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Burundi News Agency report on Kavumu landslide was bad journalism

The media plays a vital role in the society whenever a disaster strikes. Affected publics rely on the media to disseminate information, provide solutions, and lend such dramatic events emotion. It also helps to create public awareness, facilitate rescue and relief efforts, and support rehabilitation.

Among others, the media is expected to fully apply the 5Ws+1H approach as propounded by Rudyard Kipling: What happened? How? When? Where? Why? Who was involved? How did it happen?

However, that’s not enough. The media must deliver on the all-empowering wing of the disaster: so what? Why should you (the reader, viewer, listener) care? In short, how does the calamity affect you? All these may be summed up as basic rubric for journalistic training and practice. Ideally, they should apply in societies that cherish press freedom.

It was intriguing when, on Saturday, May 24, 2024, the Burundi News Agency (ABP) published a story on a landslide in a region of the country in a manner that was so lacking in detail that it betrayed a high degree of journalistic laziness.

Titled, ‘The inhabitants of Kavumu are in total desolation following the landslide’, the article pasted on the agency’s online pages was confined to three short paragraphs that left readers asking for more. You see, the public appetite for all-sided information rises to the peak whenever a disaster strikes. Those directly and indirectly affected crave facts and figures, and how to overcome and survive the calamity.

Instead, ABP nosed off the story with a rumour-like line that threatened to reduce the gravity and urgency of the matter.

“Some households on [sic] the Kavumu village in the Murima zone of Kayanza commune and province (north) say they are very concerned about the fact that their properties and some houses are subsiding,” said the first para. If the writer had applied the inverted pyramid, that intro said nothing other than announcing apprehension among the villagers over the shifting mass of soil. It did not – as expected of good intros – rush to confirm the allegation, of ‘desolation’ as contained in the headline, and also help to capture the reader’s interest.

Para 2: “As a result, some families have moved out, while others are preparing to do so, according to local sources. According to local officials, eight households with 57 members were affected by the landslide. Of those, three have already left the area, while five others are preparing to do so. The landslide also affected fields where crops such as beans, coffee, bananas and potatoes were grown.”

Here was the story peg, candidate for the intro. Readers then got to know that there was a problem; a landslide that had uprooted three out of eight households from their domiciles. And that crop fields had also been destroyed by the landslide. Wait, what’s a landslide? The story didn’t say.

Yet, Geography informs us that a landslide is the movement of a mass of rock, debris, or earth down a slope under the direct influence of gravity. ABP did not conduct such simple research as to enable readers understand the scientific cause of the problem in Kavumu. Also missing in the story on basic information on the causes of landslides, which include climatic conditions, topographical shape and nature of the land, and human activities. Does Kavumu have any history of landslides? Readers weren’t told.

And when readers were still expecting more, the story ended with a long and winding para three that was so bereft of details. Here:

“Local residents say that even trees over 30m tall have not been spared, and that they have moved up to twenty meters. Faced with that situation, the local administrator of Kayanza, Godefroid Niyonizigiye, is asking the owners of the houses in the area to clear them as soon as possible in order to limit the damage caused by ignorance. He recommended that the other inhabitants of Kavumu come to the aid of those vulnerable to climate change, especially by helping them to make bricks and build new houses, promising that the commune would do its utmost to support them.”

This concluding para exposes so many inadequacies in the writer. One, that it was not clear who had “moved up to twenty meters”; the residents or the fallen trees? Two, it was fine when the Kayanza administrator asked those affected to shift base to other areas, but to blame the damage on “ignorance”? That amounted to lampooning the victim of an incident that could have been caused by natural forces. It shows the lack of empathy in the writer. It is bad journalism. The ABP ended the para with a promise of assistance from the Kayanza administration. What kind of help, how much, and when will it come? The writer didn’t say.

Lesson learnt? Reports as recent as the World Human Rights Watch of 2022 indict the Bujumbura administration of continuing “to exercise undue interference in and oversight over the operations of the civil society and the media”. But shoddily telling harmless stories must not be afforded refuge in the home of functional laziness.

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