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‘Monitor’ story on hippos yawned, amounted to rumours

It is a settled argument that Sundays aren’t the best of days for media people, especially in societies where the public retreat to commune with their deities.

A good number of experienced desk editors will – if nudged appropriately – render that most social, economic, and political activities tend to ebb, and that explains what they refer to in their parlance as the ‘Sunday news drought.’

That seeming poverty of news is the waterloo for un-enterprising reporters and editors. Some of them, seeking to ‘fill pages and feed the airtime with something’ resort to pedestrian tactics. They create phantom sources or wean feeble content out of nothingness through unknown (or undeclared) cleverly termed as ‘anonymous sources who asked not to be named so they speak freely with the media.’ It is not only unprofessional. The tactic is annoying and reduces public trust in the guilty media outlets.

Yet, one of the core principles of journalism is the duty to verify and confirm whatever is claimed to have happened. This is done by quoting real people at the centre of events or those who are directly affected by whatever took place. Eyewitness accounts, it is said, are the true fodder for real journalism.

That’s why keen readers would immediately frown on the story in the Monitor of Sunday April 14, 2023 that claimed the people living along the shores of Lake Victoria in Uganda’s Buikwe District were living in fear of being attack by hippos that had run amok. Look, the newspaper reported, the hippopotamuses had, over a short time, killed three people.

Titled, ‘Residents in fear after hippos maul three Buikwe fishermen to death’, the story by Denis Ssebwami started off thus: “Residents alongside [sic] the shores of Lake Victoria in Buikwe District are living in fear after hippopotamuses invaded the area and killed three fishermen.”

Para 2: “Asuman Nsekere, Ssebwalunyu Kizito and William Kaayi, a resident of Lugonjo Village [in] Ngowe Sub[-]County were killed in two separate attacks in one week.”

Para 3: “Kaayi and Kizito were mauled on March 26 while fishing at night while Nsekere was attacked on April 5 at around 4pm.”

Para 4: “Residents of Namaziina and Lugonjo villages are now living in fear following the attacks.”

Any keen reader of the four paras above was left with many questions. One, if Kaayi and Kizito were “mauled” (a very strong and insensitive word) at night while fishing, how come the story didn’t tell us where the third victim, Nsekere was attacked? Yet the writer claimed all of them were fishermen. Also, the village of only one victim, Kaayi, was mentioned as Lugonjo. To be fair to the other two, readers should have been told the villages they came from.

Para two mentions only two villages along Lake Victoria where residents are apprehensive following the hippo attacks, yet the intro stood still in its proclamation that residents along the shores of Lake Victoria in Buikwe District were sounding ominous bells of impending hippo attacks. That amounted to generalising the problem without providing proof. A sub-editor worth their desk should have flagged that glaring inconsistency in the original copy.

Three, neither a relative nor a friend of the deceased was sought for more information on how and where they met their deaths. That amounted to hearsay; the use of information received from other people which could not be substantiated. Well, it’s also called a rumour. There were two faint attempts to interview some people whose versions of things didn’t match the exactness of the alleged incidents.

Attempt One: “Mr Julius Mukusike, the vice chairperson Beach Management Unity Namaziina Landing site, said one of the hippos moves with her calves and becomes more aggressive whenever it sees a human being.” Was that the guilty hippo? The story didn’t say.

Attempt Two: “Mr Juma Kasozi, a fisherman at Namaziina landing site, said the hippos attack their boats during day and night which has forced them to suspend their fishing [sic] activities.” That was a typical non-eyewitness to how the three were killed. No story there.

Lesson learnt? That in a matter as serious as the loss of lives in hippo attacks, a journalist must present as many angles to the story as possible. Failing to do so results in putting together a yawner that amounts to rumours. And that is the epitome of lazy reporting.

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