Perhaps one of the most dizzying news items this week was the alleged “failed assassination” of State Minister of ICT Aidah Nantaba on Kayunga Road, and the subsequent shooting dead of the suspected” would-be-assassin, Ronald Ssebulime, in macabre circumstances that have left the country with more questions and few answers. An extremely sad affair it has turned out to be!
The story that was broken on social media on Sunday afternoon, picked up by mainstream media with splashes online, in print and broadcast, has changed so many times that neither the journalists (citizen and professional), nor the public (readers and viewers) are sure of what indeed happened beyond the fact that a man is dead, his four children are now orphaned, and no one knows (or is telling) the truth.
Covering crime incidents such as this is one of the most challenging assignments for journalists. This is mainly because the incident usually has happened long before any journalist could get to the scene. This is very much unlike an unfolding events such as a parade or press conference where cameras and notebooks are in place before it kicks off.
Yet the public expects credible information and in it its absence, the rumour-mill rules the day and the truth gets away.
In these circumstances, therefore, sources and eye-witnesses is all that there is to help journalists reconstruct the incident and satisfy the public’s insatiable need for information. Unfortunately in between sources and witnesses lies information, disinformation, misinformation, distortion, untruths, exaggerations and all – sometimes deliberate and many times inherent human nature.
So what should journalists do to get the story out fast with minimal distortions? Well, it is back to the basics of journalism! The News Manual: A Professional Resource for Journalists and the Media that is available online has some useful tips that, if followed, could take away much of the dizziness in the unfolding stories on the “attempted assassination” of the minister. I will note down a few.
One, that if it is a small story like theft of household items, then a single source at the police or the voice of the victim will give you a close an account to what indeed happened. However if it is a big and complicated story like a failed assassination of a minister, then journalists must make use of multiple sources and there is no substitute for making a physical presence at the scene of crime because therein are witnesses with invaluable information.
Two, visiting the scene of crime will help a journalist visualise what happened, even when it is narrated to him/her and thus help them to reconstruct everything for their audiences. “It is much easier to understand a description of how [the cyclists hit a hump, fell off the bike and ran through the corridor behind the shops] when you can see the [hump and the corridor]”.
Three, a story such as this will be evolving and in the first few hours one can hardly put finger to fact. It is therefore important at this point to be alive to “facts” that are reliable and those that are not. Name of place is likely reliable. So is date. Dress code (mask or unmasked, yellow or green shirt) is unreliable and is safer left out till fully confirmed, if it is important. As for time of incident, it is safer to give a general time span.
Four, “although police reports are usually quite accurate, they are seldom entirely reliable, so you may have to cross-check some of what they say. It is a useful practice”. And herein perhaps lies the biggest source of confusion in the Minister Nantaba “assassination saga”. Many if not all the initial reports were built on the police version of the event and the testimony of a third party – a Member of Parliament who is related to the minister. Journalists swallowed this “hook and sinker”, in the end reporting a gun battle that never was, and a culprit who may as well be the victim!
While some of the above may not be done within the limited time when the tip comes to the newsroom, there is time thereafter to cover lost ground and clear the initial distortions. Thankfully, the broadcast media stepped up to do the journalism that has brought light to this sad incident. They sought out the witnesses quickly.
Source: The Daily Monitor