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Rwanda’s New Times required Bodmas to report lake tragedy

It was doom at noon on Friday, January 26, 2024, on Lake Mugesera in Rwanda.

According to the New Times, a tragedy happened when an “overloaded wooden boat sank, drowning 40 passengers on board” during a trip from Rukumberi in Ngoma District to Karenge in Rwamagana.

To explain the cause of the accident, reporter Emmanuel Nkangura quoted the Eastern Province police spokesperson Hamdun Twizeyimana, who fingered human error for the mishap. Listen to him: “The boat was licensed to carry 15 people, according to the insurance firm, but it was carrying more than 40 by the time of the tragedy.” It was operated by a local cooperative society.

And what immediate action did the government take, Mr Twizeyimana? “Marine security officers rescued 31 people. Six were found dead; these include five adults and a child, and two others [dead bodies] were retrieved in the morning hours of [Saturday] January 27.”

In the New Times story of the same Saturday, titled “Several people die as overloaded boat capsizes in Rwamagana”, the publication began by giving statistics on victims: “Eight bodies had [sic] been recovered from the wreckage of a boat that capsized in Lake Mugesera while traversing to Rwamagana by midday on January 26. Later in the day, more bodies were recovered bringing the number to 14.”

Towards the end of the story, Twizeyimana was quoted advising water transport operators and users to “follow the law; wear protective jackets, use motor boats, and avoid overloading.”

A story as important as this on the fate of 40 people needed confirmed and sanctioned data, details on the cause(s) of the accident, and directions on where the relatives and friends could be assisted. It failed on all those fronts.

For example, where statistical claims are involved, any journalist requires a jolt of Bodmas, the acronym that helps people to remember the correct order to solve mathematical problems (Brackets, Orders, Division, Multiplication, Addition, Subtraction). Applied to the New Times story, it means that 14 people died in the tragedy, while 25 were rescued. By adding 14 to 25, we get 39. So, assuming there were exactly 40 passengers aboard in the ill-fated boat, we subtract 39 from 40 to conclude that one passenger had not been accounted for by the time the story was published. That would have directly influenced the angle of the story to read as either of these two, depending on ownership, time of publication or editorial policy: “14 people have died in a boat accident on Lake Mugesera” or “25 people have survived in a boat accident on Lake Mugesera.” Bodmas to the rescue!

Then there was the hanging question of the type of boat. Was it motorised or hand-paddled? What was its capacity? The police said it was licensed to carry 14 “by the insurance firm.” What licensing body allowed the boat to operate, and which insurance firm was involved? For how long had the boat operated on Lake Mugesera? Any inspection authority? Police claimed the boat was overloaded, but who confirmed the allegation? The story didn’t answer these important questions. Instead, the reporter entirely relied on the police versions of the incident. He treated the claims as the ultimate truth.

The story talked of survivors and even mentioned the health facility to which they were admitted. However, the reporter made no effort to interview the survivors. Ditto owners and operators of similar boats, and willing eyewitnesses. Their versions – complete with minute details – could have earned the story some dot of believability.

Still on the boat. What could have caused its sinking? The load or the situation of the lake? What do its owner or cooperative members say? How does Lake Mugesera behave at noon, calm or stormy? Unfortunately, the story carried only one wide picture of the lake in its calmness. Is this the first accident on this lake? How far had the boat travelled from its source, and how near was it from its destination?

How was the government’s response to this tragedy as compared to similar incidents in the past? Was it timely and effective, or delayed and clumsy? Were the survivors satisfied or complaining? Where can relatives and friends of those affected by the accident find help? Was there a help desk, any contacts? Are there any cultural practices around tragedies in the lake, and how are they likely to affect the search-and-rescue mission? What are the demographic details of the travellers, including gender, age, and place of origin? These, and the type of goods aboard the ill-fated boat, could have added meaning to the story.

Lessons learnt? Numbers and statistical claims are involved in nearly everything that journalists report. Journalists must, therefore, have the ability to understand, analyse and explain them to do a better job of telling audiences the truth.

Writing for The Journalist’s Resource, a publication of the Harvard Kennedy School on June 15, 2014, veteran research editor Leighton Walter Kille put it succinctly: “Truly understanding numbers and being able to clearly convey their meaning to readers is a crucial part of being a journalist.”

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