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UBC story on Kampala crash painful to watch: Gory, confusing, unethical

A grisly accident occurred in Iganga on the outskirts of Kampala City last Saturday.

According to Uganda Broadcasting Corporation TV, a passenger taxi rammed a stationary truck trailer early morning, leaving nine dead and others with serious injuries.

Beaming the two-minute-five-seconds-story under the titleNine Dead in Musita Road Accident’, the national broadcaster said passengers on the ill-fated taxi were travelling from Kampala to Iganga. The driver “reported to have not recognised” the stationary truck and hit it.

It gave names, ages, and places of origin of five of the dead whose bodies were taken to Iganga General Hospital Mortuary. The six surviving passengers “who suffered serious head injuries” were rushed to Jinja Regional Referral Hospital.

UBC TV attributed the accident to the taxi driver’s error, and up sounded the Busoga East Regional Police Spokesperson Diana Nandaula to “prove” the allegation. She said: “Investigations indicates the cause of the accident as overspeeding (sic) and the absence of warning signs on the broken-down trailer that the taxi rammed into (sic).”

Although UBC TV told the story well, it left a lot to be desired. The station has got a lot of work to do to improve its coverage of accident stories. Why?

You see, accidents involve human lives and property. For that, common decency demands that such stories be handled with utmost respect for and sensitivity to those involved and their relatives.

The story opened with a gory picture of a mangled front side of a white, blue-stripped taxi. As the reporter ploughed on with his narration, the camera panned out to two pieces of shoes. One seemed to belong to a male, the other a female. There were smithereens of glass all over, a testimony of the impact of the crash.

Next, viewers’ eyes were led to the taxi’s passenger door. Yanked off its hold and rails, it hanged submissively on the upper part of the left rear window. Inside, the last row of three passenger seats was twisted and jutted out the edge of the length of the vehicle.

A cut-away picture of the front of a Mercedes Benz truck followed. It stood still; defiantly and majestically.

The UBC TV cameraperson then captured a crowd of mourners outside Iganga General Hospital Mortuary. A coffin – and it seemed to have contained a body – was being loaded to the top of a taxi. All these were manageable.

Until the true weight of the accident was finally revealed to the viewers.

In a rare, insensitive, unprofessional, and most callous of moves, UBC TV showed some of the bodies of the accident victims! The eye could easily pick them out. Their lower torsos were clearly visible. They were there on the cold, bloodied-floor; lying on their back. First were two men: a barefoot younger man in blue boxers, the other a bit older in grey trousers, black pair of shoes and matching socks.

As viewers were trembling with trepidation, the camera moved slightly to the right, this time revealing a body of a woman in a long flowery dress, and barefoot. Then it showed a man in black trousers, black shoes and checked socks. The camera movement was at one with the mentioning of the victims’ names. Any keen relative could easily identify them from their clothes.

UBC TV’s packaging of the story was nothing short of a horror movie. Only that this was real. And it breached the professional code of ethics in the Fourth Schedule of the Uganda Press and Journalist Act.

Yet there was more the station could have done to improve the news item. For example, the reporter gave names and other details of the dead without disclosing the source of that crucial information. How credible was the source? Who could vouch for its efficacy? Had immediate families of the victims been alerted? There was a related issue: If nine passengers died in the crash, why did the station name only five? Who were the other victims?

Then there were common sense and logic questions. For instance, in explaining the cause of the accident, the reporter said “the driver reported to have not recognised the stationary trailer … .” Reported to whom, how, when, and where? If the driver did not die in the crash, why didn’t UBC TV interview him? To what medical facility was he admitted, if at all?

Also, in attempting to disclose the cause of the accident, the Busoga East Regional Police Spokesperson Diana Nandaula blamed the taxi driver for “overspeeding” (sic) and that those with the stationary truck didn’t warn other road users. This is a tricky one. What happens if – God forbid – insurance assessors later rule out speeding? It’s even worse if the driver died in the crash. He would have been condemned unheard.

The story also had so many unnecessary details. And listening to the story betrayed a reporter borrowing heavily from conversational vernacular, then expressing self in English, resulting in long statements with short meanings.

Lessons learnt? Reporters and producers must apply maximum sensitivity and professional ethics to stories on accidents. There must be no rush to broadcast intimate details about the dead unless such information is from sanctioned and trusted sources. The same should apply to likely causes of such unfortunate events. Remember, police comments and reports on incidents don’t lend journalists blanket immunity from legal suits.

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