Of ready-to-eat noodles and ready-to-air stories

Author: Odoobo C. Bichachi is the Nation Media Group (NMG)-Uganda public editor. PHOTO/FILE.

What you need to know:

  • Second was witnessing, at the end of the same week, a typical display of information subsidy in our media – broadcast, print online, social media – and its ugly implication on the consumers of news as well as the subjects of news.

Two things stirred my last week. First was a very enriching conversation I had early in the week with a graduate student on the subject of his thesis – subsidised news or information subsidy.

Second was witnessing, at the end of the same week, a typical display of information subsidy in our media – broadcast, print online, social media – and its ugly implication on the consumers of news as well as the subjects of news.

But first let’s understand what it is. “An information subsidy is the provision of ready-to-use newsworthy information to the news media by various sources interested in gaining access to media time and space. Typical forms of information subsidies include press releases, as well as press seminars and conferences.” – www.wikipedia.org 

This is not new, or without precedent. It happens every day and a lot of news is derived from press releases or conferences. The problem therefore is not in the sources of news, it is how the news is processed or handled after the press conference. If more reporting is done, that’s well and good! The temptation for many journalists increasingly is to simply append their by-line, re-write one or two sentences and there it goes on the page or on air.

Now in many ways, this unprocessed “information subsidy” is like “ready to eat” noodles that you find in the supermarket shelves. All you need to do is pick it up, pay at the counter, walk home, dip into hot water and bingo, it is ready to fill your stomach all in a pretty short time. Yes they look like the traditional noodles and may even taste somewhat like the noodles you have always known. But their quality is different and the impact on your health is very different, no matter that your stomach is filled.

So is unprocessed subsidised news! It may look like news, feel like news or sound like news but in terms of quality, it is lacking in many ways. It is one-sided, short on facts and information, long on conjecture, is distorted, is potentially damaging to various parties and does not engender justice to all.

The subsidised news in question was the alleged closing and disappearance of a Japanese used car dealer company in Kampala, Be Forward, reportedly with millions of shillings of vehicle buyers’ money. The news I watched was straight out of a press conference by the alleged victims whose allegations were simply transmitted to the public without further reporting, double-checking, counter-balancing, contextualizing, etc.

While the act of alleged fraud and loss is not in dispute, a little more reporting by journalists beyond the press conference would have allowed them opportunity to explore all facets of the story, provide balance and facts, not mix up the alleged company and its agents and most importantly accurately point out the perpetrators.

The journalists would also have avoided the panic they created among online vehicle importers as well as potential damage to the reputation of used vehicle exporters. They would also have used the opportunity to educate the public on the dos and don’ts of online vehicle purchasing.

Having done injustice to the story at the beginning, subsequent follow-up stories have still fallen short, referring to another press conference by local car import dealers/agents as “the Japanese company”! This again because journalists have mostly done the same thing – left the press conference and without additional reporting or research filed yet another subsidised story for print or broadcast!

It is important that journalists exercise great responsibility while reporting any story, have fidelity to the professional code of ethics, be accountable to the public that consumes news and be fair to all subjects of a story. That’s our stock in trade!

Whenever a journalist gets things wrong (and we often do), he/she should immediately correct the record, provide updates and share any new perspectives to the story.

Following the discussion threads on the said story on social media, many “netizens” indeed called out journalists for the handling of this story. But many of us journalists are increasingly like politicians; we have developed thick skin, simply shrugging of criticism of professional misconduct and moving on to the next story – perhaps out of another press release!

The impact of this is that with time, the public loses trust in the work of journalists as protectors of truth and purveyors of reliable information. They begin to see journalists as peddlers of mendacity and not accountable!

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