One of the enduring tips of news writing for reporters and editors is that one should always assume that there is a new reader/viewer coming into the newspaper or TV broadcast bulletin for the first time that day.
It could be someone who arrived in the country that morning and decided to pick a newspaper or switch to a random local television channel as he/she settles in the hotel room. Or it could be a returning reader/viewer who has not followed the news for the last few days.
The stories they encounter in that first moment should, therefore, be written and structured in a way that eases them into the news without having to ask themselves too many questions that leave them confused enough to toss the paper into the trash can or to switch channels.
Arriving in New Delhi, India many years ago, I picked up copies of Hindustan Times and Times of India.
“Five arrested for eve-teasing on Delhi bus” and “Eve-teaser walks free after two years” were the first headlines I read. The body of the story did not help my confusion! I was as confused as a foreigner arriving in Uganda to screaming headlines, “Five arrested for supplying air” or “Ghost pilot earns Shs100 million” and the body of the stories going on and on about “air” and “ghosts”.
While nationals and regular readers in India would know that eve-teasing is the euphemism for sexual harassment of women in public space (term is used in India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh), a foreigner would find it difficult to connect the two except if one has Christian background and can link this to the Bible story of Eve and Adam in Genesis chapter. Still, they would lack context just as a foreigner arriving in Uganda wouldn’t understand how “air” can be supplied or how a ghost can fly an aircraft and be paid!
The above stories can, therefore, only be understood by a new reader if they carry context and explanation. Reporters and editors should not assume that all readers/viewers understand the nomenclature commonly used in a given society. This is even more important today when stories are read online by different people sitting somewhere in Japan or South America who cannot guess what the story is trying to say.
This brings me to the stories about the killings of “boda boda riders” and arrest of suspects that have dominated media coverage in the country in the last few weeks. A foreigner coming into Uganda for the first time and reading a newspaper story (with no photo used) or one accessing the stories online from somewhere in Brazil will wonder whether a boda boda is a horse breed in Uganda or something in that direction.
Yet a simple one line explanation in brackets that “boda boda” means a motorcycle or bicycle “taxi” would immediately give a new or virtual reader context and meaning. Even for the familiar, it would enable them tell whether the story is referring to a motorcycle for regular personal use or one that is used for commercial purposes as a “taxi”.
Disappointingly, this distinction is not always made in many stories with journalists referring to all motorcycles as boda boda when it is clearly not the case.
The importance of this basic explanation is perhaps best summed up by writing trainer Julien Samson in his article, “Why context matters in writing”. He says: “Context adds specificity to your writing and directs the readers’ attention to a particular train of thought.
Thus avoiding, to a certain extent, unwanted interpretation… context creates meaning by providing precise and useful information to facilitate understanding of a story. It creates a relationship between you [writer] and the reader”.
In the words of author and speaker, Gary Vaynerchuk, “Content is king, but context is God.”
Reporters and editors must therefore remember that there is a new reader they are speaking to and without context, they are left confused, and angry.
Readers’ have their say:
*Bwanika Gyavira from Masaka: “Hello, thanks for giving us the best in Seeds of Gold. You have transformed me from a peasant farmer to a commercial farmer.”
Seeds of Gold editor’s response: We appreciate the feedback and encourage others farmers to read the magazine every Saturday and to attend our farm clinics where experts train them in latest technologies and crop science.