/her money buying a paper that at the end of the day, he/she won’t get the facts he /she wanted. I don’t think this means well for a media house. Thanks for that expert guidance.”
Thanks you Jacob!
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