The coronavirus pandemic, which has brought life to almost a halt, poses one of the greatest threats to the survival of legacy media. With the diminishing influence of traditional platforms such as newspapers, radio and television at the expense of the digital eco-system peppered by click-bait journalism, the resilience of legacy media will be pushed to the limits by the pandemic.
The executive director of African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME), Mr Peter Mwesige, says the fundamental responsibility of a journalist in this period would be to ‘provide the public with accurate, reliable information about different aspects of this crisis from the causes, scope and prevention measures.’
The public editor of Nation Media Group (NMG Uganda), Mr Charles Odoobo-Bichachi, says the traditional media remains the most critical voice during such an unprecedented period.
“The media during a time like this becomes part of the story, becomes the solution and also part of the problem if we don’t do certain things the way we should do them,” he argues.
But can legacy media whose influence continues to wane be relied upon for boldness, objectivity and accuracy during the Covid-19 crisis?
“You can say they [media] have tried, especially if reporting accurately is looked at in a narrow sense of repeating what they have been told by officialdom. I think that no time have I seen as much attempt by the media to give government the media and space to tell their story,” says Dr Peter Mwesige, previously the executive editor of Daily Monitor.
It is a view shared by Marion Alina, a lecturer at the department of Journalism and Communication at Makerere University. “For what the media has been and has not been able to do, we need to be cognisant of that strained environment. We are seeing newsrooms downsizing and cutting salaries, this puts newsrooms in a compromised position, yet the public expects the best,” Alina notes.
Alina argues that if placed on the same pedestal with digital media outlets, legacy media is much more dependable and trustworthy.
Dealing with falsehood
Mr Bichachi argues that to counter falsehoods and misinformation, traditional media remains the primary buffer. “We need to give credit to the legacy media to share the Covid-19 story because there is so much misinformation, and mal-information.”
In the digital age and post-truth politics epoch, social media platforms churn out information with a brazen disregard of facts, forming an information cascade unlike the traditional media, which relies on conventional gate-keeping methods.
The falsehoods and spin on social media have eroded public trust in the media as everyone has his own set of facts.
Mr Mwesige says whereas legacy media has extensively covered events during the pandemic, the threshold of accuracy is much higher.
“Accuracy goes beyond giving a pedestal for officialdom, sometimes the people in charge mean very well for Uganda I assume, but at the end of it all, many of them are also politicians and they have an agenda too. They have to stay in power, therefore in some cases, they might not want some information to get out there,” he argues.
“The media has reported very well on incidents, events, the figures being announced, but we have not given interpretation, we have not brought expert commentary, we have not given context the way we should have done,”says Bichachi.
But as advertising revenues and sales for legacy media continue to drop, there are fears that newspapers and other forms of traditional media could fold as Covid-19 bites the media industry.
With mounting industry pressures, traditional media may pander towards attracting high viewership ratings and seek to toe inclinations such as right-wing populism at the expense of the truth in order to survive the tide of insolvency.
For instance, Fox News one of the leading televisions in the United States, has been accused of endangering lives in its duty to provide clear and accurate information about Covid-19. As the virus spreads across the world, Fox News hosts and guests downplayed the dangers, accusing Democrats and the media of inflating the dangers to “bludgeon Trump with this new hoax.”
In Uganda’s context, there are fears that whereas legacy media has an opportunity to reclaim its position as the most authoritative and accurate platform for news, the coronavirus also poses an existential threat to platforms such as newspapers.
“People have lived without media, for them to come back and buy a newspapers, there must be something of significant value in it. That means the legacy media must change the kind of content it carries, it is going to be about what do I find in it and what value it will it add. The same applies to television and radio. The advertiser will be more discerning while spending?” Bichachi says.
To remain relevant, legacy media must interrogate claims, offer insightful discourse and depth as part of its content.
“The media must still play its role regardless, we must interrogate the numbers, we must interrogate the policy decisions that are being made not with malice to pull down anybody,” he adds.
The NMG public editor cited the classified supplementary vote of about Shs400b recently passed by Parliament to purchase military equipment as an issue, which requires scrutiny.
“What is classified at this time, Covid-19 is a disease in the open. Why should we classify certain expenditure? If we simply allow and don’t ask questions, somebody is likely to get away with errors. It is to ask important questions without being destructive but constructive,” Bichachi says
“Newsrooms are constrained yet we expect depth in the stories that we cover, we expect depth in accountability,” argues Alina.
Covering relevant content
Mwesige says Journalists must simplify a number of things to the public. “Journalism is to help us understand the architecture of our national taskforce response, who is doing what to understand their failures or successes. It is always wrong when journalists allow themselves to be carried away by the euphoria of the moment and forget to hold officialdom to account,” he says.
Mwesige notes that there are story ideas that could be more appropriate to report about than the cliché statistics of positive Covid-19 patients.
“There are thousands of Ugandans going through worst situations than the more than 100 people who have been tested positive for Covid-19. Some people have not been able to access critical healthcare and they have died. I saw some number of people who have died of malaria and other diseases. It would have been good for us to compare those numbers after the lockdown was announced and also look at last year in the same period just to get a sense,” he says.
Some of the stories aired on television have brought the spectacle of poverty that Mwesige says: “Covid-19 has helped to show the terrible living conditions. People have houses without doors and windows, some live in abandoned buses and taxis.”
In the aftermath of the pandemic, the public will look up to journalists to offer a platform for insightful debate.
“We need journalists to prepare us on the new normal. So we have Covid-19, how shall we manage after this peak? What are our expectations in living with the pandemic or what is left behind? We don’t look anywhere else but to journalists to find the experts to ask these questions,” says Alina.
Yet, whereas the public is expectant of ground-breaking journalism, the future is uncertain for the industry.
Alina observes: “This has also meant that the decline in advertising revenues in media houses prepares us to think of new ways of sustaining their products, what has been done elsewhere, The Guardian [UK newspaper] is into crowd-funding and some other people are pointing to donor funding but fundamentally the question is how to sustain independent journalism.”
She says journalists must improve their set of skills and scholars should undertake more research and revise the journalism curricula.
“The bigger question is how the media as a business model today survives because the newspaper circulation and advertising are both down. The broadcast side has relied on advertising and audience numbers that is also under attack. As a media, we have to find alternative sources of income,” argues Bichachi.
Perhaps, is public funding and open society funding what will keep media houses in business?
“The media has demonstrated it serves a public good. The conversation on public funding needs to start now, the supplementary budget released Shs6b, where is the allocation and what is the criteria?” Bichachi wonders, adding: “We should not be used as a conduit, but must be structured and embedded in the law and not on the whims of the minister.”
Mwesige told Daily Monitor that these are tough questions, which must be confronted. He asks: “Do we look at alternative ways of commodifying news or public interest journalism?”
“Do you want your money to be given to the media, which is already subservient to government? However, for now newsrooms should seek innovative ways to ensure they survive this. They should look at what they can offer in terms of content to willingly receive payment?” Mwesige argues.
But without good journalism that holds the powerful to account to their (government) actions, the world cannot be a better place to live in. For instance, as coronavirus swept across Europe in March, the Hungarian Parliament, by a two-thirds majority, granted Viktor Orban, the right to rule by decree. The decree specifies that individuals who publicise what are viewed as untrue or distorted facts — and which could interfere with the protection of the public, or could alarm or agitate a large number of people — now face several years in jail.
The publication of false news was struck off Uganda’s Penal Code in a 2004 landmark Supreme Court decision (Charles Onyango Obbo and Andrew Mwenda v the Attorney General) where Justice Joseph Mulenga opined that this offence was not compatible with the right of freedom of expression in the Constitution.
The Washington Post slogan ‘democracy dies in darkness’ was popularised by its investigative journalist Bob Woodward whose Watergate expose with his colleague Carl Bernstein led to the resignation of US President Richard Nixon. It is instructive of the times we live in.
As traditional media precariously hangs on to keep afloat during the Covid-19 crisis, we ought to be reminded that when government or corporate tyranny manipulate and control media for their selfish interests, it is the first step towards a collapse of society.
Report. Majority of citizens across the country appreciate journalists and the media for making a positive contribution to the development of Uganda, a new report has revealed. A report dubbed: ‘Ugandan citizens views and experiences on the media and freedom of expression’ that was released this month, shows that 82 per cent of the citizens hold the view that the media make a positive contribution to the country, contrary to the assertions that the media holds back development through mistakes, dishonesty and bias. “Six out of 10 citizens (58 per cent) see Ugandan journalists as professional compared to one out of 10 (9 per cent) who disagree,” reads the report.
Honour the media
Twaweza country director Violet Alinda says although in almost all countries journalists face restrictions on movement and gatherings, there is need for all Ugandans to honour the critical role that the media can play in society. “The media is always an important bridge between government and citizens, and this role is enhanced during crisis. The media is a channel to feed citizens verified, balanced information to enable them to protect themselves and make informed decisions. The media also provides citizen feedback to government, covering hard-to-reach areas, paints a picture of citizens’ experiences and government response,” she says.