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Why the nodding disease should make us re-examine our journalism

18 March 2012

Benon Herbert Oluka is a Daily Monitor.

Since December 2011, when the media began consistently covering what has come to be known as nodding disease, the resilience with which journalists have provided comprehensive reports and profiles of victims has been quite impressive. They have challenged the government to act. The government response may have been nonchalant at best, but that should not take anything away from the efforts of the media so far.

Nancy Lamwaka is a Nodding Disease victim... Photo by Edward Echwalu

But even as we pat ourselves on the back, the relentless quest for improvement should have us assessing and re-assessing what we have hitherto done to see if we can improve on it.

One of Uganda’s most meticulous editors, John Ogen Kevin Aliro, who played key roles in the founding of The Monitor and The Observer newspapers before he passed on in November 2005, shaped his journalism¬ using the simple but powerful statement: Whatever we have done so far can always be done better if only we try a little bit harder.

So what can we do better in the current circumstances? What lessons can we draw from our coverage of the mysterious nodding disease?

Well, first let’s look at how we have covered the nodding disease. According to the Daily Monitor, the first case of nodding disease was reported two years ago. Online archives list December 19, 2009 as the first time that the Daily Monitor covered this disease, in a story written by James Eriku. That first story talked of the disease striking Kitgum District.

The first available report by The New Vision on the nodding disease was by Katura Wokorach-Oboi on December 9, 2011 and the second 10 days later by Chris Kiwawulo. After that it seems The New Vision took its eye off the problem, if the lack of follow-ups on the paper’s website between December 2009 and December 2011 provides credible evidence.

For Daily Monitor, after that first December 2009 story it was not until October 10, 2010 that a second story (written by Jacky Adure) appeared, this time saying the nodding disease had hit Pader District. It took another 12 months before an October 14, 2011 story by Moses Akena showed that the disease had claimed 50 lives in the same district.

Real consistent coverage of the nodding disease in the Daily Monitor started in December 2011, shortly after the paper’s Parliament scribes Sheila Naturinda and Mercy Nalugo reported that the Acholi Parliamentary Group had asked the government to declare the Acholi region a disaster area because of the nodding disease. By then, according to the report presented by the MPs, the disease had spread to all seven districts of the Acholi region and had killed at least 200 children.

If, as reports in the Daily Monitor and The Observer have noted, at least 3,000 children had been affected by the disease in the seven districts by December 2011, and yet Uganda’s leading media houses had not realised the seriousness of such a prevalent problem until the MPs spoke out, then we need to ask ourselves some hard questions:

1. Until late last year, where were we – the journalists?

2. How did this nodding disease spread so widely, affect so many children and cause so many deaths under our very own noses?

3. How did we not, at the very least, notice a trend from the few stories that some of us had written about the disease?

4. If the MPs had not brought the issue to Parliament, how much longer would the disease have ravaged the children in northern Uganda before we finally gave it sufficient attention?

It is no secret that many journalists, especially non-staff reporters, operate under very difficult conditions – even in the country’s leading media houses. I will therefore not go into those problems that we cannot do away with in the near-future (although it doesn’t mean we should stop trying).

One of the key issues coverage of nodding disease has once again exposed is the scope of our news coverage and the importance that we attach to stories from the countryside. Had the nodding disease attacked children in Kampala in December 2009, I believe we would have dedicated lots of newspaper space and broadcast airtime to highlighting its devastating effects – and perhaps compelled the government to act much earlier.

Kampala, and its immediate neighbouring districts, currently has arguably more journalists (and certainly the most experienced) than the rest of the country combined. The argument for this imbalance, besides of course the pay packages, is that media houses need all their top journalists at their respective headquarters because they are able to write about ‘the big picture’.

But what is that big picture and can it only be seen from Kampala? My take is that the big picture is not only visible from Kampala, because big picture issues are those that affect Ugandans in any part of Uganda. If anything, whatever problem people in Kampala face is likely to be multiplied several times in the countryside. If the price of fuel goes up by 50% in Kampala, it is likely to go up by up to 100 to 150% in the districts of Moroto, Adjumani or Bundibugyo. If Mulago Hospital has only five kidney dialysis machines or incubators, Soroti Hospital is likely not to have even one. And the situation is likely to be worse the lower one goes down the health centre structure.

We often fault global media houses for flying reporters to our countries for a few days to file half-baked stories that do not reflect the reality on the ground. Yet we are replicating the same model in our setting. If CNN stations one foreign correspondent in Nairobi to cover the entire East and Central Africa, and we assign one ill-equipped reporter to cover the whole of the West Nile region or the entire Karamoja region, what moral authority do we have to criticise CNN? It is only when we get wind of a big story like the nodding disease that we parachute one or two experienced reporters to the affected parts of the country to write one or two special reports and take pictures.

In a recent discussion with a colleague in the industry, he mentioned that one of our bigger problems is the failure of reporters to create a connection with their target readership/audience. We now write or broadcast for ourselves rather than for our intended audiences. That colleague has a point, and I will illustrate. In a research report titled History of the Media, Uganda’s History, History of The Monitor Newspaper, Solomon Bareebe discusses how The Monitor managed to grow its circulation in the 1990s. Below is an excerpt showing his findings:

“One of the greatest innovations in the selling of The Monitor brand was the involvement of rural people into the newspaper business, both as writers and as readers. Prior to The Monitor, 70 per cent of the newspaper business was in Kampala. To change this, The Monitor embarked on a countrywide recruitment scheme to get as much up-country news and as many up country agents as possible. The result was that in 1993, it had over 100 stringers and contributors dotted around the countryside. This changed the ratio of the capital city-rural countryside market share to 50:50 from 70:30 (Ouma).

The Monitor brought about this change in circulation by taking into account the readership needs of the rural countryside. The approach was to allow rural people – teachers, school drop-outs and all those who could write – to send in articles about people and events in the local areas. The editing was done in such a way that the articles retained a lot of their originality, especially the style, sense of humour and the detailed identification of people and places. The response was overwhelming. Within a short period The Monitor could hardly find space for all the up-country articles popular for their dramatic breaking of events in the rural countryside. The regional and district news pages increased from one to three pages.

The change involved writing in simple Ugandan English that the common people would identify with, including writing on simple issues that they held dear. For instance most of the stories were about petty thefts, adultery, alcoholism, witchcraft, bride price and village feuds, among others. Outrageous stories never missed glossing the pages of The Monitor: “Starving monkeys raid home” or “Mayembe kill thieving man”.

And all that Mr Bareebe describes above happened before mobile phones, the Internet and other forms of new technology were widely used. But if we are to look at The Monitor then and Daily Monitor now, one could argue that the paper’s reporting scope has been narrowed down. There are fewer news stories from the countryside and even leisure magazines like Sqoop are unlikely to offer a lot of space (if any) to an artist from Gulu or Kabale when there is an album launch every other weekend in Kampala.

Most of the other major newspapers, as well as broadcast media houses, face similar problems. The New Vision’s Kawa magazine will often have stories from within Kampala and neighbouring areas, and other pull-outs like the health magazine will address issues that people outside urban areas cannot easily relate to.

One argument made for a Kampala-centric approach to news coverage, especially within the print media houses, is that people in the countryside do not buy newspapers. But how can we expect them to buy papers that deal mostly with issues that they do not identify with? Of what use is the news, views and analysis from mainly Kampala to someone in Kapchorwa, Kanungu or Kalangala? Haven’t we closed avenues for people in the countryside to be involved in the media through the type of journalism that we practise today?

Let’s look at some of the issues the media has spent most of its energies on. Since the early 1990s, our media houses have shouted their voices hoarse about corruption in President Museveni’s government. Through serious investigative journalism, we have unravelled corruption scandals that in more functional democracies would have perhaps have led to a change of stance or even of government. Instead we see the thieves get bolder and the theft bigger. Should we then continue reporting the same way and expecting different results?

After breaking major corruption scandals, we have sometimes followed up with editorials complaining about an “indifferent” population that is not getting angry about the theft. However, we do not ask whether the “indifference” is because the packaging of the message does not strike a chord with the target audience.

There are some examples of media products that seem to have struck that elusive chord. One can, for instance, attribute the popularity ofBukedde TV’s Agataliko Nfufu news bulletin, the growth of Red Pepper, and the rising circulation of the Luganda daily, Bukedde (which is now the country’s second highest circulating newspaper), to the fact that they reach out to a wider audience either across the country or within their target market.

The mainstream newspapers could borrow a leaf from this trio, even as they maintain a much higher level of reporting and debate on topical issues. Otherwise, in focusing all our energies in Kampala and its immediate vicinity, the well-meaning Ugandan media could end up not just failing to shine the spotlight on an issue like the nodding disease, but could also miss Uganda’s own “Mohammed Bouazizi moment” happening somewhere in Zombo, Nyadri or Lwengo.

Benon Herbert Oluka is a Daily Monitor Journalist. He is currently pursuing studies in journalism at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

Original Post available here: http://www.acme-ug.org/news/item/218-why-the-%E2%80%9Cnodding-disease%E2%80%9D-should-make-us-re-examine-our-journalism