Richard M. Kavuma rose from a freelance sports reporter while in secondary school in 1996, to editor of Uganda’s Observer newspaper, a position he held for five years through March 2017. This is his second book, after Writing People, Raising Issues (2012), which was supported by the Population Reference Bureau, and the African Centre for Media Excellence, where he is a subscriber and guest-trainer.
Kavuma has also worked with the UK’s Guardian and Observer publications, including three years covering the award-winning Katine Project. Among other organisations, Kavuma previously worked part-time for Radio One in Kampala, BBC Media Action in London, and the German Technical Cooperation in Uganda. He has won several journalism awards, including the 2007 CNN MultiChoice African Journalist of the Year Award and the 2006 United Nations Foundation Award for Development and Humanitarian Coverage.
Richard M. Kavuma
A holder of a master’s degree in media and communications from Goldsmiths, University of London, and a bachelor’s degree in social sciences from Makerere University, Kavuma has attended the CNN Journalism Fellowship and various local and international training courses.
Write Right, Tight
Like the first book, Write Right, Tight reflects Kavuma’s passion for supporting young and upcoming journalists, just as he was welcomed when he first walked into a newsroom at The Monitor newspaper in 1996.
Write Right, Tight Navigating Common Mistakes in News Reporting & Writing
9 789970 560004
Richard M. Kavuma
Write Right, Tight Navigating Common Mistakes in News Reporting & Writing
Richard M. Kavuma
ALSO BY RICHARD M. KAVUMA Writing People, Raising Issues: How to plan, report and write award-winning features on development and public affairs
Write Right, Tight Copyright ÂŠ 2017 by Richard M. Kavuma First published in 2017 by African Centre for Media Excellence Plot 124 Nanjala Road (Bunga-Soya), off Ggaba Road P. O. Box 11283 Kampala, Uganda Tel: +256 393 202 351 email@example.com www.acme-ug.org Facebook: ACME.UG Twitter: @ACME_Uganda All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying and recording, or any other information storage or retrieval system, without written permission from the author or the publisher. ISBN: 978-9970-560-00-4 Book layout and design by Murshid Lutalo Printed and bound by Digiprint Systems (U) Ltd, Plot 69 Nkrumah Road, Kampala First Edition
With the sponsorship of the Open Society Initiative for Eastern Africa
For my mother, Ms Imelda Nabulya, for whom even my best effort â&#x20AC;&#x153;could have been betterâ&#x20AC;?.
Contents Foreword...................................................................................................... ix Acknowledgements........................................................................................ xi PART I: THE IDEA........................................................................... XIII 1. Introduction............................................................................... 1 2. On Writing Well......................................................................... 5 PART II: 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9.
COMMON REPORTING PROBLEMS............................... 11 What is the Story?..................................................................... 13 Have You Spoken to All the Key Sources?................................. 17 Failing to Plan, Planning to Fail................................................ 20 Get the Facts Right................................................................... 23 Sweeping Statements: Is That Actually True?............................. 27 What’s the Context/Background of this Story?.......................... 30 Be Extra Careful with Social Media.......................................... 33
PART III: SLIPPERY WORLD OF WORDS......................................... 37 10. Often Confused Words/Phrases................................................ 39 11. Structural Matters..................................................................... 68 12. Style & Elegance....................................................................... 72 13. Punctuation & Grammar.......................................................... 95 14. Miscellaneous ........................................................................ 104 15. The Editing Process ................................................................ 111 PART IV: PORTRAITS OF PROGRESSION...................................... 117 16. Attitude is Key........................................................................ 119 17. Passion for Excellence............................................................. 122 18. Read, Read, Read.................................................................... 124 19. Grab the Chance to Learn....................................................... 127 20. Your Story, Your Skills, Your Career........................................ 130 21. Integrity & its Dilemmas........................................................ 132 22. Back to the Basics................................................................... 135 23. A Competitive Streak.............................................................. 137 24. Tapping, Shaping, and Keeping Talent.................................... 140 25. From Katanga Slum to Deputy News Editor: One Scribe’s Route.................................................................. 144 26. The Last Words: On Desire, Bills and Dreams........................ 151 Further Reading........................................................................................ 154
Foreword Richard M. Kavuma has done it again. Write Right, Tight is another powerful handbook that should inspire young and old journalists alike. In his first handbook, Writing People, Raising Issues, Mr Kavuma, or Rimkav to his many friends, outdid himself providing solid tips on planning, reporting and writing award-winning features on development and public affairs. The winner of the CNN African Journalist of the Year Award in 2007 for his 2006 series on the Millennium Development Goals, Mr Kavuma delivered the message that, with some planning and thought, journalists can make “boring” but important and significant subjects such as poverty and hunger as well as environmental sustainability interesting and engaging. In his new offering, Mr Kavuma has, instead of lamenting only, gone to great lengths to point out common mistakes in our journalism (especially in reporting and writing) and, above all, offered practical tips on how to navigate these enduring challenges. From coming up with doable, focused and compelling story ideas, sourcing, planning, getting it right, through verification and being alive to the new dangers posed by the rise of social media, The Observer editor explores common reporting problems with an eagle eye. He dedicates, rightly so, quite a lot of space to what he cleverly calls the “Slippery World of Words”. In this section, Mr Kavuma explores common mistakes in grammar and style while also offering a stylebooktype guide on words and phrases that are often misused in Ugandan journalism. Write Right, Tight also offers insight into attributes and practices that define winning journalists, including my favourites — the right attitude, passion, and the willingness to learn. For now, it appears, this handbook is Mr Kavuma’s parting gift to Ugandan journalism. By the time the ink dries on the first copy, he will have left The Observer to join an international organisation where he
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will start a new career in public communications. That organisation’s gain is journalism’s loss. Mr Kavuma, who became editor of The Observer in 2012 (the first one outside the circle of the paper’s owners to occupy that position), should be every publisher’s (and employer’s) dream. He is passionate about his work, diligent, delivers to perfection, and dedicates time to mentoring young journalists who show promise. Although he may no longer mentor journalists directly from the newsroom, he has left behind enough resources to lay a solid foundation for those willing to learn or improve. Write Right, Tight is the best of them. On behalf of the African Centre for Media Excellence, I thank The Open Society Initiative for Eastern Africa for funding the writing, editing and publication of this handbook. I hope more Ugandan journalists will emulate Mr Kavuma and share their experiences for the benefit of current and future generations of news people, journalism students, and scholars. Peter G. Mwesige, Ph.D. Executive Director African Centre for Media Excellence Kampala, March 2017
Acknowledgements First, I thank my directors and colleagues at The Observer newspaper, who have contributed immensely to my professional growth. Most of what I write here springs from my experience at The Observer. Some of the confused words and phrases are drawn from The Observer Stylebook, which I helped to compile in 2010. And at the critical moment, The Observer granted me unpaid leave to write this handbook. Without all that, I would not have been able to do this. In particular, I thank my managing director James Tumusiime and revise editor John Musinguzi for routinely challenging my knowledge and ultimately educating me. Special credit goes to the African Centre for Media Excellence, especially Dr Peter Mwesige and Mr Bernard Tabaire, for embracing and supporting the idea of this handbook. Most of these chapters were written in the ACME resource centre, and all the staff made me feel at home and supported me immeasurably, including putting up with the unholy working hours I had to adopt for this task. The work of writing this handbook would have been much more stressful were it not for the support of the Open Society Initiative for Eastern Africa (OSIEA). After I had secured leave, OSIEA, through ACME, paid my bills, which was most appreciated. I am eternally grateful to the following current and former editors, who I interviewed for this handbook: Charles Odoobo Bichachi (Daily Monitor); Francis Kagolo and Robert Mudhasi (New Vision); Robert Crispin Mukasa (The Observer); Julie Nabwire (The EastAfrican); Charlotte Kawesa Ntulume (Makerere University); Bernard Tabaire (ACME); and Joseph Were (The Independent). Their insights should help inspire the next crop of top-quality journalists and editors. To ACMEâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s Bernard Tabaire and Dr Peter Mwesige, and Northwestern Universityâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s Dr Moses Khisa, thank you for reading each word of the manuscript, correcting mistakes and proposing many useful changes. Even the best writing needs a good editor. Many thanks to my editor Daniel Kalinaki for his eagle eye and insightful calls.
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Finally, I thank my wife Martha and the children for â&#x20AC;&#x2DC;understandingâ&#x20AC;&#x2122; when I spent many long days away working on this handbook. Richard M. Kavuma Kampala March 2017
THE IDEA Having made and seen so many mistakes, one editor stops to take stock, interviews accomplished colleagues, and charts a course for sustainable improvement.
Introduction A story is told of a prominent Ugandan who visited an editor at one of Kampala’s newspapers. While his host had stepped out, the visitor peeked at the editor’s computer screen and nodded his approval. “Hmmm, quite a good writer you are editing there,” the visitor reportedly remarked when the editor returned. “You should have seen the raw copy,” the editor sighed pitifully. The moral of this story is that sometimes there is a world of difference between the good stories you read in Uganda’s quality newspapers and what reporters and writers actually submit. Editors and sub-editors account for that difference, correcting, shortening and sometimes totally rewriting articles to push them closer to the standards you expect. Obviously, I am generalising. Uganda has many excellent writers. When Kevin Aliro, the founding managing director of The Observer Media, died, his colleague Charles Onyango-Obbo, with whom they had founded The Monitor, wrote that Kevin would file a 3,000-word article and you would fail to find a word to change. As Op-Ed editors will testify, there are many Ugandans out there like Kevin. Still, the general view is that the quality of our newspaper writing has been in decline for some time. This has led to irritated and frustrated editors, and bemused reporters wondering what their editors are fussing about. Unfortunately, the two sides are not discussing the problem. What results borders on surrender: editors resigned that some writers will never learn, and writers taking a the-editor-will-fix-it approach. And so came the idea of this handbook.
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For writers and editors eager to improve, I explain the commonest problems that could be holding you back. The handbook will support you to focus on and eliminate those problems from your work, and clear your path to excellence. In a way, the present crisis in newsrooms is perplexing. Across the world, veteran journalists envy today’s younger writers because of the immense resources now available. Can you imagine being a national journalist without any hope of getting internet sites such as Google, Wikipedia or news websites? Without cable television? Without a mobile phone? Without social media or news-breaking FM radio stations? Without boda boda? Yet that was the environment in which our ‘forefathers’ entered journalism. Today’s journalists are highly educated, many aiming at two degrees. Increasingly, they also come from better family backgrounds. So, why are standards of reporting and writing falling? I cannot claim to have all the answers. In contemporary speak, it is complicated. In some cases, the problem actually stems from some of today’s ‘advantages’. For instance, some observers think the permissiveness of social media makes many a young journalist think that those are the standards of mainstream media. And although today’s media houses are much richer, the pursuit of bottom lines and deadlines frustrates many would-be great journalists; while they would dream of emulating top New York Times reporters, their reality only allows them decent reportage, before they move on to other careers. This handbook attempts to contribute to what can only be a multi-faceted solution to a complex problem. Part of the problem has to do with language. From confused words to outright misuse of phrases, I explain some of the problems editors routinely fix. If writers can address these, editors can concentrate on improving the good stories, putting the perfect icing on a great cake. Another layer of shortcomings relates to the reporting, and the kind of information from which we build our stories. This area has huge problems, with which many reporters condemn editors to early retirement and – I suspect – drive readers off newspapers.
Then there is the craft of writing well – with elegance, finesse and style. This is more difficult to break down, but there are some simple practices and habits that would help. More importantly, besides the slackening academics and mechanics of journalism, the problem mostly lies in the character and attitude of the journalist. To that end, at least eight accomplished editors give us insights into the problem and how we can overcome it. They share excerpts from their journeys to where they are today; and I hope that by thinking about what helped them, you can appreciate your own situation better, and chart your own path to excellence.
Using this Handbook As stated earlier, this handbook is only part of efforts to arrest the malaise that afflicts our writing. Although the work was inspired by newsroom flaws, the resultant handbook will prove useful to non-journalists keen to better their writing. It cannot replace all the many resources in place for that purpose – the dictionary, your house style guide, the myriad of journalism books and online resources, and of course our newspapers and news websites. Used and consulted regularly alongside those other resources, this title should hasten your progress. We may think of writing as a journey, from our first words to big stories or books. Often it’s a long, tortuous trip. It’s a continuous struggle to communicate effectively. Wherever you are on that journey, I trust this handbook will be of help.
Parts and Chapters This handbook comprises four parts. The first traces the origin of the idea, introduces the book that has grown out of it, and attempts to contextualize the handbook’s mission and author’s vision. Part II (chapters 3-9) explores some of the commonest reporting problems that editors find in stories – problems related to how we gather and treat information from news sources. These range from failing to nail down the story, inadequate sourcing, disjointed structure, inaccuracy, failure to crosscheck information, lack of context/background and problems associated with social media. Here, accomplished editors also offer their advice to reporters on how to navigate these problems.
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Part III (chapters 10-15) discusses flaws in the quality of the copy. The issues include commonly confused words. The author hopes that by flagging and discussing them here, writers will pay more attention to them as they work, and hence minimise the confusion. Other chapters in this part deal with key aspects of good writing, structure, punctuation and grammar, as well as the editing process. I believe every good writer needs the latter either to edit their own work or, eventually, to edit the work of other writers. Finally, Part IV (chapters 16-25) peers into the careers of some of Ugandaâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s leading editors to see what helped them to succeed. This is important because many a young journalist admires successful seniors as if they come from another planet. I hope this part will demystify journalistic success by breaking it down to its constituent parts. The mission of this part is to show younger writers the raw materials for journalistic progression in order to inspire unflinching resolve and unbridled passion for top-quality reporting and writing. ďż˝
On Writing Well One morning in July 2011, on a flight from London Heathrow airport to Entebbe, I sat next to a Ugandan who had lived in the United States of America for nearly 30 years. On hearing that I was a journalist, she volunteered her views on our media: Yeah, I try to read through your newspapers from time to time to get a sense of what is happening at home. It helps, you know, to know. But one thing that often disturbs me is the quality. Sometimes you find that the writers cannot get simple things right – even those taught in primary schools. And, you know, that leaves me wondering if I should trust the rest of the stuff someone is writing. This horrified me. Perhaps, like many people, I had started believing that specks of bad grammar and language did not matter much as long as the meaning came through. To hear this woman sting us left me feeling naked. Certainly every newspaper makes mistakes but many serious editors dread goofs and slip-ups. The above conversation suggested that what we think of as ‘just a mistake’ irritates more readers than we imagine, and damages the already waning credibility of our newspapers. This brings me to a recurring question for editors and senior writers: do things like spelling, punctuation, grammar, diction, brevity, etc., really matter to readers? Well, the Ugandan on the British Airways flight suggested that they do. So did Sir Harold Evans, who edited Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper for 14 years. Evans, now a British journalism legend, titled his book: Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters. The catch is in the
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subtitle and the book demonstrates the confusion sloppy writing can cause, and how editors intervene. When I did my master’s at Goldsmiths, University of London, I was embarrassed that my supervisor, Dr Natalie Fenton, corrected my commas and colons. “Oh yes,” she looked straight at me when I murmured my surprise.“At this level we want people to write well.” Joseph M. Williams makes the same point in Style: Toward Clarity and Grace: “Whatever else a well-educated person can do, that person should be able to write clearly and to understand what it means to do that.”
Clarity Clarity is important because we do not write just to indulge our passion. Although some writers may not be very conscious of their target audience, most of us try to give a specific message to readers squeezed for time. If we can make our point clearly and concisely, we can hopefully hold onto those readers for the next edition.
Confusion Without clarity, we risk confusing readers – and losing them to other publications or platforms. A comma in a wrong place, or locked out altogether, can totally change the message the reader gets. And soon we could have no reader left to confuse – except maybe ourselves.
Community English is the medium of instruction in Uganda and many parents badly want their children to master it. Youngsters are often told in primary school that to learn English quickly, one must read it and speak it, and thereby learn to write it. Many children take this message seriously. At The Observer, pupils from the nearby Kitante primary school often ask the security officer if he has an “old newspaper”. Now, these pupils should not pick up wrong punctuation or poorly used prepositions and end up losing marks in the final exams. One lost mark may turn a would-be distinction in the English-language exam into a credit; a child who would have been admitted to a premier secondary school may end up in a second-rate one.
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As members of the community, we owe it to our young readers to further their aspirations, not to fail them.
Costly Errors As stated in the introductory chapter, this handbook targets all the problems in writing, including a range of factual errors. Writing well also means tackling such errors systematically. These errors can be expensive. One time a newspaper published a picture of a woman in a story about divorce proceedings; it turned out to be the wrong picture, and the woman in the photo went to court, pleading that she had suffered reputation damage and marriage stress. Court awarded her millions of shillings in damages. It was a genuine mistake, but costly! Most people only demand a correction, but it can get worse. If writers and editors consciously valued proper writing, our stories would be much better. If we strived for excellence, we could salvage the quality of journalism. To that end, this handbook seeks to contribute.
Convention in Fluid Times Language is dynamic and so is style. New words creep into vogue and others slip out of favour. And because speech often precedes writing, some of the things that were wrong yesterday are considered conventional today. This is compounded by the fluidity and free-flow brought about by the internet and social media. Matooke used to be vernacular; now it is in the Oxford dictionary. We learnt in primary school that we should write “Prince Charles’s book”; now it is okay to write “Prince Charles’ book”. Thus it is difficult to have anything close to a definitive guide on right and wrong. Indeed the major value of a handbook like this is to focus us on the importance of principles and best practices. The specifics are far from static, and a good user of language must keep an eye on the trends. In that regard, many authors and house styles are going with the drift on aspects such as the limited use of capital letters and periods in abbreviations. For example, the Financial Times’ style guide argues that the “fewer capital letters we use, the better”, and the Macmillan dictionary lists e.g. alongside eg.
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Break The Rules You Have Learnt It’s said that writing has no real rules, only guidelines. And that we learn the ‘rules’ so that we can break them not out of ignorance, but out of choice. This is important especially for maturing writers. Many of the principles of good writing can be broken with a good reason. But first, we should try to learn them and appreciate how they aid good, clear writing. For example, we are told to prefer shorter sentences. But a passage with 20 sentences all between five and 10 words short will fail. Instead, a good writer will know when to use a sentence of 35 words, followed by one of three. Or think about the ageless advice of using active rather than passive sentences. Sometimes the writer prefers the passive sentence, for instance when the recipient of the action is far more important that the subject or ‘doer’ of the action. Or when cohesion demands that you start with the object rather than the subject.
Perfectionism or Journalism? You have probably heard that when doctors make mistakes, their mistakes are buried six feet deep (or cremated, for that matter); but when journalists err, their mistakes are hung up for everyone to see. Not surprisingly, journalism always seemed to set the bar extremely high. Speaking about the role of a copy or revise editor, New Vision’s Robert Mudhasi captures the attendant stress in all newsrooms: It is a very stressful job; and it’s a thankless job. When the paper is okay, the following morning you have passed the exam but no one comes to congratulate you. But if there is one error, then it’s like you have not even worked for a single day in the whole year. What is more, while the boss may be mad about these mistakes, it is worse for the editor who oversaw the problematic article or page. The personal anguish, or the sleeplessness Bernard Tabaire talks about later in the book, often makes the editor’s world one of lonesome torment. But today, across the world, in an era of more rationalism, when form is in ascendance over substance, this relentless pursuit of excellence
On Writing Well
seems to be in decline. The general talk is that seeking ‘perfectionism’ is madness. So what if there is a wrong word or a misplaced comma, as long as people got the message? Does this not worry editors like Monitor Publications’ Charles Odoobo Bichachi, who still push for a super-clean newspaper? Bichachi locates this laxity in a kind of ‘fatalism’ in all walks of life – that “what can you do? This is the way things are. You will not change anything. Just make good of what you can and sail along”. But on second thoughts, he argues that there were always people in society who believed that they couldn’t do anything. Trouble is that now they seem to be very many – or at least they have used the pervasive media to propagate their creed. Previously people used to be ashamed for not doing it well, but now people actually take pride. They think it is okay and ‘after all, have you not got the message?’ They think that the bigger picture counts more than the small things. Our view then was [and still is] that these small things actually matter and add up to the bigger picture. Unfortunately, it is ingrained in a lot of our journalists and sub-editors today. They think if you have this mistake in the paper, it’s okay. It’s just a mistake. You laugh it off; you shrug it off – which cumulatively leads to a much bigger problem. This brings to mind Peter Day, who spent 42 years working with BBC World Service, the last 16 as presenter of the Global Business programme. In an interview in September 2016, after he formally retired, Mr Day was asked what form he thought the World Service should take. The BBC, Mr Day said, should never stop setting its standards very high, and should never stop aspiring to the truth – “because not many other people are doing this”. Maybe one could say the same of our newspapers. At a time when social media and blogging are taking centre stage, with their own standards, will quality newspapers be a place where one still finds good, clean, clear writing? �
COMMON REPORTING PROBLEMS This section looks at some of the recurring problems in journalistsâ&#x20AC;&#x2122; writing emanating from the reporting. As we settle down to write or revise each story, let us turn each chapter title in this section into a question to ourselves. For instance, what exactly is the story I am writing? Or, have I spoken to all the major sources and asked the critical questions? That way we can check if we have avoided the commonest mistakes in the newsroom.
What is the Story? It happens often that a reporter writes 700 words on a topical issue only for the frustrated editor to ask: “what is the story here? I don’t get it.” Editors expect the reporter to differentiate the ‘story’ or ‘angle’ from the topic. Imagine this scenario: A young reporter breezes into the newsroom and declares to the editor that he has a story. Ed: What is the story? Rp: Besigye has been addressing a press conference and I was there. Ed: Okay, so what’s the story? Rp: It’s Besigye; he had many journalists at his home! Ed: Okay, what kind of story do you want to write? Rp: [nervous]: “Boss, Besigye, the former FDC candidate, was addressing us…” Ed: [impatient]: Okay, what did he say? Rp: He talked about many things: the defiance campaign, the way the elections were stolen by Museveni, how the donors should support a recount of the votes. Many things, boss. From that topic of the Besigye press briefing, the reporter was guided to arrive at the right angle for the story. Other writers are not so fortunate to have a patient editor who will listen and guide. They come up with a story, write it and hand it over to the relevant editor. But without getting the angle right, one can write so many words and the editor will still ask: what is the story? Some basics will aid our ability to find the right news angle: One, we must understand our subject and know the latest developments about it. Otherwise, we can write ‘news’ that is not really news because
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readers already know it. New Vision deputy news editor Francis Kagolo reminds us of the value of reading and keeping abreast with the news. He says if reporters are not religiously reading their newspaper and its competitors, they risk taking old angles. And if the editor also missed the story, the newspaper can readily publish ‘old news’. Secondly, reporters need to discuss possible story angles with their editors before writing. Obviously some editors might be too busy and they will ask you to write the freshest angle, but normally they would hear your options and back or guide you. Kagolo says that story angles are even more important in this era of the internet, FM radio and social media, which publish the ‘obvious’ angle almost instantly. If our newspapers are to be relevant the next day, when readers have already dissected the story on Facebook, Twitter or WhatsApp, editors and reporters must dig deeper to find the right angle. Reporters, especially, need to be more expansive during debriefing. As Kagolo suggests, the right angle might come from a careful, 360-degree look at your notes. The reporter comes, briefs you, [but] he doesn’t mention other issues that would probably bring some exciting story. But then after she has written the story, you realise there is this other issue that she didn’t put emphasis on, which is more exciting and newsworthy than the angle she has taken. So you have either to rewrite or call the reporter to redo it. Now, that consumes a lot of time given our tight deadlines…
Uninverting the Pyramid Traditionally, journalists were told to write stories in the inverted pyramid shape – with the most important news at the top. But as we struggle to hold onto readers who already know the 5Ws+H (What, who, where, when, why +how) of the story from social media and online editions, Kagolo argues that we need to topple or uninvert the pyramid. This thinking is already pushing even some daily newspapers towards what you would call Day Two stories and human-interest news features. There is this inverted pyramid style of news writing… We need to rethink it. You may have a headline that tells the story but when it comes to writing, you may change [the approach]. Okay, this is the story you want to tell, but you can start with
What is the Story?
[something else]: freshen it up. Maybe there’s an anecdote somewhere. For instance, there has been an HIV conference and there’s an orphan who has given testimony on how she has lived with HIV. I think we need to, even in colleges they need to, rethink this pyramid style.
How Do We See News? For non-daily publications like The Independent, The Observer or The EastAfrican, finding the unique angle is even more important. The Independent managing editor Joseph Were says the biggest skills gap in newsrooms is how to generate news ideas that will deliver value to readers. You find most of our journalists now are ‘he said’ /‘she said’. They like press conferences. Press conferences are good but what do you pick from them? Because press conferences should act as tips, not as [sources of ready news]. You must be a critical thinker to be a journalist; when something happens, you must be able to reflect deeply on it and ask yourself one fundamental question: Why should my reader, my viewers, my listeners, care about this thing that has happened? After you have understood, you say: “okay, this is a very important story that the audience needs to pay attention to”. Then you ask yourself: “why am I telling the audience about it?” In my journalism, you tell the audience to help the audience make correct decisions. It’s not merely a question of providing people with information. It’s not enough to tell people that an accident has happened at this place. You must provide information that makes people say: ‘Okay that accident has happened; how can it be avoided?’ Maybe the road needs to be turned into a one-way; maybe they need humps. Maybe there should be a zebra crossing. We need to move ahead... not in a didactic way, not in a lecturing way, but you present all the facts – there is this view, and there is this view – so that a logical member of the audience will be able to arrive at a certain decision.
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5Ws+HIP Most journalists are schooled in the 5Ws+H. But as these become instantly available to audiences – on social media or even FM radio – newspapers are under pressure to infuse more of what Joseph Were calls ‘thinking’ into their reports. More thinking on our part should lead to more analysis of possibilities; more importantly, it should get readers to think in a more nuanced manner about what has happened. Hence to the 5Ws+H, we should consider adding I for implications and P for prescriptions so that we end up with 5Ws+HIP. This is just as well, because according to the dictionary, something ‘hip’ is modern and fashionable or contemporary. The ‘hip’ newspaper story should certainly go beyond the traditional 5Ws+H. In addition to all our good reporting and investigations, this requires us to ask questions such as: 1. Why should the reader care about this? Why is it important? 2. How significant is it? 3. What implications/ramifications/effect might this development have? 4. How can this issue/problem be addressed? What needs to be done? Once we have identified the relevant questions and sub-questions, our job is half done. We only have to find the best-placed, most knowledgeable sources and ask them. Our presentation of their answers and how the different arguments from the different sources relate to one another will leave readers enlightened. This means that quality journalism has to go beyond casual storytelling and cursory dissemination of information. It is a craft of weaving together facts with context to produce a narrative that informs, engages and captures readers’ deeper imagination. �
Have You Spoken to All the Key Sources? In August 2016, former Lubaga South MP Ken Lukyamuzi published a book in which he attacked his political rival Kato Lubwama and CBS radio. In one newsroom, an editor on duty got the story but noticed rather late that the writer had not bothered to speak to Kato Lubwama and CBS for their response. The story was published anyway, but it left the editor unhappy. Poorly sourced stories were among the most common problems raised during interviews with editors. Many editors want a story to have at least three sources from different sides. Unfortunately, offending stories are often published – for instance because the flaw is spotted too late. Multiple and varied voices should help to ensure that anyone accused of wrongdoing gets a chance to give his or her side of the story. This can help a media house seeking mitigation if the accused person sues for defamation. According to New Vision’s Robert Mudhasi, “if you insist on having at least three sources, you are more likely to be fair in all your stories.”
Necessary Distrust Talking to an accused person is not just a formality – as some journalists seem to think. Rather, it gives us a chance to crosscheck the information we already have. Crosschecking or verification is a cardinal duty in journalism, but many of us forget or detest it. The Macmillan dictionary defines crosscheck as “to check that information is correct by checking it again using a different method”. For journalism, it means that we should only write what we “know” or have “verified” to be correct.
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For example, let’s assume that one source tells you that the security minister said certain newsworthy things at a party at Hotel Africana yesterday. You do not simply write the story just because you “trust” your source. You crosscheck the information. Can you find another person unrelated to your source who attended the party and ask him/ her which prominent people were present. If the security minister is not mentioned, you may ask if your second source saw the security minister. If yes, does your source remember what the security minister said? If the accounts of two other sources tally with the first’s, you can be more confident that your information is correct. If they contradict, question the contentious claims. There is always the possibility that your source’s information is inaccurate. What if your half-drunk source mistook the defence permanent secretary for the security minister? What if the security minister was in Nairobi yesterday? Both The Observer news editor Robert Mukasa and Monitor Publications executive editor Charles Odoobo Bichachi lament that journalists tend to overly trust the initial source or documents; they want the story published even if the other side has not been heard. When a journalist talks to another source, they often do it just because the editor demands it. Media trainer and former editor Bernard Tabaire suspects that some journalists think it is too much (unnecessary) work to talk to many sources, yet the rule of thumb is that you collect a lot more information than you will need for any particular story. “That way, you have a large pool from which to pick the best quotes, the most concrete info for the specific story,” he says. “Besides, any “leftover’ information can always be used in future stories, or to inform future stories.” Without the essential journalistic scepticism, distrust, or critical thinking, such reporters miss an opportunity to learn more about the issue under investigation, debunk lies or exaggerations told by one side, and write with more authority. This point was recently echoed by Marty Baron, executive editor of the Washington Post, who called for a return to the good old journalism skill of true listening: Too often now, stories are written based on hypothesis no matter what. The only reason journalists are calling people –
Have You Spoken to all the Key Sources?
or most of the time, emailing people – is to plug in a comment, to show that they did their job and to get another point of view. That’s not journalism; it’s check-box journalism. It’s terrible1. Makerere University journalism lecturer Charlotte Kawesa Ntulume is also appalled by “sloppy journalism and armchair editing” when we fail to source stories properly. A former sub-editor at Daily Monitor and news editor at The Observer, Ntulume distrusts sentences like “Mr XZ was not available to [or even for] comment.” Editors should also ask questions. I believe it might not be possible to give everyone equal space, but at least equal opportunity. You get the feeling that a certain source provided this information, or a journalist is privy to this information and then they go in detail in trying to nail down this person. I get this feeling that the story had been typed and it’s neat, and then they get the phone and try to call this other person. And when the person can’t comment because he is in a meeting or says he is not ready to comment, the story goes because it’s the last thing the reporter had to do. The editor should tell the reporter this is not satisfactory. I know it’s sometimes difficult to sleep on the story because competitors might get it, but it’s unfair [to the person who could not comment immediately or who the reporter did not do enough to get]. We need, from the outset, to step back and ask ourselves certain questions: beyond the obvious, who else might be affected by this story or would have some useful information or perspective on this? One trick is to politely ask the people we interview: who else knows something about this story? Often, people share names and contacts, and we quickly find new potential sources – from whom we can choose. The bottom line is that the more sources we seek out, the higher the chances for a richer, more accurate story. �
Quoted in: Trends in Newsrooms 2016, available at www.thehinducentre.com/ multimedia/archive/.../WAN-IFRA_Trends_Ne_2895264a.pdf
Failing to Plan, Planning to Fail In part, poorly sourced stories reflect inadequate planning. Journalism can be such a fast-paced job that planning is seen as time-consuming. But the adages ‘haste makes waste’ and ‘more haste, less speed’ spring to mind. Indeed, as Joseph Were argues, a journalist must be a critical thinker. We start by thinking about whether what we have is a viable story idea – and why. Then we have to consider how to report it: who do we talk to? What questions are we trying to answer? What tactics shall we use to get the sources to speak to us? Thirdly, we have to endure the draining exercise of writing – questioning the various claims, how to structure the story; which content to include/exclude and which tone to adopt. With so much interrelated information to consider, so many questions to answer and so many issues to grapple with, one way to ensure success is to step back and ‘brainstorm’ about what you are going to do, why, when, and how? Not surprisingly, Monitor’s Charles Odoobo Bichachi mentions planning as one of the factors in his career progression. He accepts that planning gets easier with experience, but says being able to step back and think about what he was going to do enabled him to produce good work early in his career. As he puts it, we need to plan both for how to collect content and how to present it – for reporting, writing, and even layout. Bichachi argues that because of lack of planning, many of our stories don’t cohere or flow well, although they may have all the critical information.
Failing to Plan, Planning to Fail
I always tell my feature writers and those who do analysis that you need to outline your story. It makes the [writing] very easy; it makes the stories flow very well; it joins the [parts] very well. Planning the reporting is particularly important. Stories are often sparked by something but once the idea has been conceived and accepted, the reporter and the editor need to agree on some minimum programme. Says Bichachi: What are the aspects that must be in this story? What else relates to this kind of story? If all that is consciously planned, then you will get a very good story. It will be very easy for the one who knows how to write, very easy for the one who is editing, and it will be very easy for the one who is reading. But planning is also particularly important for editors and subeditors, who often have the final say on the shape of the story. Bichachi recalls that when he started out a subeditor, he always stepped back to visualise how he wanted his pages to look. This made him plan ahead, even before the copy arrived. From the time a reporter is assigned, we should start planning for the story’s layout. For instance, which graphics shall we use? Which pictures shall we need? A good story poorly presented is a disservice to the reader, whereas good graphics and layout may even lift an average story. Obviously writers have different temperaments, which inhibit or favour one disposition or another. But journalistic best practices can be learned once one appreciates the value they bring to one’s work. Some people erroneously argue that planning inhibits creativity and would rather plunge in. These mistake planning for a kind of mental prison. Instead, planning is only meant to make the story solid – in terms of content and organisation. You may have been used to alternative approaches, but why not, as Bichachi advises, try something new? I talk to reporters a lot about planning and those who have picked up, you can see that they can now write the big stories. But if you don’t, then you will go winding; you throw in something here, then you will pick it up again.
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Charlotte Kawesa Ntulume is another planner – something she learned from two of her best journalism teachers – Onapito Ekomoloit and Simwogerere Kyazze. They both taught me that if you plan a story and it’s not flowing, if you don’t understand it but still force your way around it, the reader won’t understand it. You need to appreciate the story if the reader is going to understand it. Plan well, know whom you are going to talk to, know what is going to come first. It’s the same even as I do my academic work. If I have planned my work, however simple the plan is, there is no way [I can go wrong]. For me the trick is this: plan. I write a one-page plan, bounce it off my colleagues and anyone who cares to read it. Does it make sense? Is this the right theory? And then I go into the writing and piling and it can take me two or three months – or one month. When I don’t plan, I can spend a year and something. You may be among those who do not see the value of planning because you believe you do well without it. But that is the nature of the arts: almost everything is debatable – it’s a matter of degree. What is true is that we can succeed in spite of the way we work, or we can thrive because of our approach. �
Get the Facts Right All editors interviewed agree that ‘facts that are not facts’ – as Robert Mudhasi put it – are most annoying. This is not least because editors can be helpless, as it is the reporters who gather the information and should know better. We often make mistakes because we have not trained ourselves to doublecheck things and pay attention to the smallest details. Take a parliament reporter who wrote about the “Rural Electrification Agency (ERA)” being summoned to Parliament over misused money. The newspaper was embarrassed. Why, because ERA is a well-known acronym for the Electricity Regulatory Authority. In brackets, the reporter should have written REA. My bet is that that is what the reporter thought she wrote. The catch is in proofreading our work in such a way that we see each letter, word, sentence, and paragraph. And why? Because one wrong letter changes the meaning of a word; one word kills a sentence, and one bad sentence spoils a story. Let’s consider this hypothetical sentence in a news story submitted to an editor. Wakiso municipality MP and junior primary education minister Rose Sseninde yesterday visited Greenhill Senior Secondary School in Namuwongo, where she was received by lord mayor Elias Lukwago and former minister Joash Mayanja Nkangi. How many problems can you spot in the sentence? I counted at least six. The minister is the Wakiso Woman MP (not municipality). Her actual name is Rosemary Seninde (note the spelling). The school is called Greenhill Academy, located at Kibuli
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(separated from Namuwongo by a road). The lord mayor is Erias (not Elias) and the former minister, who has since passed, was Jehoash (not Joash). With the exception of the constituency name, all the other mistakes are available on the internet, including on websites of quality newspapers. Like many other editors, Joseph Were finds it ‘unforgivable’ to get proper nouns wrong. A person should know how to spell names of people and places. At least any journalist should be able to get that right. Get the title of the person and get the name, and spell it correctly. Don’t assume that you know Kavuma’s name. As a rule, whether I know Richard Kavuma [or not], the moment I am going to put that name in print, I double-check it. That last sentence is key. No one expects us to know everything. The discipline of journalism is to double-check things. Recently, a reporter wrote about a one “Gilbert Gomushabe”, a lecturer at Makerere University. Of course the reporter was ‘sure’ of the spelling, but his editor had never come across such a name. A Google check found a Gilbert Gomushabe at Makerere; but the editor was not convinced, because Google also had a Gilbert Gumoshabe at Makerere. Over the phone, one of Gilbert’s university colleagues was asked, and he spelt G-o-m-us-h-a-b-e. Finally the editor telephoned Gilbert and asked him to spell his name: G-u-m-o-s-h-a-b-e. Monitor’s Odoobo Bichachi says that once we miswrite someone’s name, we create a different person: “For example, Oloka-Onyango. If you call him Onyango Oloka, that’s a different person and a lot of us journalists do not see a problem with mixing up names.” Another reporter recently got a press release quoting a one Peter Mwesige (who probably comes from Fort Portal) of the African Centre for Media Excellence. But in the resultant story, the reporter quoted Peter Mwesigye (presumably from Kabale). This is a case of not paying attention to detail, and we can all learn from such mistakes if we resolve to strive for better writing. In the end, it is that disposition to pay attention to detail that will force us to go an extra mile to avoid getting things wrong.
Get the Facts Right
As Were says, we need to have the humility to crosscheck things. Let us not be afraid to ask: “How do you spell that?” Some of us fear that by asking, we appear dumb. But wouldn’t I rather appear dumb to this one person (and earn his respect) than advertise my sloppiness to the hundreds or thousands of people who know how his name is written? When we can’t get the person, we often crosscheck names in documents and on the internet. However, be careful where you check. The internet has both the correct spellings and the wrong ones. You could look for two or three official sources and see if you have a consistent spelling. Neither do you want to yell out in the newsroom what a certain fact is and go with what a colleague yells back. Human memory is way too fallible compared to documented sources. Yet documents can only be as accurate as the mind that created them. In November 2016, President Museveni nominated Hajjat Aisha Lubega to the Electoral Commission. In its backgrounder, a newspaper wrote that in 2002, Museveni had nominated Hajjat Lubega to the Education Service Commission but she was rejected. This mistake could have been the work of a fading memory. A Google search brought up a November 2002 New Vision story about Hajjat Lubega. MPs had rejected her nomination to the Electoral Commission because her husband was already chairing the Education Service Commission. Of course, officialdom is not guarantee for accuracy – especially in a country where websites may not be updated for months. Mudhasi says it is important for editors to go about the exercise of verification with humility: “You must always keep your mind open to surprises. But if you say you have seen it all, that will close your mind to new things.” He told of a reporter who wrote a story about a car called a Dodge. But the editor knew it as a Ford. The reporter insisted. Soon the editor investigated and found out that Dodge was formerly part of Ford. Technically, both were right, but if the editor had not been humble enough, he would not have learnt that history. This humility to check is very important. The writer often deserves the benefit of the doubt and a good editor/sub will ask the writer before changing things – unless something is as certain as the spelling of the editor’s name. But reporters can make it easier by always doing their best
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to get things right. Editors tend to trust reporters who always do their best more than those who are perpetually erratic and sloppy. Yet even the best reporter can have a bad day with below-par writing, hence the need for consistent and rigorous gate-keeping by editors. ďż˝
Sweeping Statements: Is That Actually True? Part of the difficulty of journalism lies in the paradox of the powerful messenger. On the one hand, we journalists are not to be killed because we are only carrying the ‘message’. But on the other, we wield power because between us and our editors, we can determine which voice/ message gets to be heard and which one is suppressed. Hence a common problem, according to editors, is that ‘messengerreporters’ often reproduce sweeping statements in their stories – simply because their sources have made them. Moreover, increasingly reporters reproduce these statements as matters of fact without attributing them to anyone. Sources, especially politicians and victims of injustice, often speak in hyperbole or with exaggeration. We need to interrogate what they are saying so that we avoid spreading falsehoods that damage our credibility. New Vision’s Robert Mudhasi gives this example: A reporter can write that according to a source, “most women in Uganda are above 40 years of age” but when he gives the figures from the ministry, it is 45% of women who are above 40. Now, the statement “most women…” is technically inaccurate. That’s why many an editor will find safer alternatives to unproven superlatives (like replacing ‘most’ with ‘many’) Writers and editors must always be interested in what they are writing or reading. Without interest in what you are covering, you will leave a lot of questions unanswered. You will go there, listen and report what you heard, but you do
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not question, you do not probe, you do not investigate; you take what you have been told as if it is automatically factual. Often, when an editor challenges a reporter about a claim in the story, the reporter will say: “But that is what he said.” That is not enough defence from an adult of sound mind. Ideally, we should publish things because we know or believe them to be true – not simply because someone else has said them. Yes, a minister may claim that the opposition leaders had planned to burn down the whole city; but if we must carry such a statement, one, it should be attributed to its source; two, let us carry the allegation side by side with what the accused has said in response. For example: The minister claimed that Besigye was arrested because he had planned to burn down the city. However, Dr Besigye has consistently rejected this claim as part of government ‘lies’ meant to criminalise legitimate political opposition.
Where is the Evidence? On a normal day, The Observer managing director James Tumusiime can be heard telling one of his charges: “Show me, don’t tell me”, or “Your headline and intro are not in the story. I have read up to the end but I can’t find them.” This is a common problem. It may be that one of our sources made an attractive statement and the reporter thought that could make a good angle. He actually writes the intro based on that angle, but when he assembles the rest of the story, the angle has no pillars to stand on. The reporter should quickly realise that there is no basis for that angle. It’s like a police detective who believes that a suspect killed the victim and sets out to find evidence to charge a man with murder. After the investigations, the Director of Public Prosecutions rules that they change the charge to manslaughter – because the evidence on file can only support that. As we craft our stories and look at the broad claims we are making, we need to routinely ask ourselves: do I have evidence in the story to back up this or that particular claim? It is not enough to publish wild falsehoods simply because we have given the accused person space to deny them.
Sweeping Statements: Is That Actually True?
Contrived Conflict The day I interviewed Charlotte Kawesa Ntulume at Makerere, one newspaper had a story about the former Forum for Democratic Change president Kizza Besigye. It claimed that Besigye was using leaders of the Walk-to-Work movement to revitalise his defiance campaign, but current party president Mugisha Muntu was opposed to Besigye’s scheme. The problem, Ntulume said, was that the evidence in the story and the quotes showed that Muntu supported the defiance campaign alongside his efforts to mobilise and organise party structures. Muntu was quoted as saying that the semblance of conflict is because inexperienced FDC supporters fail to appreciate the need for two approaches. He also said the misunderstandings between the two approaches had tremendously narrowed. Ntulume says editors must not forget to subject all stories to scrutiny – including those of senior journalists. I see there is this tendency to try to create conflict where there is no conflict. Of course conflict sells, definitely, and where a journalist sees potential conflict, they will try to milk it. If there are drops, they will try to make it flow even more and it’s understandable because you need to sell a story. Then show the conflict if it’s there. I see this as a story that is trying so hard to bring out the conflict between Muntu and Besigye. Yet when I see the news on TV, Muntu is always at Kizza Besigye’s press conferences. They are always seated together, talking. There could be something in this; but as a journalist, he should bring it and show it. Sometimes there is that dependence on senior journalists and that complete trust; then we forget that they actually have to verify everything. Every grand claim in the story needs to be backed up by evidence – or at least properly attributed, alongside authoritative counter claims. Otherwise, as Ntulume says, it is not fair to readers. More importantly, it undermines the credibility of our journalism: if readers feel they can’t trust what we are writing, they will move on and leave us in deeper trouble. �
What’s the Context/ Background of this Story? Lack of proper context and background is another common complaint from editors across the world. News rarely happens out of the blue. Certain related developments came before, which provide the context or ‘bigger picture’ in which the latest news is to be understood. Sadly, as Bernard Tabaire argues, many newsrooms are not doing enough to locate stories in their proper contexts and discuss their bigger-picture significance. It means we are not helping enlighten readers; we are not getting readers to exclaim: “Now I understand this thing!” During Uganda’s presidential election campaigns in December 2015, FDC candidate Kizza Besigye held rallies in Mityana. The Observer reporter filed a small story and his editor called to get more details. For instance, the editor asked, which politicians accompanied Besigye to Mityana? Among the names the reporter mentioned was Hussein Kyanjo, the only MP and leading politician from the Justice Forum (Jeema) party. Not only did Kyanjo attend the rally, he took to the podium and asked people to vote for Besigye. To the editor, this was significant because until then, Kyanjo and his Jeema had rallied behind independent candidate Amama Mbabazi. Kyanjo’s presence at Besigye’s rally suggested an admission of Besigye’s significance in Kampala, where the MP’s son was standing for the Makindye West parliamentary seat. It also fed into the then emerging narrative that even some of Mbabazi’s supporters were starting to doubt his electability.
What’s the Context/Background of this Story?
But the reporter had not even mentioned Kyanjo – hence missing a critical detail. Neither was there a sentence about how the population here voted at the previous elections. The reader of his story would not have been any better off than someone who listened to radio clips from the rally. This is what Joseph Were at The Independent says about context: One of the most irritating things for me is stories that lack context and background. In what context is this story happening? How did we get here? And it goes back to hard work and outlook because reporters these days – because they do not read [although there is an avalanche of information]. Reporters do not focus on one thing deeply. So, they do not understand things. Discussing context, Tabaire cites the takeover of Crane Bank by Bank of Uganda in October 2016. For days, he says, newspapers did not try to firmly relate the story to the outcry about a struggling economy and banks struggling with non-performing loans. Discussions about businessmen seeking a government bailout to escape foreclosure had earlier dominated the media: could this be related to Crane Bank’s troubles? If that was the case, what implications did the takeover of Crane Bank have for the economy? If some of the heavily indebted businessmen and women had loans from Crane Bank, was the takeover of the bank tantamount to bailing the businesses out? Now, how would a young journalist covering the story know all this? They do not have to know everything. But if one has been reading the news consistently, one will have an idea. Secondly, by identifying and listening to credible sector-experts, a reporter can dramatically improve their understanding of their field. Reporters should not only talk to sources for comments, but also to help them understand their beat better. Such on- or off-record interactions might prove more important to the reporter than the official quotes. Another example, again in October 2016, had to do with the Uganda National Roads Authority (Unra). Executive director Allen Kagina apologised in Parliament that Unra had paid Shs 22 billion to a Chinese firm it had not contracted, to build the Kanoni-Sembabule road.
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The press stories did not say that Kagina had arrived at Unra with messianic status, after corruption threatened to bring the authority down. That some of these irregularities happened under her watch should have raised eyebrows and should have been an opportunity to ask some hard questions. The broader narrative would then be: Is Uganda and Parliament shielding Kagina from due scrutiny because of her earlier reputation? Well, later, an article on www.eagle.co.ug asked: why is Parliament handling Kagina with kid gloves? De-contextualised reporting and writing touches a much bigger problem for newspapers today. For Tabaire, the whole discussion about context and background is about giving value to the reader by “giving respect to the story”. And as both Were and Francis Kagolo of New Vision point out, it goes back to the fundamental question: how much and how deeply do we journalists read? If we are not reading enough, we are living dangerously. �
Be Extra Careful with Social Media Some scholars and commentators have argued that Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and other social media platforms are aiding the internet to slowly kill print media. How soon the burial arrangements will be announced is not known. But clearly, social media is upon us. Not long ago, newspapers broke news; now social media does that. Newspapers prided in being a forum for public discourse; now social media has more inclusive, impassioned debates about everything from peasant agriculture to Donald Trump’s “locker-room” banter. Entertainment? Social media is ahead – what with all those jokes and caricatures on everything and everyone from President Mugabe to Pope Francis? To their credit, enterprising journalists are using social media as a reporting tool. Some interviews are now conducted on Facebook and WhatsApp. And you can get any telephone number by asking your social media friends. Even politicians who won’t answer their phone calls can find their Facebook or Twitter comments quoted in the papers. But according to journalism teacher Charlotte Kawesa Ntulume, journalists need to be careful about using social media information as gospel truth. With billions of users, social media has no control over the authenticity of the information it carries. In other words, we should crosscheck information on social media before we use it in our reporting. For example, when the controversy over Greenhill Academy’s sex education books erupted in August 2016, Ntulume shared a WhatsApp group discussion about the topic with another group. She included other pictures about other (potentially more alarming) sex education comic books that children in other countries had access to. The gist of her
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message was that parents should watch what their children read because this is how bad things can get. From that WhatsApp group, someone shared Ntulume’s pictures with a journalists’ group. Minutes later, a Twitter account of a national newspaper carried Ntulume’s pictures with a grand claim that Greenhill was giving these books to its pupils, and without attributing the source of the pictures. Ntulume tried to complain to the newspaper, but the mistake was not corrected until several hours later. By the next morning, the messages were in the tabloid press. The ministry of education issued a press release on the issue – presumably reacting to the media reports. For Ntulume, this was a classic example of how the mainstream media must uphold higher standards for itself than social media does. We tend to take it for granted that because this information is out there, it’s necessarily factual. Because it’s out there... everyone is talking about this on WhatsApp; everyone is talking about this on Facebook; so, it’s right. Maybe the journalists will not look for the specific sources to get the right information and the editors are not demanding, and the public is not demanding things to be done in a certain way. Many media houses now have policies on social media usage and they ought to be followed. For instance, the guide for the National Public Radio in the United States urges staff to focus on “accuracy” and to “be careful and sceptical”. It’s often easier to falsify one’s identity online than it is in the offline world. And tonal or contextual nuances can be lost in online exchanges. So when appropriate, clarify and confirm information collected online through phone and in-person interviews. For example, when a social media posting is itself news, try to contact the source to confirm the origin of the information and attain a better understanding of its meaning. We must try to be as sophisticated in our use of social media as our audience and users are. At a time when newspapers are in steady decline, one of the few saving graces relates to trust. WhatsApp users cannot tell if President Robert
Be Extra Careful With Social Media
Mugabe of Zimbabwe really made that silly comment about pregnancy2; but newspaper readers should have the confidence that if The Observer or The EastAfrican has printed this, it must be true. If we lower our standards to those of social media, we have only ourselves to blame. It’s up to us to give our readers more confidence. �
Social media has been awash with what President Trump would call “false news” comments allegedly made by Mr Mugabe. In one, Mugabe allegedly equated pregnancy to evidence of sexual activity. Most of the time the president has never said those things.
SLIPPERY WORLD OF WORDS English has its idiosyncrasies, many of them. Editors spend valuable time fixing good words used the wrong way. Is it Excellence or Excellency, for instance? This section discusses some of the commonest tricky words. One suggestion is that when you write a word that has made this list, step back and ask yourself: is this the word (and not the other) that you actually meant to write? “Words are special,” says The Bloomberg Way3.“Treat words with reverence and your writing will ring true.” And according to Bernard Tabaire, a former Monitor Publications managing editor (weekend editions) and former journalism lecturer at Makerere University, you do not have to guess. A dictionary now is everywhere, a thesaurus is everywhere. On your computer, on your phone, over and above the physical dictionary. I think people should have the discipline to check and just be sure that even if it’s an everyday word, am I using it properly in this context? Is it helping me to communicate effectively and communicate clearly?
Matthew Winkler (2014), The Bloomberg Way. A Guide for Reporters and Editors, John Wiley and Sons Ltd.
Often Confused Words/ Phrases A STONE’S THROW NOT astone throw
This city is the capital of Nigeria – Not Lagos anymore
Note the position of the apostrophe.
ADF (Ugandan rebel group)
ADF is the Allied Democratic FrontForces.
ADVISE (v) /ADVICE (n)
This is another case of a verb (advise) and a noun usually confused both in speech and writing. • She advised Moses to ignore your advice
AFFECT / EFFECT
• Management will effect fundamental changes. These changes will not affect staffing levels in the department. The changes take effect on 1 June 2017, but their full effect may not be known until December.
AGO (adj & adv) / A GO (n):
A long time ago, it was rare for a woman to have a go at her husband.
One aircraft, 10 aircraft. One aeroplane, 10 aeroplanes.
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ALTOGETHER / ALL TOGETHER
Altogether means completely or totally. • Abraham complained that his wife was coming home late, and she decided to stay away altogether. All together means everything combined or added. • We have four goats, 37 cows, and 11 sheep – all together 52 animals.
A person who attended a particular school or college. (Alumnus is singular; alumni is plural for males or mixture of males and females) *The specific word for a female former student is alumna (plural is alumnae)
I AM/ AM/I’M
People write “Am sick” when they mean to write “I’m sick”. I’m is a contraction of ‘I am’. A sentence using am without ‘I’ would be grammatically incomplete, because it would not have a subject. ‘I’ is the subject while am is a form of the verb ‘to be’
Not always. Leave it out when the sentence has indicated that the list is not exhaustive. • The traders included Okello, Mukasa, and Mukiibi, among others. • During his presidency, Obama has visited countries such as Kenya, Ethiopia and Ghana.
AND / OR
When listing things in a negative sentence, use ‘or’ instead of ‘and’. • I don’t have milk andor sugar. • The hospital operates in crumbling buildings, with no reliable electricity andor qualified staff.
ANNEX / ANNEXE
To annex (v) is to seize a country or part of another country. An annexe (n) is an extension to a building or an addition at the end of a document.
Often Confused Words/Phrases
• Russia says it will not annex other territories after Crimea. • St Mary’s SS Kitende Annexe was the best school in the country.
ANTI- RIOT POLICE
Most of us imagine calling them ‘Riot’ would suggest they do the rioting. But that’s not the case. Riot police used batons to hit the demonstrators.
APOLOGIES / APOLOGISE
Look again at what you have written. @Umeme once tweeted: “We really apologies for the delay…” They meant to say ‘apologise’.
APPRAISE / APPRISE
Appraise = to evaluate Apprise means to inform. • The minister ordered line managers to appraise staff. • The minister demanded that we keep him apprised of the progress.
ARGUE / URGE
These two are always potential banana skins, and the dictionary would help avoid embarrassing mistakes. • Kinene urged argued that the new position was beneath his qualifications. • His mother argued urged him to try it for a month. • His supervisor urged patience and caution. But three months later, he could no longer resist the urge to quit.
The august House Note the capital H.
• Bark cloth is that cloth hammered from the bark of a tree. • Back cloth is clothing hanging at the back of a stage in a theatre.
BETWEEN / AND THE DASH
Between should go with ‘and’ INSTEAD OF: Organisers expect between 400 – 900 participants. WRITE: Organisers expect between 400 and 900 participants.
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Organisers expect 400-900 participants.
BIANNUAL / BIENNIAL
Biannual refers to something happening twice in a year. Biennial, on the other hand, means once every two years. • The project was subjected to biannual reviews by the board in June and December. • The Africa Cup of Nations is a biennial tournament; it takes place every two years.
This is confusing and a prudent writer would probably avoid it. It means both twice every month AND once every two months.
BlackBerry is a smart phone (Never mind what proud iPhone owners say). Trouble often comes when we use its plural form (BlackBerrys), which sounds like the small fruits called blackberries. • People spoke on their BlackBerrys as they ate blackberries.
BOARDER / BORDER
Boarder refers to a person in a boarding school (or who pays to stay in someone’s home), while border relates to boundaries. • Busia town is located at the Uganda-Kenya border. • The school has both boarders and day-students.
BOOST / BOAST
To boost is to help. To boast is to brag or simply have something good. • The president boasted about his political experience. • Uganda boostsboasts hundreds of unique bird species. • His recovery boosted the team.
BRACKETS: TO USE [ ] OR ( )
When we use the direct quotation marks, we are telling the reader that this is exactly what the Speaker said. But sometimes we intervene to improve clarity of the quoted text: we use the square brackets [ ] to indicate something we have inserted within a direct quote.
Often Confused Words/Phrases
• “I have told him [Mbabazi] to avoid escalating this conflict because it does not help the party,” the president said. The above example means the writer/editor has inserted the word Mbabazi to help the reader understand what the president meant by ‘him’. Outside the quotation marks or mathematics, please use the usual (round) brackets or parentheses.
BRAINCHILD / BRAINS BEHIND
You have probably seen a sentence like: “Ms Katatumba is the brainchild of the charity project for disabled children in the north.” This arises out of a common confusion regarding the two terms: brainchild and brains behind. The correct version would be: • “Ms Katatumba is the brains behind the charity project.” (Literally, it is Katatumba’s brains that have put the project together) • “The charity project is the brainchild of Ms Katatumba.” (Literally, the project was produced by her brains).
For vehicles – not breaking. Also, vehicles use brakes for stopping, not breaks.
Is the capital city of Brazil (not Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo). Just like Pretoria (not Cape Town or Johannesburg) is the capital of South Africa.
BREATH (n) / BREATHE (v)
• The patient could not breathe properly. • If you don’t brush your teeth, you can get bad breath.
BUDO / BUDDO
Buddo is the name of the village off Kampala-Masaka road, home to several schools, some of which have long abandoned the complicated process of correcting an ‘initial’ spelling mistake: King’s College Budo Budo Junior School. Buddo Secondary School.
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CANON / CANNON
A canon refers to a type of Christian leader, or to religious principles. E.g., Canon law or Canon Mbabazi A cannon is a type of gun.
CANVAS / CANVASS
Canvas is a type of material used to make tents/shoes or painting, etc. To canvass is to seek support for a party or cause.
CART/CAT / HORSE/HOSE
• That, he said, would be putting the catcart before the hose horse. • We need a horsepipehosepipe to take water from the tap to the garden.
Serere district was carved (created) out of the much older Soroti district. The road to the new district has many curves (bends).
CENTRAL BANK RATE (CBR)
The CBR is the ‘policy rate’ or signal rate, which influences other rates in the economy. CBR is NOT the rate at which the central bank lends to commercial banks; that’s called the repo rate)
• The young bird is a chick. • Peter said Maria was chic, meaning she was smart. • Some young men call girls chicks, but some women detest this.
CITE AND EXAMPLE
To cite already means to give something as an example. • Namisango citedthe example of the five police officers who tortured a student last year.
COHORTS /CAHOOTS WITH
A cohort is a group of contemporaries. To be in cahoots with someone means to be part of the same bad group or plan.
Often Confused Words/Phrases
• The opposition leader accused the reporter of being in cahoots with state agents.
The former means to work together; the latter means to give matching information. • Makerere University and Columbia University are collaborating on the study. • The editor wanted us to talk to other sources to corroborate Lukyamuzi’s claims.
COLOMBIA / COLUMBIA
Colombia is the Latin American country. Columbia is a United States district. There is also Columbia University in New York
COMBINE HARVESTERS NOTCombined.
COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF / FATHER-IN-LAW Note the hyphens.
COMPARE TO / WITH
Comparing Mother Theresa to Nelson Mandela means to suggest that they are similar. To compare Yoweri Museveni with Milton Obote could mean to rate one against the other, for instance by evaluating their strengths and weaknesses.
COMPLIMENT / COMPLEMENT
To compliment is to say a word of praise or appreciation. • Thanks for the compliment! • Journalists are asking for complimentary tickets to the show. To complement is to combine well with something or with what someone has done. • They were a perfect couple, her industry complementing his artistry. • Their personalities are complementary. • For young people, chicken is the perfect complement to chips.
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CONSIDER / APPOINT & AS
As a verb that means to regard to believe, Consider does not need ‘as’, neither does Appoint. But as a nouns, they may take ‘as’. • Angela had always considered Jumaas a gentleman. • He does not consider her as a powerful woman. • Tumwebaze was first appointed as minister for the Presidency; so his appointment as minister for ICT was not surprising. But when it means to evaluate or analyse, consider goes with ‘as’ • Before we dismiss Napoleon as a Frenchman, let us consider him as a soldier; I think he was a great fighter.
COUNTRY or COUNTY?
What have you written? And what did you mean to write?
COAT OF ARMS Not Court of arms
DEFERENCE / DIFFERENCE
Deference = Respect for and willingness to accept someone else’s view. Difference = Quality of being dissimilar.
DEMAND / DEMAND FOR
(Also consider REQUEST, SOLICIT, ADVOCATE, ORDER, CRAVE, …) These verbs do not need the preposition “for”; it’s the associated nouns that do. • We normally demand reform, not “for” reform. But once that demand has been made, we can expect action on “our demand for” the reform. • Musoke demanded for a book yesterday. His demand for a book was rejected. • He orderedfor an inquiry into the disappearance of the money. The president’s order for an inquiry was ignored. • The archbishop requested the president’s assistance. He is now waiting for a response to his request for assistance. • The NGO has been advocating free education for orphans. The NGO was recognised for its advocacy for free education for orphans.
Often Confused Words/Phrases
• Readers crave (for) context and perspective. (Both ‘crave’ and ‘crave for’ are used as verbs)
DEPENDENT(adj) / DEPENDANT (n)
• I take care of a cousin who is one of my dependants. (American English also uses dependents) • His education is dependent on me getting money for school fees.
DESCENT / DECENT / DISSENT
Descent has to do with origin. Decent means smart or good-mannered, reasonable, sufficient, etc. Dissent is disagreement or protest. • Someone of Ugandan descent should not do such a thing. Ugandans are very decent people. • Human Rights Watch accused the government of failing to tolerate political dissent. • The so-called rebel MPs were simply NRM dissenters.
DISCREET / DISCRETE
• Discreet means tactful or cautious. • Discrete means separate.
DISINTERESTED / UNINTERESTED
Disinterested means not biased. Uninterested means not keen on or interested in something. • The Electoral Commission boss said he was totally disinterested in the result of the presidential election but could not be uninterested in the conduct of the polls. • I bought him a piano but he is uninterested in music.
DISTINCTIVE / DISTINGUISHED
One means unique or typical, the other prominent • Bbale Francis had a distinctive voice. • Dangote is one of Africa’s distinguished business leaders.
DRAFTSMAN / DRAUGHTSMAN
• A draftsman may be found in a law firm or somewhere else drafting documents. • A draughtsman makes drawings, for instance for architects.
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Dubai is NOT the same as a country called the United Arab Emirates (UAE). UAE has seven emirates (federal city-states) and Dubai is just one of them. The capital of UAE is Abu Dhabi, not Dubai.
EACH OTHER / ONE ANOTHER
Two words! Each other used to refer to two items; one another to more than two. But they are now interchangeable. • First, Clinton and Trump attacked each other on stage; then, outside the hall, their supporters hurled water bottles at one another.
Educationist is used in American English
EMCEE or MC?
In British English, the emcee is different from the MC (master of ceremonies). • For the British, an emcee is a person who says the words in rap music. • MC, then, is simply short form for master of ceremonies. • American English allows interchangeable usage.
Enable something, but enable someone to do something. • The changes will enable faster processing of applications. • The changes will enable staff to process traders’ applications quickly.
ENROLMENT Not Enrollment
EXCELLENCY / EXCELLENCE
His Excellency the president is passionate about the pursuit of excellence in public service.
This means formally or in writing. It does NOT mean quickly.
Often Confused Words/Phrases
• Payments above Shs 1 million must be expressly authorised by the MD. • The MD will do his best to handle such requisitions expressly expeditiously.
House rules may apply, but many media houses use Facebook or Twitter (upper case). A message posted on Twitter is called a tweet (not a twit) Your address on Twitter is called a “Twitter handle,” e.g., @pmwesige.
FAR AWAY/ FARAWAY
• She moved far away from the capital. She lives in a faraway village.
FIANCÉ / FIANCÉE
An engaged man is the woman’s fiancé. The woman is his fiancée
FIRING LINE / LINE OF FIRE
• The firing line does the shooting. • What they are shooting at is in the line of fire.
FLOUT / FLAUNT
To flout is to break laws or principles. To flaunt is to show off. • In the novel, an American model is accused of flouting Saudi Arabia’s morality laws by flaunting her body in a short skirt.
FOODSTUFF One word
One way to end the confusion is to think of the latter as the one that is mentioned later, whereas the former was mentioned earlier. • We had planned to interview the director general and the prime minister but we failed to get the latter (i.e. the prime minister).
FROM / TO AND THE DASH
Mixing ‘from’ and the dash is inelegant. “From” should go with “to” and not with the dash or hyphen.
Write Right, Tight
INSTEAD OF: Government will raise a corporal’s monthly pay from Shs 350,000 –Shs 500,000. WRITE: Government will raise a corporal’s monthly pay from Shs 350,000 to Shs 500,000.
GANG-RAPE (v) / GANG RAPE (n)
• The man claimed that the soldiers had gang-raped him. • Four years later the soldiers were jailed for the gang rape of the farmer.
GRADUAND / GRADUATE
A graduand is someone who is about to graduate or who has just graduated – especially on graduation day. A graduate is anyone who holds a degree or diploma from an institution.
We say ‘grassroots action’ (not grassroot) *** Some dictionaries write grass roots (two words) or grass-roots.
GREAT BRITAIN / UNITED KINGDOM
The country can be as confusing as the language it gave the world. • Great Britain comprises Scotland, England and Wales. • Great Britain + Northern Ireland = the United Kingdom (or simply ‘Britain’).4
GROUNDBREAKING One word
HAJJ or HAJ / HAJJI / HAJJAT
A Hajji (note the spelling) is a Muslim man who has performed the Hajj – the holy pilgrimage to Mecca. A Muslim woman who has done the pilgrimage to Medina is called a Hajjat.
HAND IN HAND
No need for hyphens. • He worked hand in hand with my sister.
Interesting to note is that ‘Britain’ is geographically bigger than ‘Great Britain’!
Often Confused Words/Phrases
These three words often tease us. But I have just checked the dictionary again… This error appeared in a Kampala newspaper on November 15: • He became chairperson for several committees until 2001, when he hang his political gloves and did not contest. The correct word should have been hung, the past tense of hang (suspend). • When I was in London we hangedhung out at Kabira. The verb ‘to hang’ has two categories of meaning, and depending on the usage, it’s conjugated differently. 1. To kill 2. To suspend plus several other usages Meaning Infinitive Killing (only) To hang Suspend (+ all other To hang meanings)
Past tense hanged hung
Participle hanged hung
The morning after the night at the bar, Marie had a terrible hangover.
MANY HEAD OF CATTLE Not heads.
The army officer is said to have a ranch with 10,000 head of cattle.
HILLARY CLINTON/HILARY ONEK Many women tend to write double L.
Often, men with this name write one L.
Hustle (n) means a lot of noisy activity or dishonest means. As a verb, it can mean to push someone to go quickly where you want them to go.
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• The hustle and bustle of the city. • Don’t hustle me; it’s not my problem that you came late. Hassle means a situation that is difficult or annoying, or to annoy someone. I hope it won’t be so much of a hassle for you to get me the CDs!
This usually stands for information and communications technology. (NOT information, communication and technology).
INCIDENCE / INCIDENT
Incidence (singular) means the rate of prevalence, for instance of disease or crime. Incident (countable) means a case or an occurrence of something. • There are so many incidencesincidents of murder and the police must act decisively. • We must take steps to reduce the incidence of malaria.
Institute generally refers to an educational or research entity. Institution is a generic term for any large organisation such as a bank, institute, church, hospital, etc. As part of a name of a college or school, the usual word is institute. E.g., Kamengo Technical Institute (KTI). • But KTI can be generally described as a vocational institution. Just as some scholars define marriage as an institution. Makerere and Mubs are generally described as tertiary institutions (but we rarely hear anyone call them institutes).
IT’S / ITS
It’s = a short form of “It is”. Its = a possessive form for “it”. • It’s wrong to write that the “company has fired it’s finance manager”. • It has fired its finance manager
Often Confused Words/Phrases
JEALOUS (adj) /JEALOUSY (n)
The pastor said: “If you think your wife is too jealous, it’s time to ask yourself if you are the cause of her jealousy.”
Not Karamajong or Karamojong Their language is Ngakarimojong.
KIRA / KIIRA
• Kira is in Kampala and Wakiso (E.g. Kira road; Kira Road police station; Kira municipality) • BUT Kiira is mostly associated with River Nile and Busoga. (E.g. Kiira regional police commander)
KCCA will license you by giving you a licence.
• Another confused pair, especially because of the multiple meanings and overlaps in usage. A past tense of one verb is the infinitive form of another. • The verb “to lie” has different meanings or groups of meanings, each with different conjugation: 1. To tell lies. 2. To be in a low position or simply be somewhere. But the verb “to lay” means to place or put something somewhere – among other usages. Verb/ Continuous Past tense Meaning To lie (tell lies Lying Lied or deceive) • Mr Mukasa lied under oath in 2015. To lie (to Lying Lay be in a low • When I position or be reached somewhere) home, I lay on the bed, feeling dizzy.
Participle Lied • He had lied to the committee. Lain • The keys had lain on the table for two days when he found them.
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To lay (place some-thing somewhere) + other meanings
Laid Laid • The minister • “I have laid yesterday laid your pressed the bill before blouse and Parliament. pants on the bed,” he told her.
LIFELINE One word
LOSE / LOSS / LOOSE
• If you lose (verb) something very valuable, then you have made a big loss (noun). • On the other hand, if something is loose (not tight), it means you can easily lose it.
MADHVANI (Ugandan business family) Not Madhivani or any other spelling.
CHIEF MAGISTRATE’S COURT (NOT Magistrates’)
MASTER’S / BACHELOR’S
Note the position of the apostrophe. • He has a bachelor’s / master’s (degree) in Business Administration. • He has a Master of Business Administration degree. • She got a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry. • He has graduated with Master’sMaster of Arts in Literature.
MASTERPIECE One word
MATCH / MARCH
• During the charity walk, we will march through town to music from the Police band. • The number on your badge must match with that on your T-shirt. • In the evening there will be a charity football match. • In March 2016, the big stories were the Amama Mbabazi court petition and the police siege at Kizza Besigye’s home.
Often Confused Words/Phrases
MAY BE / MAYBE
‘May be’ (two words) is a phrasal verb. ‘Maybe’ is an adverb that means ‘perhaps’ or ‘about’. • It may be a good idea to go to the park. Maybe we will run into the Beckhams.
MEET / MEETING (n)
The common noun is a meeting. But headline writers keen to avoid any extra letter often replace meeting with meet. • Officials clash at FDC party meet. BUT formally, meet (n) means a sports tournament or a fox-hunting expedition on horsebacks.
Abbreviated as MW (caps). E.g, 250MW .Not mw.
METER / METRE
These can be confusing, especially because we erroneously think that every meter is simply the American version of metre. Metre is a unit of length equalling 100cm Meter is a gadget for measuring something, e.g., water meter or electricity meter.
MOREOVER. Not more over.
No need for a hyphen in this word.
NAUGHT / NOUGHT
Naught is nothing. Nought is the figure zero (0)
NEITHER / NOR; NOT / OR Neither goes with nor
Not goes with or • Mr Nyombi did not answer nor or return our calls at the weekend.
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But…. • Mr Nyombi neither answered nor returned our calls at the weekend. • He gave us neither money nor wine. • He did not give us money or wine.
NOT nerve-wrecking (even if something wrecks your nerves).
NO DOUBT / NO QUESTION
No doubt means it is certainly true. No question means it is impossible. • No doubt Obama was president for two terms. • There is no question that Museveni was born in America.
NONE / NON
None means “no one”. Non- means “un-” or “not-” • We invited all the directors but none came. • Uganda has been branded a non-committed member of the NonAligned Movement. • Lecturers say they will strike over non-payment of their allowances.
NO SENSE / NONSENSE
That makes no sense; it is utter nonsense.
ON THE ONE HAND Not on one hand
ON THE RIGHT TRACK/TRUCK
Literally both usages can be correct, but the idiomatic expression normally requires track. • We have boarded the right Isuzu truck in time; our plan is on the right track.
ON / FOR ONE’S PART
A thin line here: For one’s part is best used during attribution. For her part, Sandra pleaded she was not in the city when the incident happened.
Often Confused Words/Phrases
On one’s part best goes with apportioning responsibility. It was an error on her part not to leave the key behind.
If someone is leaving a position, we say he/she is outgoing. After he/she has left, we refer to him/her as the former (Not out-gone). • He criticised out-gone former prime minister Apolo Nsibambi.
OVER SPEEDING SPEEDING
• He was arrested for over-speeding yesterday.
PACKING / PARKING
Commonly confused. Double-check during revision.
PARTNER OR PARTNER WITH?5
With is often unnecessary (except when using the phrasal verb partner up). • Unicef has partnered the newspaper to promote girl-child education. • Michael Carrick partnered Paul Pogba in the Manchester United midfield. • Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger partnered up Sanchez with Giroud in attack, but they managed only one shot on goal.
PEDDLE / PEDAL
To peddle is to sell; the other belongs to the bicycle. • KCCA law enforcement officers yesterday arrested 10 hawkers found peddling fruits on Luwum Street. • I can’t ride my bicycle because the pedals are broken. • Baby Sandra is learning to ride a bicycle but she can’t pedal yet.
PERPETRATORS / PERPETUATORS
To perpetrate means to do something bad, e.g., commit a crime. To perpetuate is to help something, for example a belief, survive or spread.
Partner is a transitive verb (Peter partnered Mohammed). ‘Partner up’ is both transitive and intransitive (Peter partnered up with Mohammed. Wenger partnered Peter and Mohammed).
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• There are no tough punishments for perpetuatorsperpetrators of violent crime. The president’s 10-day trip to Europe will only perpetuate the myth that he spends more time abroad than at work.
This means ‘not in uniform’ – usually in reference to armed forces who are normally expected to be in uniform. I saw a plain-clothes policeman.
POSITION / POSSESSION
Look again: One means a stance or a place. The latter means something you have or own.
• He practised regularly and he improved because of his practice.
To take precedence is to come first; a precedent is a principle derived from a development. • In February 1986, the president yelled at his secretary that his ‘Class A’ instructions must take precedence over other business. • This legal precedent was set in the 2001 Supreme Court ruling in the Kifefe Vs Uganda petition.
PREDECESSOR / SUCCESSOR
Tip: the prefix ‘pre’ means ‘before’. • The presidents who came before Museveni are his predecessors (e.g. Obote). The one who comes after will be his successor.
PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) (Note the spelling)
PRINCIPAL / PRINCIPLE
A principal (noun) is a head of an institution. • He is the principal of Kichwamba Technical College Principal is also an adjective, meaning major or senior. • He is the study’s principal investigator. • He scored four principal passes.
Often Confused Words/Phrases
A principle = a law or guideline on which something is based, e.g., principles of good writing. People who follow certain principles religiously are described as principled. So, a good college principal should be a principled person.
PROPHESY / PROPHECY
He was the man to prophesy that important prophecy.
QUEUE / CUE
A line of people is a queue. On the pool/snooker table, each player has a cue. To take a cue from someone is to follow what they have done.
RAG / RUG
A rag means a (tattered) piece of cloth or old clothes. A rug is a small carpet. • His story is one of from rags to riches. • Mushega pulled the rug from under Besigye (stopped supporting him).
RE- OR SIMPLY RE?
The prefix ‘re’ means ‘again’, but many writers wonder when to follow it with a hyphen and when to simply merge it with the verb it is modifying. Should we say re-edit or reedit? Re-launch or relaunch? Opinion is divided, and if you have a house rule on this, the better. For instance, the UK Guardian Stylebook advises: • “Use re- (with hyphen) when followed by the vowel ‘e’ or a ‘u’ that is not pronounced as “yu”: E.g. re-entry, re-examine, re-urge.” • For all other cases, then, you may use “re” without a hyphen. Reintegrate, reorder, reuse, rearrange; But where the Guardian recommends re-edit, the Chicago Manual on Style wants reedit.
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Generally, compounds start as two words, before they are ‘wedded’ by a hyphen. Eventually, they become one word. When the latter happens, we cannot know, but the dictionary often changes to reflect popular usage. Incontestable is that if simply adding ‘re’ would cause confusion with another word, use re-. For instance, when you write recover do you mean to ‘cover again’ or to ‘get back?’ Does your resign mean to ‘sign again’ or to quit one’s position? Consider the following hypothetical sentences: • Jose Mourinho, who re-signed Paul Pogba, has resigned as Manchester United manager. • The waiter decided to re-cover the table after the table cloth was blown away, but she failed to recover the money that went with the wind. Without a risk of such confusion, you may omit the hyphen, or follow your house rules.
REFUGEE / REFUGE
A refugee is someone who seeks refuge in another country. Those who flee to other areas within their country are called internally displaced persons (IDPs)
REINFORCE Not re-enforce
RENOWN / RENOWNED / REKNOWNED
If I say that he is a reknownedrenowned reporter, it means he is a journalist of great renown. Reknowned – as of February 2017 – is simply a misspelling of renowned.
RESULT IN / RESULT INTO
Result in something is the more common usage. His injury resulted intoin the team’s narrow loss.
ROB / STEAL
Thugs rob you or a bank; but they steal your property or money.
Often Confused Words/Phrases
• WRONG: “They have stolen me.” • WRONG: “They have robbed my money.” • RIGHT: The thugs robbed Peter (of all his money) yesterday. They stole his money.
Is the South Southern African Development Community.
Salon is a place for styling/cutting hair OR a shop for expensive designer clothes. A saloon car (or sedan) has a boot closed off from the sitting area. Its opposite is the hatchback. A saloon bar is a comfortable shop (e.g., within a pub) with seats for selling and drinking alcohol. (Compare: fruit saloon) • We drove her white saloon car to Birungi Beauty Salon, where I cut my hair and she had hers retouched.
SATELLITE Not satelite
SCHOOL DROP OUT / DROPOUT
Drop out is a verb, dropout a noun. • If you drop out of school, people will call you a school dropout.
Transparency activists complain that corrupt politicians go scorchfreescot-free (i.e. unpunished).
SECRETARY-GENERAL / SECRETARIES-GENERAL
The chief executive of a large organisation such as the UN or a political party is its secretary-general. Note that many smaller organisations have a general secretary. Plural is secretaries-general (not secretary generals). Also consider: Director general: plural is directors general Accountant general: plural is accountants general
Write Right, Tight
One president is a head of state; many are heads of state (not heads of states).
SEPARABLE VERBS…AND THEIR NOUNS
The spell-checker is many a keen writer’s favourite friend, but sometimes it can’t help. Take separable or other phrasal verbs, which need only a hyphen or merging for them to morph into nouns. The writer should identify such bogey words and work out strategies to master them. • If you set up an organisation, then you can discuss its set-up. • She makes up stories about institutions; I want to understand the make-up of these institutions. • You must back up your claims with facts; did you really have a system backup? But there are several exceptions, which can be termed ‘hyphenated verbs’ such as double-check, role-play or blow-dry. You need to be aware of these as you go along. • The crisis in Burundi has seen several atrocities committed against helpless civilians. Soldiers routinely gang-rape women, but no soldier has been arrested for a gang rape. For most of the following cases, two separate words are the verb, but one word (merged or hyphenated) is the noun or adjective. Verb Break up Build up Check up Clean up Close up Cover up Flare up Round up Shake up Back up
Noun Break-up Build-up Check-up Clean-up Close-up Cover-up Flare-up Round-up Shake-up backup
Verb Set up Make up Wake up Buy in Gang-rape Jump-start Double-check Role-play Blow-dry
Noun set-up make-up wake-up buy-in Gang rape Jump start Double check Role play Blow-dry
There are many more verbs/nouns that follow the majority format above. But not all phrasal verbs have a matching hyphenated noun. Before you create a noun from a verb, consult your dictionary.
Often Confused Words/Phrases
This is both singular and plural, meaning a set or various sets of related items. • This series has 10 parts; it is a 10-part series. This is the fourth in the 10-part series. • NTV has introduced three new series.
SEVERALLY / SEVERAL TIMES
Severally does NOT mean ‘several times’. Severally means separately or individually – rather than as a group. • Museveni severallyrepeatedly accused the opposition of sabotage. • Over the last year, ministers have severally warned Museveni to consider slowing down.
SHORTS, NOT A SHORT
It’s not unusual to hear a five-year-old child asking for his “short”. You can’t blame him if the chart in class has a pair of shorts labelled simply short! • Junior, don’t say “my short”. Either you say “my shorts” or my “pair of shorts”.
SMIRK / SMACK OF
• “His statement smacks of a conspiracy against me,” Okello said, as his rival smirked (smiled meanly).
SPECIES / SPECIES
The word species is both singular and plural (Let’s not write ‘specie’). • Scientists have discovered one species of birds in Uganda. • At least four species of plants in Karamoja face extinction.
These two words have several usages, some interchangeable. Check the dictionary to be sure. • You cannot expect to stamp out corruption by stamping your feet. • Government provided Shs 5 billion and donors stumped up the rest of the money. • The secretary stamped the documents.
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STATIONARY / STATIONERY Stationary means not moving.
We buy books, pens and files from a stationery shop.
If a building has 12 storeys (floors), in British English we speak of a 12-storeyed (NOT storied) structure. But we can also say a 12-storey or a 12-floor building.
STRAIGHTFORWARD One word
SUBSIDE / SUBSIDISE
Look again; which one did you mean to write? • After the rain subsided, the meeting started, villagers demanding subsidised fertilisers.
These are often confused: what we wear or what’s before court is a suit. There is also the verb “to suit”. The rest are suites. • He has filed a legal suit against her in the High Court. • Many lawyers wear black suits to court. • Our hotel is called Prime Suites. • The hotel has a presidential suite and four bridal suites. • I have to buy another Adobe suite.
This is an adjective, not a verb. This tantamountedwas tantamount to treason.
The bills were tabled in 2010 by Hope Mwesigye. At the time, she was the minister. The bills were tabled in 2010 by thenthe then minister, Hope Mwesigye.
TRADE FAIR / BOOK FAIR NOT fare
Often Confused Words/Phrases
One trouser is just for one leg (so, you can’t wear atrouser). • I have bought a pair of trousers. • My new trousers are already torn.
TURN-UP / TURN UP / TURNOUT
Tens of thousands of people turned up for the UB40 concert last week. This means the turnout (NOT turn-up) was very impressive. Before going for the concert, I took my trousers to the tailor to fix the turn-up. UNHCR is the United Nations High Commissioner (NOT commission) for Refugees. • UNHCR means both the UN agency responsible for refugees as well as the head of this agency. Strange but true.
VARSITY OR UNIVERSITY?
Officially, the term varsity is an adjectival contraction of university – not a noun. But newspaper editors desperate for a short word for a headline now write “Makerere varsity”. • The varsity football team has travelled to Nairobi. • BUT: Ndejje varsity University has reopened.
WANANCHI / WANAINCHI
The Kiswahili word for citizens is wananchi NOT Wanainchi
The word well is often combined with other words to form compound adjectives: well-done, well-regarded, well-played, etc. Two points to note, according to the Macmillan dictionary. • When used before a noun, keep the hyphen in. E.g.: A well-done job or a well-bred dog. • But when the compound appears after the noun, you can leave out the hyphen. E.g. He said my work was well done. OR: The dog was simply well bred.
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The West: Capital W is used when referring to Europe and America6.
WHO / WHOM
Avoid writing whom, when you mean ‘who’. Generally, whom is used where who is accompanied by such a preposition as to, with, for, under, etc. Be hesitant to use whom where it refers to the subject of the sentence. • This is the man whom who donated the bull. • She is the woman to whom the animal was given. • For Whom the Bell Tolls was written by Ernest Hemingway, who was born in America. • Youth groups entertained the audience, singing praises of Amama Mbabazi, whomwho they wished would declare his presidential bid.
Beat or defeat an opponent; win the match or fight. • Manchester United can beat Arsenal but they cannot ‘win’ Arsenal. Instead they win the game or the contest.
WINDBREAK / WINDBREAKER
Windbreak refers to trees meant to guard against extreme wind – or clothes or other shields for the same purpose e.g., on a beach; windbreaker is a type of jacket used against wind or rain.
Some polite reporters think it’s rude to call a woman a woman. So, they call Joseph a businessman but Maria becomes a ‘business lady!’ Under normal circumstances, for instance in hard news reporting, a woman is a woman. Do not feel pressured to call a woman a ‘lady’ unless you have a compelling contextual reason.
But some Ugandans use ‘west’ to refer to ‘western Uganda.’ It might be better to use the latter so as not to confuse it with ‘West’ (Europe and America). Or if we must use ‘west’, then we can keep it lower case.
Often Confused Words/Phrases
• To worm your way into/through something means to go slowly or using clever methods. • To warm someone’s heart means to make someone happy or pleased.
• One teenager/young adult (aged between 14 and 35) is a youth (countable noun). • Several of these people are called youths. • A country’s youthful population – taken as a whole – can be referred to as its youth (plural; uncountable). E.g. “Uganda’s youth have been short-changed by the education system.” • Youth (uncountable) also means the period of your life from teenage to about 35 years). E.g. “In her youth, she was the city’s best-known, heart-stopping beauty.” • Youth (adj) can be used to mean that something is related to or has to do with youths. E.g. “Youth unemployment is very high in Uganda” or “The Youth Livelihood Programme has been launched.” �
Structural Matters A good story thrives not just on its content but also on its structure as well as design. Good writers spend lots of valuable time grappling with where to start the story, or where to put which paragraph, and what to follow it up with. Part of the writer’s mission is to craft a story with a logical structure, giving specific pieces of information at the precise points the discerning reader would expect them. Obviously, second-guessing the reader is a huge task, but a good structure is integral to excellent writing.
Where was All This? A common problem with stories – especially straight news stories – is the failure by writers to locate action/speech in time and place early enough. Some stories go on for hundreds of words without telling the reader where and when the story incident occurred. For instance, the intro quotes the chief justice as having lamented the rising incidence of corruption among magistrates. Paragraph 2 adds: “The chief justice said more magistrates were arrested for bribery in 2015 than in 2014…” Paragraph 3 opens with a direct quote and ends with “the chief justice said”. Paragraph 4 paraphrases what the chief justice ‘said’ about how the judiciary was letting the country down. And then paragraph 6 opens thus: The chief justice was speaking at a two-day workshop for magistrates organised by the Uganda Judicial Association. By this stage, the reader has been asking him/herself: where was this? Was this in an interview with the reporter? When was this? And each successive paragraph has not answered those questions.
Obviously the writer could argue that the reader “will find the information as long as it is in the story”. But good writers structure their writing to deliberately guide the reader to proceed smoothly without prompting disruptive questions. One way around this problem is to answer some basic questions as early as possible and let the reader proceed smoothly. Chief Justice Benjamin Mutungi has decried the rising incidence of corruption among magistrates in Uganda. Para. 2: Speaking at a two-day workshop for magistrates at Serena hotel yesterday, Justice Mutungi said more judges were arrested for bribery in 2015 than in 2014. Paragraph 3 might bring a quote, followed by information about the organisers of the workshop, before the story continues according to the chosen scope. Para. 1:
Another option, which allows you to postpone this basic information by a paragraph or two, employs what you could call a ‘present tense fallacy’. By using the present tense, it is as if the story is happening right here and now – which has the psychological effect of holding off questions about where and when. This style is mostly used in features. But you can use it even in hard news provided you move smoothly from the present tense to the past. Let’s try this with the magistrates’ workshop mentioned above. P1: President Museveni has vowed to ensure that any soldier guilty of corruption rots in jail. P2: Museveni argues that because courts have been lenient, soldiers now rank among the most corrupt public servants in the country. P3: “I can no longer afford to look on as my soldiers become leeches on the people of Uganda, and I will personally ensure that thieves rot in jail,” the president told a magistrates’ workshop in Entebbe yesterday. A word of caution here: jumping from one tense to another has its own risks. If you have employed the above approach in a hard news story, it may be safer to stick to the past tense for the remaining part of your reporting from the event.
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But assuming you wanted to introduce another voice – for example a criminology professor from the university – you can still employ the present tense to introduce the criminologist and his view on Museveni’s statements. P8: However, a leading Makerere University criminologist believes Museveni has little choice if police detectives and state prosecutors continue to file weak cases in court. P9: “It is good that the president is angry about corruption, but anger alone will not keep the corrupt in prison,” Dr Mohamed Kayihura told The Kampala Chronicle by phone last evening. “What the president should do is to overhaul, staff and equip the investigative and prosecution units of the state.”
Rushed Background / Quotes Sometimes background information and direct quotes are introduced too soon and too abruptly, leaving readers irritated. Let us think of the reader as a visitor and the story as your home. Even before your visitor has sat down, you are already bringing a direct quote about the matter for discussion. Or before the visitor knows the substantive matter, you introduce four paragraphs of history that dates seven years back. P1: Health minister Peter Okello has urged nurses and midwives to live for their patients or leave their jobs. P2: “If I hear again that a nurse has neglected a patient with fatal consequences, I will ensure that the culprit goes to jail,” Okello said. P3: Mr Okello added that the oath of service health workers take requires them to fully dedicate themselves to the welfare of their patients and doing otherwise would be a form of fraud. The story starts well, but the quote in paragraph 2 is too abrupt, just as the reader expects to get the where and when of the story. Moreover, as the writer introduces the quote, he misses an opportunity to provide that basic information.
It would be smoother to usher your visitor into your living room, introduce the issue and main parties, and then let people speak (direct quotes) or give them pertinent background or context. However, if the writer had used the intro to answer the ‘when’ (or, to a lesser extent, where) question, this problem would have been significantly diminished: P1: Health minister Peter Okello yesterday urged nurses and midwives to live for their patients or leave their jobs. P2: “If I hear again that a nurse has neglected a patient with fatal consequences, I will ensure that the culprit goes to jail,” Okello told the National Nurses Conference in Entebbe. Admittedly, sometimes it’s difficult for a reader to follow the story without getting a bit of the background. But if some of the background is to come in the second paragraph, it ought to be kept to the minimum needed to follow the story. The rest of it can be served in smaller bits at appropriate junctures later in the story. Perhaps we can remind ourselves of the structure of a very basic news story (below the headline). Some simplify the basic structure into headline, lead and body. But perhaps it would be helpful to nuance the ‘body’ so as to ensure a smooth structure. This is where, again, planning becomes important – that the writer spends time thinking what should follow what for the story to have the power it deserves.
A Basic News Story Structure 1. The lead (intro) - captures the essence as compellingly, yet as concisely, as possible. 2. Backup to the lead – builds on the lead, explains impact, and adds aspects of the 5Ws+H excluded from the intro. 3. Major quote – encapsulates and advances the story. 4. Urgent context/background information. 5. More detailed reporting as per the story plan, interspersed with more quotes, context and background at appropriate junctures. �
Style & Elegance The Sentence It is difficult to discuss good writing without a detour on the ‘sentence,’ a basic unit of communicated action. A sentence is made up of words and groups of words known as clauses. At the very basic level, a clause includes a subject and a verb. If we can fix the health of our sentences, we can fix many of the problems in our writing.
Parts of a Sentence A basic sentence has two essential parts – a subject and a verb – often (but not always) with an object. Subject + verb (+ object) – S + V (+O). The subject is the agent or doer of the action, the verb is the action word, and the object is the recipient or sufferer of the action. The main clause of a sentence must include the subject and the verb (plus the object if necessary) and should be able to make sense on its own. But the minor clause – although it adds meaning to the main clause – would not make sense without the main one.
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For example: Subject Trump Raila Odinga The doctor The Speaker
Verb triumphed attacked ignored will control
Object Uhuru Kenyatta our patient the MPs
Thinking about this relationship at the revision stage, a writer should, at the back of their mind, be able to ask themselves: which is the subject, which is the verb and which is the object? This can help us revise dense sentences into shorter, clearer units.
Complex Sentences The S+V+O sentence is, however, only what you would call a simple sentence – as opposed to a complex one. In a complex sentence, besides the main or independent clause of S+V (+O), you also have a subordinate clause. These subordinate clauses are usually introduced by subordinating conjunctions such as although, as, when, because, if, as long as, or as much as. You will notice that subordinate clauses cannot make sense on their own (without being part of the main clause). Two, the sentence still makes sense if you remove the subordinate clause. Subordinate clause Main clause Because of the post-election Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto violence, were investigated by the International Criminal Court. As long as they do not work writers are bound to produce inferior hard, copy.
Compound Sentences According to the Macmillan dictionary, a compound sentence contains two or more ‘independent’ clauses linked by a ‘coordinating’ conjunction. Hence while complex sentences have subordinating conjunctions, compound sentence clauses are held together by coordinating words such as but, and, or.
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Independent clause 1
Coordinating Independent clause II conjunction I badly wanted to see him but he said he was not well The minister has been because the president felt he was dismissed incompetent When you add adjectives, adverbs and subordinate and independent clauses, a sentence can become dense and harder to follow. Subject+ Adjective A resplendent Raila Odinga, The moody doctor,
Subordinate Adverb Verb clause whose father served repeatedly attacked in the Independence government of Jomo Kenyatta, angered by our completely ignored refusal to pay for gloves in a government hospital where services are supposed to be free,
Object +Adjective the youthful Uhuru Kenyatta. our dying patient.
You may have noticed that as we add details to the sentence, we delay the communication of the main action (verb) â&#x20AC;&#x201C; which is the major point of the sentence. In the second example above, the basic sentence is that â&#x20AC;&#x153;the doctor ignored the patientâ&#x20AC;? (five words); but our elaborate sentence is 27 words long, and you have to read another 22 words to know what the doctor did. Writers need to be alert, to know when they are adding too much detail and making the sentences tedious. Even when adding valuable details, a good sentence needs to quickly and clearly communicate its main action.
Mixed Lengths We are often advised to write shorter sentences, but this is not just a word-counting principle. Shorter sentences are expected to deliver meaning quicker and more clearly.7 7
However, sometimes writers prefer long sentences on account of rhythm and flow, which can be curtailed by short sentences.
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When The Observer was starting in 2004, founding MD Kevin Aliro advised writers to aim at 15-22 words per sentence – especially the ‘intro’. Needless to say, that was only a guideline, albeit a very important one. Since a sentence is a unit of meaning, a writer or sub-editor needs to step back and ask how many different ideas are crammed in the 39-word sentence. The writer then has to decide if the different ideas can’t be put in two or three different sentences so that the reader easily follows the action. Here is the opening part of an April 2016 story that came in the middle of the bitter race for Speaker of Parliament between incumbent Rebecca Kadaga and her deputy Jacob Oulanyah. Look particularly at the second paragraph, a single sentence of 46 words: Deputy Speaker of Parliament Jacob Oulanyah yesterday sought to regain the initiative in the race for Speaker by defending his record in the 2005 removal of term limits and his tenure in the Ninth Parliament. Mr Oulanyah, who is seeking endorsement of NRM to wrest the country’s third office from his boss, Ms Rebecca Kadaga, said in an interview that the 2005 removal of term limits was determined at plenary stage after the committee he was chairing failed to reach consensus. There are two main ideas in the 46-word sentence: what Oulanyah wants, and what he said yesterday about 2005. We could put a full stop at ‘Kadaga,’ giving us two sentences of 19-words and 27 words: Mr Oulanyah is seeking endorsement of NRM to wrest the country’s third-highest office from his boss, Ms Rebecca Kadaga. He said in an interview that the 2005 removal of term limits was determined at plenary stage after the committee he was chairing failed to reach consensus. But the writer could even agree that the first sentence (background) did not have to come so early in the story. Yet long sentences are not banned. In fact some ideas are better communicated through sentences of 40 words than those of 14.
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As writers get better, they master the art of the long sentence, and deliver it with elegant poise and singing sweetness. Experts often recommend that writers mix sentences of different length, depending on the desired pace or literary effect. Shorter, simpler sentences mean the reader gains pace. But they can also come in handy at points of high complexity, where each full stop works like a speed bump. On the other hand, longer complex sentences almost always slow the reader down. A good writer may follow a series of long sentences with a short one – to dramatic effect. In the example on Page 87, the opening sentence is 61 words long! But it is followed by a sentence of four words, then 15 words, 5 – 6 – 4 – 11 – 8 – 6 – 44 – 16 words. Now, this was a stop-the-press story, and the author would probably have revised it better if he had the time. But the point is in the lengths of the successive sentences.
Decongest Intros/Sentences The length and shape of sentences can especially be an issue for the ‘intro’ of the story. A good opening sentence needs to be punchy, clear and uncluttered so that it draws the reader in. Open with a clumsy, muddled maze and the reader could flee to the next story, promising to ‘read this later’. Often ‘later’ never comes. Compare these two openings to a story. Shaken by the fast dwindling water levels of River Rwizi, the main source of water for 10 districts, John Ssemujju, a local council (LC1) chairman of Kasanyaraze Cell in Mbarara municipality, points the finger of blame at encroachers on wetlands upstream, who he says contaminate and shrink the river.(original; 50 words) The published version had two paragraphs of 20 & 26 words: Frightened by the dwindling water levels of River Rwizi in Mbarara, local leader John Ssemujju blames encroachers on wetlands upstream.
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The local council chairman of Kasanyaraze cell in Mbarara municipality says the encroachers contaminate and shrink the river, the main source of water for 10 districts. Not perfect, but more readable.
Keep Subject and Verb Closer One strategy to deliver meaning earlier and more smoothly is to keep the subject and verb of your sentence closer to each other. Consider this sentence: “Mr Chrysostom Ssebanakitta, who was onetime Uganda’s high commissioner to the republics of Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa, and who was famously threatened with castration by the head of the police, has died.” After establishing the subject (Ssebanakitta), you have to endure 28 words to find out what Ssebanakitta has done (died). Here is a 45-word sentence written by a young reporter: Among other issues, the meetings, attended by FDC President Maj Gen Mugisha Muntu, his predecessor Kizza Besigye, DP Secretary General Mathias Nsubuga, Gilbert Bukenya and Hope Mwesigye (who led a three-member delegation that represented Mbabazi) among others, discussed and agreed to form a ‘transition government.’ Thirty-two words separate the subject (meetings) and the verb (discussed). This seems an obvious candidate for splitting into two sentences; one containing the decision, the other the participants. Another example of this is given by Roy Peter Clark, author of 50 Writing Tools: A bill that would exclude tax income from the assessed value of new homes from the state education funding formula could mean a loss of revenue for Chesapeake County schools. As Clark notes, there are 18 words between the subject (bill) and its verb ‘could mean’. Try improving that sentence and see what you come up with.
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According to Clark, one strategy is to relocate the subject and verb close to the beginning, and let the rest of the sentence ‘branch to the right’. Once the reader knows what has happened to Ssebanakitta, he/she can read on calmly or empathetically. Or a reader uninterested in the details on the right may choose to move to the next paragraph. Here is another example of rewriting for clarity, simply by reorganising the words to make meaning early: • Original: He was seen in state minister for Tourism, Antiquities and Wildlife Agnes Akiror’s official car. • Revised: He was seen in the official car of Agnes Akiror, the state minister for Tourism, Antiquities and Wildlife.
Attribution You will also find this where reporters are attributing direct quotes. In the sentence below, you have to wade through 11words and two commas to know what happened to Mr Okello: “I cannot and will not go against the wishes of the international community,” Mr Okello, 83, who was a United Nations under-secretary-general in the 1970s, said. This can be improved by placing the verb (said) just before the subject (Mr Okello). “I cannot and will not go against the wishes of the international community,” said Mr Okello, 83, a United Nations undersecretary-general in the 1970s. Compare “Any matter that comes on the floor comes with the leave of the Speaker, and that is the starting point; so, if there are any lapses, then he is responsible,” Jinja Municipality East MP, Paul Mwiru, who was speaking after a heated argument with Oulanyah in the South Committee room, said. with:
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“Any matter that comes on the floor comes with the leave of the Speaker, and that is the starting point; so, if there are any lapses, then he is responsible,” said Jinja Municipality East MP Paul Mwiru, after a heated argument with Oulanyah in the South Committee room.
Monotony and the Sound of Writing Coaches advise writers to read their sentences out loud and listen. Good writing should sing like music, the voice rising and falling, with rhyme and rhythm, with variety.
First Lines While revising your story, pay some attention to how your sentences/ paragraphs begin. Within a paragraph, two or more consecutive sentences that start exactly the same way (whether in structure or word choice) can make tedious reading. Responding to the criticism, Mr Mwesigye vowed to expose the liars in his constituency who he accused of tarnishing his name. Para. 7: Turning to the women groups to his left, Mwesigye wondered how they could side with his opponent despite his sacrifices for them. Para. 8: Without mincing words, Mwesigye swore that he would not accept defeat because the election had already been rigged by local media. During revision, you could leave paragraph P7 intact but change P6 and P8: Para. 6:
P6: Mr Mwesigye rejected the criticism and vowed to expose the liars in his constituency, who he accused of tarnishing his name. P8: He swore that he would not accept defeat because, as he put it, the election had already been rigged by local media.
Transitions Some writers seek a ‘flowing’ transition from one sentence/paragraph to the next, only to end up with sterile prose. Beware of your ‘cliché words’ and phrases – those that you tend to overuse. Some of the common
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‘victims’ include ‘however’, ‘yet’, ‘in addition to’, ‘besides’, ‘furthermore’, ‘nevertheless’, ‘although’ and even ‘but although’ or ‘but however’. As you have figured out, such obsession with ‘flow’ results into monotony. You can search the text (ctrl+F) for the particular word to see the frequency and spacing of the usage. Then you will not have every third sentence start with “however” or “but” or “in addition”. Transitions themselves are not bad. In fact, persuasive writers employ them to keep readers seamlessly rushing from one paragraph onto another. But overuse of a limited range of transitions does not work. The internet offers inexhaustible resources on this topic. I found a useful list of 52 transitional words and phrases on one site8: they included ‘alternatively’, ‘altogether’, ‘by comparison’, ‘considering this’, ‘incidentally’, ‘on the whole’, and ‘surprisingly’. Usually the catch is in defining the relationship between the last paragraph and the one you are transitioning to, which helps to focus your search for the perfect transition. To that end, the Writing Centre9 of Texas A & M University lists several categories of transitions, including sequence, comparison, cause and effect, time and example. Yet to avoid the risk of sounding monotonous if every paragraph starts with a ‘bridge’, sometimes the best transition to use is none. Careful juxtaposition of a particular idea after another can work in such a way that the second paragraph is seen to naturally flow from the first without needing a conventional bridging word.
Writing Positively Style experts argue that positive sentences yield stronger and more concise language. Still, many people, especially politicians, often use ambiguous, negative sentences: • “Buying a new presidential jet is not the most useful thing for this country at this moment,” the opposition leader said. This does not mean we should report the opposition leader as having said that the presidential jet is ‘useless’. When writers paraphrase other people, 8 http://impertinentremarks.com/2013/03/52-transitional-phrases-to-keepyour-writing-connected/ 9 http://writingcenter.tamu.edu/Students/Writing-Speaking-Guides/ Alphabetical-List-of-Guides/Drafting/Transitions.
Style & Elegance
they must strive to reflect the meaning of the Speaker. But whenever we can, let us avoid wordy, imprecise negative reportage: • The man who came was not tall. (i.e., he was short) • The traffic was not flowing fast at all. (The traffic was slow)
Avoiding Wordiness Writers tend to reflect the spoken language in a given context. But the discipline of written language requires us to prune our sentences of much of the verbiage. COMMON This is a topic that evokes… Mr Olal, who is the MD of… The word is used for attribution purposes. He uttered statements of an undiplomatic nature.
TIGHTER This topic evokes… Mr Olal, MD of… The word is (used) for attribution. He uttered undiplomatic statements.
Repeating Words One brevity trick is what Roy Peter Clark calls ‘word autonomy’. The principle is that no key word should appear more than once in one sentence or – if you have your way – in one paragraph. So, whenever you see a key word reappearing in the same sentence, take that as an invitation to cut out at least two or three words. This also means that a writer should work towards expanding the variety of key words available for use. Using different key words can help in conveying meaning with precision and elegance. Rewriting to eliminate the repetition almost always gives you a shorter sentence. Consider this sentence: • Whereas gorilla tourism has thrived economically, there is rising unease that communities are getting a raw deal out of the gorilla tourism. (22 words) The repetition of the phrase gorilla tourism could have been avoided. One could rewrite this to:
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• Whereas gorilla tourism has thrived, some fear that it is giving communities a raw deal. (15 words) Or consider revising this intro: • The National Union of Coffee Agribusinesses and Farm Enterprises (NUCAFE), a national coffee farmers’ organisation, has won the Premagyan award. (20 words) To this (pushing definition to the next para): • The National Union of Coffee Agribusinesses and Farm Enterprises (NUCAFE) has won the Premagyan award. (16 words) Or even to this ‘blind lead’ (pushing the name to the next paragraph): • A Ugandan coffee farmers’ organisation has won the Premagyan award for what organisers called transformative work. (17 words)
The Stem and its Branch Clauses Another image to consider in our quest for coherent complex sentences is a tree. A living tree has leaves and branches sitting on the stem, which is firmly rooted in the ground. If a branch is cut from the stem, that branch will die. Sadly, we see endings to complex sentences that are broken at the stem. To appreciate this analogy, you have to identify the stem or trunk of the sentence on which all leaves and branches must sit. In this example, consider the part without the highlight as the trunk, and see if the various highlighted parts would properly sit on the stem: • His daughter is a really bright girl and also very beautiful. If you remove the green part, the sentence is disjointed. We can revise this by rearranging the branches: • His daughter is a really bright and very beautiful girl. If you removed “really bright and”, the remaining part would still be sitting on the trunk as: His daughter is a very beautiful girl.
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Broken The exercise was carried out in Masaka, in Kampala, Mbarara and in Wakiso.
Fixed The exercise was carried out in Masaka, Kampala, Mbarara and Wakiso. OR The exercise was carried out in Masaka, in Kampala, in Mbarara and in Wakiso.
Positioning of Key Information It is advisable to put the key words of your sentence either at the beginning or at the end. The logic is that the reader is more likely to grasp and remember what comes just after or just before a full stop. If you studied some outstanding writers, and looked at the words at the end of each sentence, you could find a pattern of powerful words. Consider this passage from a speech by an opposition politician in an African country: This man captured power and promised a significant change, but the country is in indignant rage. He promised to fight corruption, but we are now ruled by greed. He said he would strive for development but our country is now an enclave of decay. The last words: Rage, greed, decay. Compare: • The education budget has risen to Shs 1.2 trillion from Shs 800bn. With: • The education budget has risen from Shs 800bn to Shs 1.2 trillion. The same principle explains why good writers often care how their stories begin and how they end: How stories begin will determine if readers’ attention is grabbed. How they end is what readers are likely to carry with them as they move on. BUT you can also put key words at the very beginning of the sentence. They will especially become powerful if they are not the subject of the sentence. (According to the S+V+O equation, the subject is expected
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to be at the beginning of the sentence and a normal subject would not gain any additional force for being there.) • Beauty personified she was.
Mind Your Numbers It is a common joke among some readers and editors that we journalists can’t count or that we ‘failed mathematics’. That’s not necessarily true. We know many journalists who got distinctions in mathematics while they studied it. Or in some cases it may well be true – otherwise, maybe, we would have been engineers. As many editors admitted in interviews, our stories often mix up numbers and statistics, which only perpetuates the stereotype about our numerical inadequacies. But we don’t have to be maths wizards to overcome this problem. The late Observer newspaper founding MD Kevin Aliro often told his charges that: “Whenever you find a figure in a story, stop and think about it: question it. Does it make sense?” That is useful advice for the writer and editor. You can highlight any figure as you write and move on. During revision, you can go over that figure and confirm that indeed it is accurate. Numbers are important for telling a compelling story and impressing key points upon the reader. But numbers and statistics can mislead and misinform; so, a reporter and editor must stay alert and not be swayed or intimidated by flashy numbers and impressive statistics. Context is important. Crosscheck and verify. Let’s consider these examples: 1. Some 564 students received degrees and diplomas, 20 per cent female and 73% male. 2. The World Bank has given Gulu district $15 million (Shs 502 billion) for fighting HIV/Aids. (*$1 = Shs 3,350) 3. The minister said that since 1986, Uganda’s population had grown from 14 million to 36 million – a jump of 56 per cent. Under pressure of deadlines, a reporter can write these figures, and the editor can innocently assume that the author has got these basic calculations right. But what if we apply Aliro’s prescription and cast a fault-seeking eye at these figures?
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Graduands: 20% female and 73% male? Does this add up? If you add 20 and 73, do you get 100%? No, you get 93%. So, are we telling the reader that 7% (39) of the graduands were intersex people with both male and female sex organs? Most unlikely. This self-reflection could lead us to look for the right figures from the reporter’s notebook or the fact sheet given out during the graduation ceremony. If these do not help, we may have to call the university for the correct figures. Dollar conversion: So, Gulu district has got Shs 502 billion? That sounds too big to be true! What is the budget for the ministry of health or local government this financial year? Well, it could be true, but let’s calculate it again. One dollar gets you Shs 3,350: if we multiply $15,000,000 by 3,350, we get a more realistic Shs 50250000000. A good reporter will try to simplify that figure by converting it to millions or billions, but if you get one zero or comma wrong, you could create an embarrassing mistake. Let’s insert a comma before each three digits, starting from the extreme right: Shs 50,250,000,000. This gives us Shs 50.25 billion. Not 502 billion. According to Monitor’s Odoobo Bichachi, one step that can help is for a newspaper to guide on which currency rates to use. For instance, can we all go to the central bank website and use the day’s rates? Otherwise, if we use different rates, we can end up with the same amount of dollars converting to different amounts on different pages in the same edition of the newspaper. Population: There is nothing odd about the population growing by 56 per cent over several decades. After all, Uganda’s population grows faster than Usain Bolt runs. But what if we took that routine second look at the figure? A quick Google search will tell you that if a variable increases from 23 to 27, the percentage increase is (The new figure – the old figure) / (the old figure) X 100. So, in the population figures, the percentage increase will be
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36 – 14 = 22 22/14 = 1.57 1.57 × 100 = 157% So, actually the population has increased by 157% – not 56%.
Over-writing and Adjectives We are often reminded that stories need colour, detail, description or something else to make readers ‘feel’ or ‘see’ what we are writing about. And heaven knows we often try. But many an experienced editor will admit there are times when they feel the writer is ‘overdoing’ it. It is not always clear, even to the editors, what constitutes overwriting, especially when a reporter is describing things as they saw them. Perhaps intuitively, we weed out some of the adjectives that the writer feels would concretise his picture. But that is as it should be. In 50 Writing Tools, Roy Peter Clark says that a good writer should know when to “back off” and when to “show off”. Backing off means keeping away your ‘concretising’ adjectives, while showing off means indulging yourself. Here is his formula: If the story is very serious, keep it plain and simple; but if your story is light and lively, feel free to exaggerate. Let us paint two scenarios: death in the city and a city carnival.
Plain Serious When a great man or woman has died and his home is flooded by tears of family and friends, there will certainly be people crying sorrowfully, narrating sadly or recalling inconsolably. Yet you are often surprised by how simply great writers report such events. Despite the temptation to outdo yourself and make the reader ‘feel,’ this is the time to back off and let the plain facts do the talking. One argument is that if a moment is so sad, then the reader is already weighed down and they do not need a heavily adjectival emotional overload. The death of Nelson Mandela is one such emotionally leaden story. But let’s look at how the British Guardian and the BBC websites started the stories announcing his passing.
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Nelson Mandela, the towering figure of Africa’s struggle for freedom and a hero to millions around the world, has died at the age of 95. South Africa’s first black president died in the company of his family at home in Johannesburg after years of declining health that had caused him to withdraw from public life…
South Africa’s first black president and anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela has died at the age of 95. Mr Mandela led South Africa’s transition from white-minority rule in the 1990s, after 27 years in prison for his political activities. He had been receiving intensive medical care at home for a lung infection after spending three months in hospital. Announcing the news on South African national TV, President Jacob Zuma said Mr Mandela was at peace…
Party of Words In contrast, if you are reporting a great national victory or a fairy tale wedding, you are free to throw in all the colour or adjectives that capture the mood and spread the joy. Obviously a quality media house will not accept ludicrous embellishments or concoctions, but it is too serious a writer that cannot notice and take advantage of a happy moment. Here is an extract from The Observer website’s reporting of Stephen Kiprotich’s gold medal heroics in 2012: In a feat now already etched in Uganda’s sporting history, an achievement that will be talked about for generations to come, a success that catapulted an entire nation from a dead silence to the highest scales of ecstasy, Stephen Kiprotich ran the race of his life to win GOLD in the marathon on the closing day of the London 2012 Olympics. The reaction was indescribable. In London, the best-selling Sun newspaper spoke of a shock win for the 23-year-old
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Ugandan. For many, it was disbelief. A few managed to get excited. Then it was ululation. And disbelief again – what if he will be disqualified for something? And then, it all started to sink in. Uganda was the Olympic marathon champion. For the first time since John Akii Bua stormed the big stage by winning the 400 metre hurdles in Munich in 1972, Stephen Kiprotich had run a race many Ugandan athletes dream of, but only a few ever run – a race of Olympic gold. On a day remarkable for its summer heat, Kiprotich proved the hottest man in the pack.
Chorus Attribution? When we put words in double quotation marks, we are telling the reader that these are the specific words that were said by the person we are quoting. But sometimes you have direct quotes attributed to more than one person. The reader is left wondering whether the quoted people were reading from a written statement: “When the right time comes, the party organs will make a decision and if they choose Museveni, he will stay,” the officials told journalists. This is most probably inaccurate. The reporter probably talked to a number of officials who severally made the same point. He then chose to quote one of the officials, but used the plural attribution to show that other people said the same thing. Rather than say “the officials said,” we could write: “One of the officials said.”
Confusing Proximity If we quote Mr Byamah and follow this immediately with another quote attributed to Mr Okello, we risk creating disruptive confusion in the reader’s mind. Yes, we eventually clarify the confusion, but why not avoid it altogether? Consider these two consecutive paragraphs from a story in which local leaders spoke about a meeting they had held with
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former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi, who had not yet declared his presidential ambitions: “He also told us that he could not just start running for president. He added that he had not even discussed it with Museveni, but was a loyal cadre,” said Nelson Natukunda, LC III chairman for Kihiihi sub-county, after a meeting with Mbabazi in April 2014. “He insisted that there was no problem between him and Mr Museveni,” said Joseph Amanyire from Ndorwa. After the first paragraph, you think that the second quote also belongs to Mr Nelson Natukunda – only to reach the end and find that it was said by Amanyire. If you have nothing to put between the two quotes, one option is to start the second quote by introducing the Speaker. That way the reader knows upfront that we have moved on from Natukunda. Joseph Amanyire, from Ndorwa, added of Mbabazi: “He insisted that there was no problem between him and Mr Museveni.”
Ordering Adjectives One of the teasing aspects of English is the order of words: what comes first when you have several adjectives in a sentence? Often most of us simply follow our ear, but there is something close to a formula. (Of course all formulas can be defied for a reason, but it’s worthwhile to know them).
Place First, Then Time Often the place comes before time. So, it’s location first. If it will aid memory, we can think here about a real estate maxim: the value of a property depends on location, location and location. If we have two or more ‘layers’ of place, we may start with the smaller location. Let’s look at these sentences: 1. “This place is a paragon of reliability,” Dr Okao said in Bunamwaya on Tuesday at the company offices. 2. Some 8,000 cases of explosives, narcotics and ivory are tracked by dogs every year within the country.
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3. The money was delivered on June 17 to the boda boda leaders by Kinkiizi East MP Chris Baryomunsi during the official unveiling of the Mitano temporary bridge. Initially, one may not notice anything with these sentences (after all, all the information is there). But read them out loud and a discerning reader will find themselves halting. Let’s attempt to apply the ‘location first’ rule. 1. “This place is a paragon of reliability,” Dr Okao said at the company offices in Bunamwaya on Tuesday. 2. Some 8,000 cases of explosives, narcotics and ivory are tracked by dogs within the country every year. 3. The money was delivered to the boda boda leaders by Kinkiizi East MP Chris Baryomunsi during the official unveiling of the Mitano temporary bridge on June 17. But as stated earlier, any of the guidelines/principles in this handbook can be ignored to good effect. Sentence 3 can also be written thus. The money was delivered to the boda boda leaders by Kinkiizi East MP Chris Baryomunsi on June 17, during the official unveiling of the Mitano temporary bridge. Note that the second option comes with a comma mid-sentence. That comma, when the sentence is read out loud, brings a certain acoustic harmony.
When What? Sometimes you switch place and time around to avoid confusion or improve clarity of the sentence. Imagine it is Thursday in Kampala and the president says: • “I am going to get this issue resolved once and for all.” Obeying the place before time rule, the Sunday paper reporter writes: • “The president said in Kampala that he was going to get the issue resolved on Thursday.” Of course the president spoke on Thursday but did not say when he would handle the matter. Yet the reporter’s sentence suggests that the issue will be addressed on Thursday. The ‘correct’ sentence should have been:
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• The president said in Kampala on Thursday that he was going to get the issue resolved.
OSACoNaM Hierarchy Away from adjectives of time and place, sometimes we combine three or four adjectives to describe one noun. An editor will feel a certain ordering of adjectives does not ‘flow’ well. But what is flowing well? Or is it down to the editor’s ear? Opinion may be divided, but some writing resources give this hierarchy: opinion, size, age, colour, nationality, material. Opinion Size ugly short cheap small boring fat
Age new used old
Colour red yellow brown
Nationality Material American woollen Korean wooden Japanese plastic
That, of course, presupposes that you might need all these adjectives plastered on one noun, but rarely will this situation arise. • She wore a fancy, long, red, Italian cotton dress. • He badly missed his girlfriend, a sexy, petite, young, light-skinned African American woman. A variant of this formula appears as: opinion-size-age-shape-colourorigin-material-purpose. It may not be possible to exhaust such a nuanced discussion here, but a quick internet search will yield several resources for a keen writer to explore. The point is that as a keen writer, you know that some orderings will be smooth for the reader, while others will present speed bumps for someone cruising through your work.
Isolated Pronouns After three or four paragraphs of context, background and quotes, a reporter may want to use a pronoun for one of the characters he last referred to by name. But by simply using a pronoun, you risk having readers going back to establish who exactly your pronoun refers to. To avoid this, after a ‘detour,’ it is better to use the character’s name (and maybe even title).
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P3: Education minister Jessica Alupo sneered at attempts to set up a committee to probe her ministry. P4: She argued that if there were any shortcomings, they were minor and did not warrant what would be a disruptive investigation. (This is followed by four paragraphs of context and background) P9: She reasoned that it would be impossible to expect teachers to know all the domestic problems children face at home. The pronoun ‘she’ would be better replaced with ‘Minister Alupo’, at least for clarity.
Misallocated Pronouns This is a very common problem, although few readers/editors think of it as such: it has to do with a scenario where, for instance, the writer is referring to the king, but then uses the reference ‘she’. Let us refer to the S+V+O relationship we saw earlier in a complex sentence. • The king beat up the traders because they had dared to insult his wife, the queen. This compound sentence reports two actions: One is in the first clause: The king beat up the traders. (S) + (V) + (O) Then the second clause: The traders insulted the queen. (S) + (V) + (O) Some journalists might write the full sentence in a reversed manner, starting with the minor clause: Because they [S] insulted [V] the queen [O], the king[S] beat up [V] the traders [O]. Can you spot the problem? With this latter construction, the noun referred to by the pronoun in the first clause must be the same as the noun referred to at the start of the second clause. Above, the first clause has ‘they’ (traders) as its subject, but the second clause starts by referring to the king as the subject.
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Once we have mastered that principle, we can figure out how to rewrite the sentence. Let’s try: Option 1: Because they insulted the queen, the traders were beaten up by the king. Here ‘they’ in the first clause refers to ‘the traders’ at the start of the second clause. Now, obviously you may not like the passive voice imposed on you by this principle, but you can rewrite the sentence in the active voice: Angry that the traders had insulted the queen, the king beat them up. It is the king who was ‘angry’, and it is the same king who beat the traders. Look at more examples of problematic sentences from our writing: • Two years after he was convicted and sentenced to ‘life in prison’ for killing a 12-year-old boy in Masaka by the High Court, the Court of Appeal yesterday upheld that sentence against businessman Godfrey Kato Kajubi. Obviously this 38-word sentence from one of our newspapers has other problems, but let’s focus on the misused pronoun (he). So, is the writer suggesting that the Court of Appeal is the one that was convicted? Let’s rewrite: • Two years after he was convicted and sentenced to ‘life in prison’ for killing a 12-year-old boy in Masaka by the High Court, businessman Godfrey Kato Kajubi yesterday lost his appeal in the Court of Appeal. Let’s look at another example: • Murdered for exposing the affair, Sandra buried Okello at Nabweru. The above sentence leaves a reader wondering how a woman who was already murdered managed to bury Okello! Can you try to rewrite it? OR consider this excerpt from an October 2016 article by a leading Ugandan lawyer: As a regulator, how could Crane Bank not only have failed to meet its statutory minimum requirements but also dipped to at least 50% or below the statutory minimum requirement? As a regulator vested with the power to ensure compliance
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with all the provisions of the law..., how did BOU completely miss this to justify the takeover premised on the bank having been â&#x20AC;&#x2DC;significantly undercapitalisedâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;? A discerning reader might be left wondering if BOU and Crane Bank are both regulators. The first sentence suggests that Crane Bank is a regulator. The second means BOU is the regulator. ďż˝
Punctuation & Grammar First, let us clear up confusion that often crops up â&#x20AC;&#x201C; between grammar and punctuation. Grammar can be taken as the system of classification of words and their usage in sentences. Punctuation, on the other hand, refers to the usage of specified marks to govern relationships between words and phrases. Itâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s not unusual to hear reporters talk openly that they do not understand punctuation or even denigrate editors who painstakingly try to make their stories readable. Such reporters see grammar and punctuation as irritants that need to be done away with. That is unfortunate, because punctuation and grammar are taken seriously by serious media houses. Editors break into stress-relieving laughter every once in a while after catching grammar flaws that would have embarrassed their media houses. The internet is full of examples of sentences whose meaning can be dramatically changed by missing or misplacing a comma or some other punctuation mark. Compare: Besigye said Museveni is responsible for terrorising police officers. With: Besigye, said Museveni, is responsible for terrorising police officers. Or: In 1998, Lwanga said Museveni was still a good man. With: In 1998, Lwanga said, Museveni was still a good man. In each pair, the comma changes the meaning of the sentence: in the first pair, the first sentence means it was Besigye who made the statements. But the second sentence means it was Museveni who spoke about Besigye.
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In the second pair, the first sentence means that Lwanga spoke in 1998. On the other hand, the second sentence does not tell us when Lwanga spoke. It only tells us when Museveni was still a good man – in 1998. Each writer could do with a periodic crash course in punctuation and grammar and there are many available on the internet. Even the most experienced writers will learn something new regarding a particular aspect each time they take a five-minute ‘refresher’. Here are a few grammar issues that keep coming up even from good writers:
The Semicolon The semicolon (;) is a regular irritant for good sub-editors – because it is frequently misused. Here is a summary of what the semicolon does: 1. As a ‘soft full stop’, the semicolon separates two or more closely related sentences. In this case for you to know if you have used the semicolon well, replace it with a full stop and see if the two sentences make perfect sense. • Mornings in London are extremely cold; the sweater and jacket are my best friends. • A politician and a serious journalist should not really be friends; most of the time they are simply using each other. * Notice how the commas at ‘cold’ and ‘friends’ have been replaced with semicolons. 2. A separator of compound or complex items: The semicolon is used to separate phrasal items in a list. These phrases could be several words long, or some items could already include a comma such that it would confuse the reader to use a ‘separation comma’. • The project will be jointly implemented by the ministries of finance, planning and economic development; agriculture, animal industry and fisheries; and gender, labour and social development. • Joking with her sister, Cindy said her ideal man had to meet the following criteria: be able to build her a seaside mansion with a good view of the waterfront; buy her a red car capable of
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reaching 240 km/hr in eight seconds; and take her for a holiday in a different continent each year.
Unwanted Semicolons & Missing Commas Other districts are;areAmuria, Moroto, Kisoro and Kabale. The letter has been copied to justices;justices Steven Kavuma, Nshimye, Tibatemwa, Eldad Mwangusya, and Geoffrey Kiryabwire, among others. * NO semicolon is needed at ‘justices’ or at ‘are’ in the previous sentence. The semicolon does not announce a list. * Notice the comma at the end of a list just before ‘among others’. • The president highlighted several challenges facing the roads sector in the western region, including shoddy works and corruption during compensation. * Comma inserted just before the gerund ‘including’. • Solomon paid attention to every word the minister said, taking notes between sips of his soda. * Comma inserted just before the gerund ‘taking’.
The Two-Comma Principle Non-restrictive relative clauses are offset by two commas, splitting the sentence into three parts. Maj General Peter Dong, a brother of President Saul Mandong, has fled the country. But even good writers often only put one comma, ignoring the advice of Strunk and White in Elements of Style – it’s a lesser sin to have no comma than to have only one. Indeed to a keen user of language, the sentence below is only saved by the hope that the reader ‘will understand’. • Mutesi, who lost her father to HIV/Aids spoke about sleeping on the streets 12 years ago. *Second comma is needed after ‘Aids’. One test to know if you have used this principle well is to try removing the non-restrictive clause and its two commas and see if the remaining sentence makes perfect sense.
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• The judge said the suspect, for reasons best known to himself, had murdered his wife. Removing the highlighted clause would give you: The judge said the suspect had murdered his wife.
Restrictive Clauses But no commas are needed for ‘restrictive clauses’ A journalist who has no ethics is a ticking time bomb. þ The two-comma principle does not apply to the above sentence. If we tried to write it with commas, it would look like this: A journalist, who has no ethics, is a ticking time bomb. ý If we tried to remove the highlighted part with its two commas, the sentence would read: A journalist is a ticking time bomb. Now, it is false to suggest that any journalist is a time bomb. But more importantly, it is not what the writer meant.
Double Attribution Sometimes writers attribute a direct quote at the beginning and at the end: Francis Akello, a group member from Teso, said: “We might be looking at one person as a problem, but we might be our own enemies. Why are we manipulated?” he said. The immediate intervention is to delete the attribution at the end. Alternatively, one could have written: “We might be looking at one person as a problem, but we might be our own enemies. Why are we manipulated?’ said Frances Akello, a group member from Teso.
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Lists and Items with ‘And’ As you will remember from our primary school days, we are told to separate items in a list with a comma, with ‘and’ preceding the last item. • He came with Tom, Tina and Trevor. But imagine your list comprises three ministries: • Health • Finance • Education and Sports Many people will write: The president praised the ministries of Health, Finance, Education and Sports. To a reader, this suggests that Education is one ministry and Sports is another, which is not the case in Uganda. If one of the items in the list already includes an ‘and’, you still need another ‘and’ before the last item: The president praised the ministries of Health, Finance, and Education and Sports. * You have most probably noticed the comma after ‘Finance’, contrary to what we learnt in school. As noted earlier in this book, language keeps changing: more and more writers now take the liberty to put that extra ‘Oxford’ or ‘serial’ comma because they hear it when they read their lists out loud. This is usually so where some or all of the listed items are two or more words long – e.g. ‘Education and Sports’. According to the Oxford dictionary, the serial comma is optional, and rightly so. In the above example of Tom, Tina and Trevor, I did not hear a comma. Yet I can think of speakers who would pause so heavily after Tina that a reporter would feel compelled to denote that with a comma. This reminds us, then, that the comma is primarily a function of voice.
The Hyphen (-) and Dash (–) Many writers use these two interchangeably but they are different. Hyphens are some of the most under-appreciated punctuation marks, but they can be critical to good writing and clarity.
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On most computer keyboard the hyphen (-) is located just below the underscore (_). It is often used to join words or link figures, for instance in sports scores. • A seven-kilometre road journey. • A three-man panel of judges. • He is a five-year-old boy. (BUT no hyphens in: He is five years old) • He died on the Jinja-Kamuli road. • Arsenal beat Chelsea 3-0. * Notice, as in the first three examples, that the modified noun, even if in plural, takes the singular form: kilometre, man, year. The hyphen – or lack of it – can dramatically change the meaning of a sentence. Consider the following two sentences: 1. I saw a man-eating crocodile out there. 2. I saw a man eating crocodile out there. • Sentence 1 means you saw a crocodile that eats people. • Sentence 2 means you saw a man who was eating crocodile meat. • If you miss the hyphen when reading sentence 1, you could be eaten by the crocodile. • But if you love crocodile and you mis-read the second sentence, you may end up like a chicken that flees from maize seeds thrown at it.
Omitting the Hyphen As stated earlier, language is dynamic. Some previously hyphenated compound adjectives now go without the ‘little sleeping stick’. According to the BBC language-teaching website, compound adjectives with adverbs ending in -ly don’t need the hyphen whether they come before or after the noun. For example: • This book discusses 180 commonly repeated mistakes. • We have only tackled mistakes that are commonly repeated.
The Dash The dash is about twice the size of the hyphen or longer. A major difference is that while the hyphen stands between words, the dash separates phrases.
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There are two types of dashes: The en dash (–) is called so because it is about the width of the letter n. Then there is the em dash (—), which is about the width of letter m in your font. In most cases however, especially in British English, the shorter en dash is preferred — many people finding this em dash a little too long and inelegant.
Typing the En Dash The dash is a little more difficult to type and its usage more complicated. But once you have mastered it, it will be as easy as pasta to Italians. There are at least two ways of typing the dash:
Auto-formation 1. The dash automatically forms if you type a hyphen between two spaced words or letters and you follow them with a space. For example: A+space+hyphen+space+B+space On inserting the last space, you will notice that the hyphen becomes a dash. You can then delete A and B and remain with your dash. * This method is also used to get the em dash, only that here you type two successive hyphens instead of one.
Using Numeric Keypad The above method works well once you get used to it. Trouble is if you type two spaces somewhere, it will not work. So, you might find yourself longing for a more controlled way to dash forward. You can use your numeric keypad. If you are working on a desktop, that’s easy: just ensure that the ‘NumLock’ or ‘NumLk’ light on the right-side numeric keypad is on. Then, hold Alt down and type 0150 on the numeric keyboard (Alt+0150). Once you release the last zero, the dash should appear. * For the em dash the shortcut is Alt+0151
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Laptop Users For laptop users, the trick is in finding your numeric keypad. Most users I know never use the numeric keypad on their laptops and so would not know where to find it. I wouldn’t have known, either, if it weren’t for the all-knowing Google. • Your laptop numeric keypad is superimposed on part of your main keypad. You can notice that keys like 7, 8, 9, etc. have smaller digits and other characters. Those form your numeric keypad. • To activate your numeric keypad, press and hold down ‘fn’ (in the bottom left corner) + ‘numlk’ in the top right corner. (Do the same to deactivate the numeric keypad) • With the numeric keypad thus active, you can either press Alt+0150 (using numeric digits) for the en dash or you can press Ctrl+Minus (Again using the numeric minus sign) *For the em dash, the numeric shortcut is Ctrl+Alt+Minus Note: The spefics might vary from one type of computer or laptop to another; check with your user manual if in doubt.
The Dramatic Dash • Some sentences with clauses separated by commas can benefit from a dash – not a hyphen – for more dramatic effect. • In the beginning there was no risk to life under Idi Amin – until we started speaking out.
What’s the If? Used well, if-clauses exude quiet elegance; but they can also be easily confused. These ‘conditionals’ are sentences where the validity of one statement depends on the validity of another. • If you do not give him money, he will end up in deep trouble. • If you do not read this book, you will miss a great opportunity. The if-clauses follow a certain tense pattern, which writers must learn lest they confuse readers. In school, if-clauses were such a confusing lot that some would ask: “and if I do not learn this?” Well, the inner voice would say, “you will lose marks”.
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We still write these sentences in a confused manner and leave editors, sub-editors, or readers to sort things out. We may not know what is ‘if-zero’ or ‘if-3’, but we can easily master the flow so that we do not mix things up. We can avoid writing the first clause in ‘if-1’ and the second clause in ‘if-3’. Here is a sample: Type
Conditional (if ) clause
If-zero If you beat people hard
Result clause …they get hurt
If you oppress him
…he will fight back
If you oppressed him
…he would fight back
If I were him
…I would leave the hospital now.
If you had oppressed him …he would have fought back
If you study the above table, you will notice a certain pattern as regards tense of the various categories: Let’s look at those patterns Type
Conditional (if ) clause tense If-zero Present simple If-1 Present simple If-2 Past simple (E.g. played) If-3 Past participle (E.g. had played)
Result clause tense Present simple Future simple Past future (E.g. would play) Modal past participle (E.g. would/ could/might+Have+played)
* It’s important not to mix up a conditional clause of ‘if-2’with a result clause of ‘if-3’. For example, AVOID sentences like: If he attacked me, I would have beaten him. It should be: If he attacked me, I would beat him. OR: If he had attacked me, I would have beaten him. �
Miscellaneous Army Ranks Ranks of soldiers are not easy for journalists to master, unless one is particularly keen on the military. But soldiers are known to take offence when journalists ‘demote’ them by assigning them lower ranks. Others get nervous if given higher ranks – lest their bosses think it’s Captain Mukisa masquerading as a lieutenant colonel. Here are the commissioned ranks, from the lowest. Second Lieutenant Lieutenant Captain Major Lieutenant Colonel Colonel Brigadier Major General Lieutenant General General
1 star 2 stars 3 stars 1 crane 1 star and 1coat of arms 2 stars and 1 coat of arms 3 stars and coat of arms 1 sword and 1 coat of arms 1 sword, 1 star, and 1 coat of arms 1 sword, 2 stars, and 1 coat of arms
In military speak, the brigadier is the first general (one-star general), with the full general called a four-star general. If you are not that interested in military matters, you might want to coin one of those school-style ‘shortcuts’ to remember the ranks so that on deadline time, you do not write that a major is higher than a lieutenant colonel.
Consonant-Vowel-Consonant (CVC) Some of our spelling mistakes slip through because the misspelled word actually exists in English, only that it’s the wrong choice. One spelling aid taught by primary school English language teachers is that if a word ends with a consonant-vowel-consonant combination of letters, then its gerund and/or participle form is likely to have double letters. On the contrary, a word that ends with a vowel-consonant-vowel combination rarely takes a double-letter conjugation. Some examples: Let – Letting Hit – hitting Hate – hating Pip – pipping/pipped Pipe – Piping/piped Read – reading Rid – ridding Ride – riding Strip – stripping/stripped Stripe – striped Rap – rapping/rapped Rape – raping/raped As you notice, knowledge of the CVC rule can help you avoid the embarrassment of writing ‘stripped shirts’ (should be striped), ‘piping of soldiers’ or ‘ridding bicycles’. Once you know that the infinitive verb you are using is ‘sit’ or ‘rap’ (both CVC), you will not write that “Peter was siting on the table” or that an opposition MP has ‘raped’ (instead of rapped) the health minister. (The gerund siting [pronounced ‘Saiting’] comes from another verb to site.) This knowledge also empowers you to overrule your computer, which prompts you change the “siting of a mast on top of the hill” to “sitting…” At the very least you will consult an authoritative online dictionary such as www.macmillandictionary.com before you make a mistake.
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Names and Places It has been said that for many people, the most special word is one’s name. When they hear it, even if it is referring to someone else, something clicks inside. When they come across it while reading, the mind circles it even as the eyes move on to the next word. So, imagine the irritation, even anger, of having one’s name misspelled. The solution is simple: let’s ask people how they write their names. Let us ask them what their exact title is – otherwise, we will call Ms Maria Kiwanuka the ‘managing director’ of Radio One when she is a ‘general manager’. Let us ask informed, literate locals what the name of their village is and how it is written.
First Names First? One common challenge is the ordering of names. Depending on several factors, including family background and education, some people introduce themselves first-name-first, while others start with their surnames. Yet in globalised times, how one writes one’s name influences how other people use it. For example, the current first lady of Uganda is normally introduced as Janet Museveni; that of Kenya is Margaret Kenyatta while in the United States it is, at the time of writing, Michelle Obama. In all these cases, these women mention their surnames last. Indeed in day-to-day usage, averagely educated Ugandans will give their first names first. But a typical 10-year-old girl in Kabanda village, in rural central Uganda, is more likely to give her name as Namatovu Janet or Nakitto Margaret, not the other way round. Yet this is not simply a rural/urban thing. Many schools now produce alphabetical listings arranged last-name-first. Hence you now find many recent graduates referring to themselves by the surname first – even if at home they mostly go by their first names. So, should reporters change the girl’s name to ‘Janet Namatovu’ to reflect mainstream practice or should they stick to how the owner states the name? Your house rules should help.
But unless one insisted that the clan or family name must come first, most journalists I know would go ahead to write the first name first. (In our case, the ‘first name’ usually refers to one’s Christian or Muslim or other given name, while the surname is the family or clan name). One reason for this is that the order of names gives other people clues on usage. If I introduce a man as Mr Malala Ibrahim, the ordinary user of English will, on subsequent usage, refer to a Mr Ibrahim (which is not good grammar – to use a title with a first name10). But if I introduced him as Mr Ibrahim Malala, subsequent usage will be either Ibrahim (informal or familiar) or Mr Malala (formal).
Eastern Names Caution is needed, however, when dealing with oriental names. People from East Asian countries such as China, Japan, Vietnam or Korea – or even Ethiopia – normally give their family names first. This is contrary to the ‘Western order’, used in most parts of the world, where first names come first. This means that on second reference, the former Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi as Mr Meles (Not Mr Zenawi); outgoing UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is “Mr Ban” and the former Manchester United footballer Park Ji-sung is Mr Park (not Mr Ji-sung). So, we need to take care when writing names from these parts of the world. Again, if in doubt, ask about the person’s name order11.
10 For instance, during the 2016 ACME lecture delivered by communication expert Eric Chinje, the grammarian moderator, Vision Group CEO Robert Kabushenga, felt compelled to educate his audience after someone directed his question at a one “Mr Eric”. Said Kabushenga: “Either you call him Eric or Mr Chinje – or Mr Eric Chinje [but not Mr Eric].” 11 For instance, the spokeswoman of the Inspectorate of Government is Ms Munira Ali – not Ali Munira (Munira being the first name and Ali the family name).
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Examples of commonly misspelled names in Uganda 1. Mohammed Baswari Kezaala (ex-Jinja mayor and ex-DP chairman). 2. Lulume Bayigga, ex-Buikwe South MP 3. Justice Eldad Mwangusya 4. Justice Solome Bossa (Not Bbosa) 5. Muhammad Nsereko 6. Barnabas Tinkasiimire, MP 7. Mwambutsya Ndebesa, historian 8. John Ddumba-Ssentamu (surname is Ddumba-Ssentamu) 9. Abdu Katuntu (Bugweri MP) 10. Grace Freedom Kwiyucwiny (MP) 11. MacDosman Kabega (lawyer) 12. Mohmed Mbabazi (lawyer) 13. Richard Mulema Mukasa (lawyer, no hyphen) 14. Theodore Ssekikubo 15. Dr Edward Naddumba (Orthopaedic surgeon, once acting head of Mulago hospital) 16. Dr Edward Ddumba (Physician, former executive director of Mulago) 17. Katikkiro Charles Peter Mayiga 18. Dr Jane Ruth Aceng – health minister (2016) 19. Ruth Achieng – Former Kole MP. 20. Ebert Byenkya (lawyer). 21. Henry Mayega – Former UPC politician. 22. Christopher Kibanzanga (MP) 23. Joseph Bossa (UPC politician)
Are You Over-Quoting? Articles written by journalists are called ‘stories’ and, save for a few exceptions, the reporter is the storyteller. But often some reporters reduce themselves to transcribers, instead of navigating the reader up and down the highs and lows of the story. They write long quote after long quote, some spanning several paragraphs longer than 100 words. This rarely works. Journalism is a craft! The strength and fineness of the story is as much about the material as it is about the author’s skill in weaving a narrative.
British journalism professor Peter Cole says your story should not be simply a collection of quotes. As a reporter, you paraphrase information from whatever sources to communicate the main points of your story. “Long quotes bring a story grinding to a halt, particularly if they are from politicians, particularly local politicians, bureaucrats or bores,” says Cole, a former deputy editor of The Guardian. “Short, incisive, direct quotes change the pace of a story, add colour and character, illustrate bald facts, and introduce personal experience.” Yes, there are exceptions. Those work for a particular type of story and style – an interview where the reporter interjects statements to introduce the next quote. Once you have agreed with your editor to go that way, there should be no problem.
Partial Quotes and Paraphrasing When we paraphrase a speaker but directly quote some of the words, we should ensure what we quote are exact words of the speaker. If not sure, simply paraphrase everything. Using quotation marks means reproducing someone’s exact words. Journalists often run into problems with news sources when they attribute verbatim words to someone who denies ever saying the words. We must take extra effort to get it right. Recording a speech or an interview is handy, in case someone denies statements attributed to them. The minister said: “Because the teachers are not teaching… we have to close the university and take decisive action.”
Problematic Paraphrasing The minister said because teachers were not teaching, “they had to close” the university and take decisive action. Better: The minister said because teachers were not teaching, they had “to close the university and take decisive action”.
Why That Capital Letter? Capitalisation, the writing of the first letter of a word in upper case, has been in decline for some time. Of course proper names of people, places and organisations retain their capital privileges.
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But progressive literary stylists believe as society becomes less deferential and less formal, and writing gadgets ever smaller (with laptops, palmtops, tabs and smart phones), having to capitalise becomes irksome. At some point in Uganda, all names of ministries were capitalised, as were words like the national president, government minister, etc. But increasingly more media houses are dropping the capital letters. Consult your house style guide on which words are capitalised. Otherwise, whenever you come across a capital letter in your writing, stop and question it: Should you write Kabanda Village in Kabanda Parish in Kabanda Sub County? ďż˝
The Editing Process It happens often that a reporter comes to work and is asked by an editor to help ‘edit’ or ‘clean up’ or ‘reorganise’ an article written by someone else. For many, that may be the first time they edit someone else’s work since journalism school. It can be an intimidating vote of confidence in the reporter by the editor but it can also be a make-or-break moment. If you really ‘clean’ up the story to or beyond the editor’s expectations, you may have put one foot on the promotion ladder, if you are keen, often to an editing role. But how do you start? If you are like most other people, you will approach this task the only way you know; either by checking for errors and typos or by rewriting the article so it reads as well as your own writing. According to Julie Nabwire, an editor with The EastAfrican, the budding copy editor needs to master not just the language but also the current affairs. “A new subeditor must be widely read and it must show,” says Nabwire, a Literature graduate from Makerere University. “[They] must have a grasp of a wide range of issues, so they need a little bit of training before they can be trusted to fly alone.” Even with the right skills, process issues count. Here are some suggestions on approaching sub-editing.
Polishing Stories/Shoes Depending on the quality of the writing you are dealing with, editing can be either a joy or a cry. According to Shola Oshunkeye, the 2006 CNN MultiChoice African journalist of the year, when he is editing stories from his best writers, he literally reads to enjoy. Nigerian Oshunkeye, now
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editor-in-chief of The Sun in Ghana, says this is because all his concerns will have been taken care of by the writers and first-line editors. From my interviews for this book, few Ugandan editors can say the same. Let us compare editing to the process of shining shoes. Everyone loves well-polished shoes, but very few relish finding the time to get their hands dirty. From his base at Tufnell Drive in Kamwokya, Kampala, cobbler Kanyankore helps many office folks shine their shoes. When I visit him, I am struck by the consistency of his approach. This is his procedure: 1. 2. 3. 4.
Examine the shoes to gauge how dirty they are. Wipe the shoes with a soft damp or wet cotton cloth. Leave the shoes for a few minutes to dry. Apply shoe polish or cream and brush to ensure uniform application. 5. Leave the shoes for a few minutes to dry 6. Shine the shoes using another, cleaner, brush. After stage 6, the more Kanyankore brushes, the more the shoe shines. Sometimes it shines so well you could use it as a mirror. Incidentally, when I had more time, that’s the procedure I used to follow – which points to a method to shining shoes. But it does not always work like that. Sometimes I want Kanyankore to give me the shoes in ‘three minutes’, which means skipping the first three stages. I won’t be particularly proud of my footwear that day, but they won’t be dirty. Like shoes, polishing stories takes time and a methodical approach. If you omit one step, you still get the work done, but you raise the risk of embarrassing mistakes. In the above analogy, for instance, if I encourage Kanyankore to skip stage 2, he can apply polish on specks of mud, so that a keen observer will see ‘pimples’ on the leather. Of course you can also be lucky that your shoes are generally clean and do not need a damp cloth or even polish to shine – just a bit of brushing and shining. But as with other things, luck should reinforce – not trump – method. In fact luck is often defined as opportunity meeting methodical preparation. So, let’s assume you have just received a 700-word story which you want to reduce to 400 words, which editing steps might you follow?
The Editing Process
1. Read Without ‘Touching’ Take a quick but keen look at the article to weigh it: what the story really is; what its central claim is; what its evidence is; and whether all the KEY sources have been talked to (or else you send it back to the reporter or ask them to get more details as you edit). And is the story legally safe or is someone definitely going to sue your organisation? This is critical, says The Independent’s Joseph Were, because an editor’s first duty is to protect your media house. Protect against embarrassing errors, against reputational damage, against costly defamation lawsuits. Avoid the temptation to plunge in and edit because the deadline is upon you. That first step means you will progress much faster later. You could end up berating the reporter for missing key information yet it is further down in the story. You could reach the end of the editing and realise that key sources are missing and, therefore, the story can’t be published. Imagine wasting 50 minutes at deadline hour! Even if you decide that everything you want is in the story, Step 1 leaves you with a mental map of the story, aware of which paragraphs need to be moved, purged or whittled down.
2. Decide on Structure You might feel that you need another, more critical look at key claims of the story to ensure that you judged it well. Then it’s the structure – the way the different categories of information are arranged. Sometimes you have to lift paragraphs from one place to another to improve the flow.
3. Edit for Clarity, Style, Flow Once the structure works, you may start editing to ensure good word choices, proper spellings, readable sentence length, house style, etc. It is critical that the editor first understands what the writer means, before changing it. If in doubt, consult the writer. If the editor misunderstands an unclear sentence, they will change it into something much farther from what the writer meant.
4. Spell-check By now your piece has your desired structure and none of the common style and language errors. But running a spellchecker can reduce the
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amount of the disruptive ‘red ink’ underlining words the computer does not recognise. Some editors do not use the spellchecker and some junior writers do not even know it, but it helps eliminate certain types (but not all) of mistakes and frees you up to concentrate on higher-level problems. If, for instance, your second paragraph talks about a one Peter Mwesige and the fourth refers to a Peter Mwesigye, the spellchecker will help. At the first instance you can instruct the computer to “ignore all” references to ‘Mwesige’. If it comes across ‘Mwesigye’, it will highlight it, prompting you to change it to Mwesige. Your use of the spellchecker will get better with experience.
5. Edit for Brevity If by now you have not achieved the desired word count, you can read the story again, specifically looking to tighten the writing. Brevity or conciseness is one of the virtues of good editing. Under pressure to cut words but retain content, try to ensure: • You ruthlessly delete anything that does not advance the story by bringing new information or perspective to the story. Why, for instance, quote three people all giving largely the same information? You may cite the three but only directly quote the most quotable. • No sentence unnecessarily repeats information or phrases already given earlier. • You avoid a major word/phrase reappearing in one sentence. Rewriting to resolve this often gives you a shorter sentence. • No direct quote is simply a repetition of the information in the preceding sentence.
6. One Final Read Assuming that you now have the word-count you need, the final step should be to read your story one last time. When I was starting out, I used to print the story and read it on paper and mark any errors or typos. But if your organisation will not permit too much printing, you can put your text in a bigger font size (E.g. 36 or 48) and read it gently and with maximum concentration. After effecting the changes, you can spell-check one last time – just in case you introduced some typos as you finalised.
The Editing Process
For comparison, this is how The East African’s Julie Nabwire summarises her first steps in story treatment: When I get copy, I scan through. We ask reporters to give a tentative headline. So I look at the headline and then scan through the first six paragraphs and see whether they make sense. Then I go back to the intro. I look out for the basics – the 5Ws and H and look for where they are and push them. I then look at the intro. Is it punchy? What would I – what would someone want to look at first in that story? Then I shorten the sentences – especially the intro. I usually cut mine to 20 or 25 words. As you probably notice, producing writing that glitters like that pair of shoe takes time and effort. But once the story is out and appreciated, it’s worth it. �
PORTRAITS OF PROGRESSION Habits of journalists destined for the top
“Right now, there is no reason why anyone who is starting out in journalism should be sloppy when there are so many resources at their fingertips,” says media trainer Bernard Tabaire. “They were not there when we were starting out; you had to find a Mcafee book, Elements of Style, or whatever. But now you can download all these e-books, PDFs.” Indeed it is a puzzle that today’s better-schooled, better-equipped, better-exposed journalists do not necessarily produce better work. From separate conversations with high-achieving editors, it seems a huge part of the problem lies outside the lecture rooms; instead, it is in the mind of the journalist. In a way, our work is unlike bricklaying, where knowing the right mix ratios and the right angles will suffice. The different interviews confirm that besides technical skills, top-quality journalism thrives on a system of habits, dispositions, mannerisms and instincts. This suggests that for the most part, journalism is an art, and the journalist an artist. Actually, journalism is both an art and a science.
A subtle difference is that art depends more on the artist, while science thrives more on proven principles. For example, for hundreds of years, institutions have produced engineers and doctors that build solid structures and perform surgical operations following standardised procedures, with generally standardised outcomes. On the other hand, replicating artists like Picasso, Michael Jackson or William Shakespeare may be unimaginable. This book includes a ‘scientific’ record of common mistakes or problems with journalistic work, but this section focuses more on the ‘artist’ side of journalism. What does it take for one to avoid common mistakes – and therefore succeed – almost by default?
Attitude is Key Joseph Were, the managing editor of The Independent in Kampala, confesses he never dreamt of being a journalist. He studied education at Makerere University and was only called into The [Daily] Monitor newsroom by the then editor Charles Onyango-Obbo. Eventually, he went for the Hubert Humphrey journalism fellowship in the United States, which sharpened his journalistic mind. He held several positions in the newsroom, including gender editor, multimedia editor, and training editor, before joining The Independent. He says the key to journalistic excellence is attitude: I have three ways I approach journalism. The first thing to make a successful journalist is integrity, which is an ethical attitude. The second thing is hard work; someone should be ready to work hard, which is another attitude. The third thing is not so much an attitude but it is also influenced by attitude, which is skill. As long as you have the first two, it’s very easy for you to acquire the skill. Those three things are the biggest challenges newsrooms face, and are most manifested at the reporting level. People are not willing to work hard, they are willing to make up things, and at that level, they do not have the requisite reporting skills. This was echoed by CNN’s Nigerian-born news anchor Zain Asher in a 2016 interview with Daily Monitor. Asher was asked how she had made it to one of the world’s premier media houses. She said: “It is not about how good you are, but how good you want to be. It is about the determination, the work ethic, your state of mind, your faith. It is about your belief.”
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In 2008, Bernard Tabaire resigned as the managing editor (weekend editions) at Monitor Publications. He teamed up with Dr Peter Mwesige to start the African Centre for Media Excellence, arguably the region’s leading media development organisation. Having spent 12 years writing and editing, and teaching journalism at Makerere University, Tabaire echoes Joseph Were: I think attitude is key – again going back to life skills. Attitude allows you to know that you want to excel, but also allows you to be aware of what you don’t know, of your shortcomings. And then to seek to do better what you are good at, and to take steps to get rid of the shortcomings. Tabaire studied sociology and literature at Makerere University, from where he joined The [Daily] Monitor. Going to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the USA to study a Master of Science in Journalism was part of a deliberate desire to delve deeper into the essence of his chosen career. Tabaire’s mind again meets Joseph Were’s, on the effort required to succeed: What it means is a little more work. It means a little more diligence. So, you are not going to succeed, absolutely not – however much of a genius you are – without putting in some work. Actually, the difference then is “do I put in more work than you? Instead of working for eight hours, am I ready to work for nine?” I haven’t read of any genius, anywhere, who did not put in a lot of work in any field. TheEastAfrican’s Julie Nabwire echoes the above sentiment, when asked to describe the good side of being an editor. Good is when one has a good pitch, a diligent reporter who tries to gather all the facts or is ready to go back to dig more about the story and do follow-ups! A reporter who challenges my knowledge, with whom we work together to produce a great story, makes the work of editing super! The same message came through in different words from the other editors I interviewed: it’s down to one’s attitude and determination. As the author Napoleon Hill suggested in Think and Grow Rich, if you can think of a goal and firmly believe – with your unconscious mind
Attitude is Key
â&#x20AC;&#x201C; that you can achieve that goal, consider the goal yours. Many of the challenges holding back some of the brightest journalists from realising their full potential are down to the goals they conceive (how ambitious they are) and the amount of belief they have both in the importance of the goal and in their own capacity to achieve the goals. As an ambitious journalist, listen to your successful senior colleagues say roughly the same things, and BELIEVE that these life skills are important to your career. The difference is in how much you desire to excel. The higher your desire, the more likely you are to do what it takes! ďż˝
Passion for Excellence Many serious journalists regard their work not just as an occupation or profession, but as a passion. To these passionistas, journalism is something one does from the heart, with conviction that it is important and must be done well. The Macmillan dictionary defines passion as ‘a strong enthusiasm or interest’ for or in something. Other definitions of passion allude to a ‘powerful emotion such as love or anger.’ Either way, the essence of passion is the heart or conviction – as opposed to mathematical calculations of where pay is higher, which job will make you more famous faster, or which one will deliver a Ferrari in record time. For many top journalists, it is that passion to do the good job better each day that saw them rise through the ranks. Certainly it was key in the rise of Charles Odoobo Bichachi from a freelancer covering Jinja and Busia, living off his father’s generosity, to executive editor of Monitor Publications. You need to have the passion in this business. If you don’t have it, then you will not survive the different pressures that come. You will have pressure of money; you will have ethical issues coming up; you will have issues of time and devotion. For me I think having passion from the very beginning was very important; and also having the passion to do it well, because it is one thing to have the passion to do something, but it is another to have that desire for excellence.” Picking up on excellence as the fuel for high-achievers, Tabaire says today’s journalists have so many resources they can use to launch great careers.
Passion for Excellence
But that has to be informed by the idea that excellence is a good thing in itself, and that good work actually ultimately pays. That’s what our journalists don’t appreciate, maybe because they think that within two years they should be somebody else. Good work speaks for itself; good work will be recognised ultimately; and good work will pay more than the shortcuts. As Bichachi seems to suggest, without the passion or ‘love’ or ‘emotional attachment’, journalism may actually not make much sense as a career. There are many jobs where you work shorter hours, where you don’t have to jump on boda bodas to inhale tear gas, where you quickly get to drive a cool car, and where you get paid much more. If one is just looking for a comfortable job, there are better sectors to find it. But if you are truly ‘in love’ with this journalism thing, even when you are hungry and angry, passion will keep you alive as you persevere towards better times. �
Read, Read, Read In October 2016, BBC Radio broadcast an interview with South Africabased author Michelle Nkamankeng, who had just been named among the world’s top 10 youngest writers. With her innocent brilliance, Michelle explained her story, about a child who had conquered her fear of the sea. Here are excerpts from Michelle’s interview with the BBC’s David Whitty: Whitty: How did you conquer that fear [of the sea]? Michelle: When I start to like, start to believe in myself; then I go there and take a chance; then when it’s the second time, it’s not that scary anymore … Whitty: If you would say three things to other young children who are listening who want to write a book, what are three pieces of advice you would give them? Michelle: Reading is Fun. Always follow your dreams [and] don’t let anybody get in your way. And, if you can’t read, you can’t write! Mark that: If you can’t read, you can’t write. I should add that Michelle is a seven-year-old girl born of Cameroonian parents. But this child has already grasped arguably the greatest key to writing excellence. Sadly, many of us dream of being great writers but we do not want to read beyond glancing at the papers or looking up a few lines of background. But maybe it’s human nature! A priest on the pulpit once narrated an aeroplane encounter with a nine-year-old girl. Girl [seeing the priest’s black shirt and white collar]: Excuse me sir, are you a priest?
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Priest: Yes! Girl: Why is it that Christians want to go to heaven but they don’t want to die? If we want to go to the heavenly paradise of great writing, we must be ready to ‘die’ a little and bury ourselves in newspapers, books, or journal articles. A journalist’s first assignment each day, wrote Leonard Witt,12 is to read his newspaper and its competitors. But how many of us read as if our going to heaven depended on it? All the Ugandan editors interviewed for this book echoed Michelle’s advice: Read, read, read, and read critically! That’s what Bernard Tabaire told his students when he taught journalism at Makerere University. Most important, you cannot talk about journalism and writing if you are not an active reader. Read anything, but find places where there’s quality work. Read and find out how stories are constructed, how characters are introduced and how stories are put together. You learn a lot. I always told my students: don’t just read, but be an active reader.’ See ‘oh this sentence sounds nice’. What about it? This is how punctuation is used. Tabaire’s point of reading ‘actively’ can’t be overstressed. The way a journalist keen to improve his writing reads is not the same way an ordinary reader reads. We literally study how great writers use their tools so that we learn how to use them ourselves.
Broadening Your Outlook You could say that you just want to be a good journalist and have no dreams of becoming an author like Nigeria’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or Uganda’s Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi; still you have to read. Joseph Were of The Independent argues that being a good journalist means you explain things when you write. Even when we write simple reportage, we are often striving to find the best words to deliver the message neatly and concisely. Reading helps us to develop our language skills. 12 In The Complete Book of Feature Writing.
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But more importantly, how can we explain what we do not understand? A journalist, Joseph Were says, has to read a lot and interact with experts to understand contemporary issues and to broaden their outlook. In other words, if we want to be good journalists, we must go deeper than just knowing the 5Ws and H. One of the most challenging things about journalism is that today you are covering brain surgery, tomorrow you are covering famine in Karamoja, the other day you are covering a road not being built in Kasese... What does that mean? You have to work very hard. Have a broad outlook, so that when someone talks about road construction, you not only know the issues there but you have certain views about how roads should be constructed; what areas to focus on; what are the challenges? The Observer news editor Robert Crispin Mukasa speaks of the frustration of reporters who do not understand the importance of being knowledgeable about issues they are covering. Mukasa says that even if you are heading out for a press conference, try to find out what the press conference is about; then quickly read up on the matter to bring yourself up to speed with the latest developments. That way, while average reporters are struggling to grasp the basics, you will be thinking about the next step in the development of the story. Says Mukasa: For example, if they tell you that the minister for Kampala has a press conference, they can even tell you the topic, and still somebody goes very blank about the topic. If it’s vendors versus traders, they don’t know how long this entire thing has been going on and how far so many people have tried and failed to [resolve it]. He also echoes another huge frustration, which seems to stem from the lack of what Tabaire calls active reading. He advises reporters to look at their published stories in the morning and pick out a few action points for self-improvement. Without such determination, a reporter can build a reputation on the back of editors’ improvements of their work; but that is not the solid growth that our hard work deserves. �
Grab the Chance to Learn The renowned sports journalist Hassan Badru Zziwa remembers hearing a knock at his door at around 3.30a.m.,in September 1994. Zziwa was a photojournalist at The Monitor, and at the door was Kevin Aliro, then one of the company directors. Aliro told Zziwa the two of them had to leave immediately for a critical assignment in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). Within one hour, Zziwa walked out of the house and the journey was underway. “I did not ask questions,” says Zziwa, now a director at The Observer. Little wonder that when Aliro thought of starting The Observer, Zziwa was one of the people he took with him from Monitor Publications. Nearly 22 years after Aliro’s knock, an editor in Kampala found himself in a dilemma. A famous preacher had suddenly died and the newspaper needed to get a human-interest story. It was 7.45p.m., and the editor could hardly find a senior reporter ready to travel the 40km to the preacher’s vigil. Senior reporters were either not answering their phones or were not interested in covering the story. At around 8p.m., the editor called up a young freelancer who had shown great spirit and initiative. Did he know the dead preacher? Reporter: Editor: Reporter: Editor: Reporter:
No, but I think I have heard of him. Do you know a place called Bukalango? No. But can you go there? Yes.
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I mean I want you to go there now and spend the night because we need that story by 11a.m. tomorrow. Reporter: Yes, I can go. Editor: Okay. Do you have some money with you, because the cash office is closed? Reporter: I have about 10K [Shs 10,000], but I think I can borrow from someone nearby. Fifteen minutes later, the editor was back on the phone giving the reporter directions and instructions. Two-and-a-half hours later, the reporter sent a text message: “I have arrived in Bukalango.” Editor:
And in the editor’s judgement, the reporter wrote a great story. Let’s be honest: journalism may not be the most difficult job in the world, but in many developing countries, it’s tough. And a common thread running through life stories of successful journalists is a zeal to learn new things, take on new assignments, and see challenging tasks as a chance to prove oneself and lay a foundation for career progress. The Independent’s Joseph Were can’t stop urging young journalists to be flexible and versatile and embrace on-the-job learning. At The Monitor, whenever something new came up, Were was deliberately among the first people to try it, including using Photoshop and serving as gender editor and multimedia editor. And if my editor asked me to do something, even if I didn’t know that thing, I did not say that “Oh, sorry I don’t know.” I would go and try to figure out how to do it. It is something I want to inculcate in people because I know it is what pushes someone ahead. That is what propelled me; my editors, my supervisors knew that if they threw something at me I would give it my best. As I write this section, I am distracted by today’s Sunday Vision column by the Irish-born Ugandan doctor Ian Clarke, the founder of International Hospital Kampala. He is urging job-seekers to focus on attitude and work ethic. If a young person gets an opportunity for employment, no matter how menial, what will he make of it? Will he immediately start complaining – about the difficult working
Grab the Chance to Learn
conditions, the low salary, the hours, etc., or will he see this employment as an opportunity to gain experience, to learn, to shine, and get his foot on the ladder? A keen attitude, a serious work ethic, honesty, and the desire to learn, are all attributes which employers are looking for, but which are often missing. Dr Clarke did not attend my interviews with all the editors quoted in this book. But he is saying pretty much the same things the editors told me. Clearly, shortcuts to genuine progress are very few, and they often lead nowhere.
Embracing Change New Visionâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s Robert Mudhasi urges us to be ready to embrace change, including technological change. Mudhasi joined New Vision in 1996 as a chief proof-reader at a time when newsrooms used typewriters. As technology ushered in computers, he quickly adjusted, retooled himself and eventually rose to chief subeditor. You must be patient and must be flexible and ready for changes. One of the things I have seen because of the many years is change. If you are not open to technological changes, you will not survive. We started with typewriters; now we are on computers, but there are also several computer packages that come in and you must always adjust to new programmes, to new ways of doing things. ďż˝
Your Story, Your Skills, Your Career After 20 years in the New Vision newsroom, Robert Mudhasi has concluded that your average reporter does not ‘own’ the story. They simply do what the editor wants. They fret about the word count, the issues and the voices and once those are in, they will walk up to the editor’s desk and declare: “Your story is ready!” But wait a minute, whose story is the reporter writing? Ideally, the story belongs to the reporter, which is why it carries their by-line. Granted, editors play a big role in preparing the story for publication, but they are like film directors: they play a critical role, but the real film ‘stars’ are the actors. Because they fail to realise that they are the stars of the story-show, many reporters do not actually try to understand the issues they are covering. Yet if we worked harder to ‘really understand’ the stories we cover, we would emerge more knowledgeable just for having written those stories. If we accept the maxim that journalism informs, educates and entertains, then journalism is an educative venture. But it’s educative first for the reporter (for how do I educate others in something I don’t understand?), and then for the reader/audience. Let’s assume I am covering the National Union of Disabled Persons of Uganda, which is complaining about the lack of progress in amending sections of the PWDs Act. The executive director may even issue a written statement that outlines the problematic clauses. But should I the reporter be satisfied with merely quoting the statement? Is this not a chance to actually read – however briefly – this particular law and related texts? There is a good chance that I will notice other educative clauses that will help me write with more knowledge and authority.
Your Story, Your Skills, Your Career
And if the secretary who typed the statement accidentally attributed a particular statement to Section 27 (2), a knowledge-centred reporter will, on reading the law, discover that Section 27 (2) has something else, and that the cited statement actually is in section 37 (2). As Mudhasi argues, many of the errors in our raw copy arise out of not being knowledgeable about what we are writing about. Many writers write like target workers; they hate details unless the editor insists. They write to meet a story count, a target. Yes, the editor sent a reporter to cover a story, but are all the details there? Is the reporter investigating beyond the surface? Someone who understands the subject is not as likely to make so many factual mistakes as someone who is just plunging in. Mudhasi’s namesake at The Observer, Robert Mukasa, shares this view, arguing that writers need to assume more personal ‘responsibility’ for what they write – instead of thinking that the editors will fix whatever holes may be there. And Bernard Tabaire speaks for many when he urges writers to be ‘serious-minded’ about their work. I don’t want my name to be associated with stuff that is not good, is not quality stuff. How do people see my by-line with these sorts of mistakes? Because then I won’t sleep. Many times when I was editing or writing, I would go home and say “Oh my God, I placed that comma in the wrong spot.” The smallest of mistakes should give you a sleepless night. Obviously some will argue that this is not a fun way to live. But the pursuit of all-round journalistic excellence is serious work. Promotions, awards and recognition may be the outcome, but the process is not always fun. In his book, A Writer’s Coach, Jack Hart says writing is both agony and ecstasy. The moment you have a great idea and when the article is finished and polished – that is fun. But “everything else in between is agony”. Yes, like the Christians who must suffer the pain of death to reach the paradise of heaven, reporters must embrace the ‘agony’ of reporting and writing to produce outstanding work. �
Integrity & its Dilemmas The Independent’s Joseph Were mentioned three attitudinal pillars of a successful journalistic career: integrity, hard work and skills. We can’t avoid discussing integrity, particularly in these times. One can be forgiven for thinking that the credibility of Ugandan journalism has never been worse. Wherever I have spoken as an editor in the last three years, I have been confronted by complaints about we journalists soliciting money to kill or publish real and fabricated stories, fighting over transport refund, using our journalism to work against one entity to the benefit of another, or making up stories. My instinct has always been to apologise for the mistakes of some of us, while pointing out that there are still many honest journalists risking everything to find and tell the truth. A few bad apples should not nullify the honest endeavours of hundreds of journalists. Yet we need to face up to this reality and resolve to resist temptations to sell our souls – even if we are so poorly paid. No one wants to be poor, but as Abraham Lincoln famously told his son’s teacher, “it is far more honourable to fail than to cheat”. Journalism which has poor but honest scribes is richer than that staffed with rich bribe-takers. Like Joseph Were, Odoobo Bichachi believes that we must navigate ethical dilemmas with a clear head. There will be many temptations but you need to rise above them, because if you don’t, what you think is going to take you up is actually what pulls you down. There is way too much outcry about ethical issues today, and one wonders why the problems have increased. Bichachi believes the ethical dilemmas have always been there, only that the older crop of journalists was more
Integrity & its Dilemmas
invested in journalism as a career or a calling. Today, he argues, more of us are just passing through journalism onto something greener and more beautiful. Rather than protecting the long-term career, we look around for what we can quickly gain before moving on. Said Bichachi: “But those who have tried to stick to their ethics have grown and there are many examples [of passionate journalists]. Because you need that in this profession. You need to believe in certain things and you need to push yourself.” The first time I met the Ugandan-American journalist Shaka Ssali 12 years ago, he told me and my colleague Benon Oluka two things that have stuck. One is that a journalist should know that every crisis also presents opportunities. And two, that as long as you still want to be a journalist, your biggest asset is your credibility. Bichachi said as much when I interviewed him in October 2016: journalists must protect their credibility and the best way to do that is to observe the professional and ethical dictates of journalism. Make no mistake: at all levels, it can be tempting. But it’s an ideal worth striving for. A bank calls up a managing director of a newspaper and says: “If you drop that story, we will take out a full page advert for Shs 9 million.” Someone tries to give a bulging brown envelope to a reporter/ editor so as to ‘forget’ a particular story. In such cases, you want to muster the courage to reject a proposal so indecent.
Pride and Plagiarism Asked about some of her worst moments at work, Julie Nabwire of The EastAfrican in Nairobi talks about plagiarism. She recalls the day her reporter was accused of lifting work from other publications and presenting it as her own. Plagiarism hurts the pride of organisations and leaves an editor feeling foolish: how could they do this to us? Or how did I even fail to smell a rat? I had this very hardworking features writer who I came to trust [in due course]. When her command of the language improved, I did not bother to crosscheck. I felt I had done a good job coaching, until a complaint of plagiarism landed on my desk.
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Actually in serious jurisdictions, picking chunks of text and passing it off as one’s own is not just about personal pride; it is theft. It is criminal. But since copyright laws are rather lax in Uganda, editors use other disincentives to persuade reporters not to plagiarise. One morning in November 2016, as an editor’s cursor darted across the screen, something like an internet address flashed on the screen. That was a red flag. It suggested to the editor that part of the story he was editing had been taken from another site. But perhaps the reporter had used his earlier reporting as background. Nothing wrong with that. But on dragging the cursor back, the editor saw a URL web address belonging to a different newspaper. A Google search found that the reporter had lifted background and quotes from another site and had not bothered to attribute. As the editor put it, that was deeply frustrating. Journalism don Charlotte Kawesa Ntulume is as frustrated. I was reading a story about the 1988 plane accident in Rome; it’s 28 years today. I read it… and ended up going to Google to find out more – the pilot was my dad’s cousin. When I went to Google, I found a lot of the information I was reading in the stories is lifted word for word. In academia, editors are really ruthless when it comes to plagiarism. In the newsrooms, it’s something we take for granted; it’s okay. It’s common in backgrounding stories. I think [it’s] because editors don’t demand that you attribute. There’s nothing wrong in attributing. Indeed, there is nothing wrong with attributing. In fact, it shows that you are honest and at least you have the discipline to research. But imagine the readers’ disappointment when they find out that you stole those beautiful sentences from some website! One minute you are a star writer, the next you are a thief, a fraud. �
Back to the Basics It is not unusual these days to hear senior journalists use the phrase ‘good old days.’ Obviously that is potentially problematic because younger people are likely to think that whatever follows that phrase must be outdated. Not necessarily. From time immemorial, killing was considered a vice, kindness a virtue. Likewise, journalism has some ageless truths that an ambitious professional would do well to have in the bag for the journey to the top. Marty Baron of the Washington Post recently bemoaned the death of the good old skill of ‘true listening’. Such a basic thing, you will say, but you will be amazed how much we fail simply to listen to our sources. Quite often when we interview sources, we are looking for nothing more than a quote. True listening is more attentive, inquisitive, and reflective. And even when we aim for a quote, we end up misquoting because of not being super attentive to the source.
Discipline Then there is discipline. Again, such a basic thing, but as Robert Mukasa says, it is still a problem that a serious journalist should resolve to overcome. A function starts at 9a.m. and the writer walks in an hour later. They have missed stuff. Probably what was said [before they arrived] was more important stuff. If you know that a function is supposed to start at 10a.m., why do you start preparing to go at 10.30a.m., just because some of these events often start late?
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5Ws and H Journalism lecturer Kawesa Ntulume also spoke about basics that some journalists have forgotten or discarded. I believe good old journalism had good principles. One of the things I had was a small checklist, like the 5Ws. There are many instances where writers, editors leave questions unanswered in the reader’s mind. I would always have the 5Ws and where it’s necessary, I would ask the ‘so what?’ Once those were ticked, then I would look at those small things like: do the quotes back up the information? I think anyone starting in this line should pay attention to those small details.
Core Values Then there are the values of professional journalism. Ntulume says that a journalist who wants to make and keep their name needs to pay attention to the standards of journalism. “It’s about accuracy; you are not an activist,” she says.“ There’s room for activism somewhere; but for journalism, you are a journalist. Are you being truthful? Are you being balanced? Are you accurate? Are you fair? Have you answered the key questions?”
Dictionary, Stylebook When it comes to writing, there are many basics that editors are still sorting out every day. Whether it is reported speech or how to use the semicolon, these are things we can master if we decide to. The dictionary and your media house stylebook are a mandatory possession. When Ntulume reported to Makerere University for her Mass Communication degree, lecturer Simwogerere Kyazze gave the freshers one month to buy a dictionary and a thesaurus. Today as an academic, Ntulume does not read the thick books much but only because she finds them on the internet. It is important that we refer to the dictionary – on or offline – to avoid misuse of words. But consulting the dictionary, to ensure that even that common word is being used properly, contributes to something bigger within us: the discipline and humility to verify what and how we communicate – that even if we have 1% doubt about a word, we check it. That disposition is vital. �
A Competitive Streak Sometimes when a loved one passes on, we say that they have ‘fought a good fight’ or ‘run a good race’. But if life is a race, it is a complex marathon. It boils down to billions of marathon races at different levels. Those who run better races get better rewards – medals, cash prizes, sponsorship deals, fame, name recognition, etc., at different levels. The difference is that the life marathon is a phenomenon not of scarcity but of abundance. It’s not like the Olympic marathon with only one gold medal. There can be as many gold medallists or silver medallists as the number of people that have attained the gold or silver mark. Building a thriving journalism career requires that competitive streak. At least, we look over our shoulders to ensure that we are not 50 metres behind the leader of the race we are in. We try to improve our tactics, trying to learn from the Stephen Kiprotich of 2012, trying to beat him. But why should we be competitive? Because the readers we are courting have limited time and money and will only give these ‘medals’ to competitive products. Fortunately, it’s not a winner-take-all competition. Readers may give three gold medals if they see three golden winners. If each of the major national newspapers had an irresistible edition one Wednesday, for instance, the total number of newspapers sold would most likely rise compared to the day before. As Bernard Tabaire argues, competition helps to get the best out of us. You gotta love to compete, and I don’t mean it in a negative way: just that if you are in Parliament and you are all journalists there, you want your story to be the best story coming out of that particular session of Parliament. If [your competitors] beat you, if your story was inferior, you have to
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go and look at their stories and see: how did they craft their stories? How can I improve to beat them? If other people’s stories are always better than yours and you don’t feel anything inside, you are lacking a critical ingredient for outstanding journalism. “You certainly have to say ‘I am going to be the best’ and once you’ve set yourself that goal, then you are going to work hard,” Tabaire says. “You are not saying you are going to be perfect, but you are trying to be.” One Monday afternoon, a young reporter returned to his newsroom from a press conference in Kampala. He quoted everyone important at the press conference. But the editor was not satisfied. He needed a Day Two story. He got the reporter to re-interview two key people at the press conference to get details and particulars behind the general statements they had made. The story was published on Wednesday, as was another newspaper’s story, written by a senior journalist the young reporter deeply admired. After reading both accounts, the editor asked the rookie what he thought. The reporter broke into a proud smile: “I thought our story is better.” The editor was encouraged that the young reporter was developing a competitive streak. If each of us aims to do a better story, the readers will end up with outstanding news products. And ‘better’ does not have to be rated against our rivals alone – but also against ourselves. In fact some have suggested that competing against others makes you bitter, while competing against yourself makes you better. This is not necessarily true. As Tabaire argues, journalistic competition should be positive, seeking to do the best possible work – rather than pull down our competitors. The value of competing against yourself becomes more marked if you have started becoming better than your peers. Where someone else would sit back and put their legs up, you the driven journalist will try to make your next story better than the last. This is what American football great Steve Young meant when he said: “The principle is competing against yourself. It’s about self-improvement, about being better than you were the day before.”
A Competitive Streak
The Observer news editor Robert Mukasa has been in the newsroom for 21 years and counting. He previously held the same position at Daily Monitor and went on to be managing director/editor at The Razor newspaper. He, too, believes in competitive newsrooms – albeit for slightly different reasons. Without competition, he says, even an outstanding reporter can give an average product. The other issue that can improve us is creating competition in the newsrooms, meaning sloppiness is eliminated organically. If you can’t step up, [the editor] goes with people who can. �
Tapping, Shaping, and Keeping Talent This chapter is written with one eye fixed firmly on media managers and directors. All the editors interviewed for this book are products of certain work cultures and management systems. While the attitude, integrity, and skills of reporters and editors are critical, managers also need to create newsrooms that attract, groom and retain top talent. Otherwise, even young journalists with great attitude will get frustrated if they do not have a good stage on which to perform. As we saw earlier, Joseph Were was spotted for his skills and trainability and thrown into the newsroom, where he has swum excellently. He has also trained and mentored many excellent reporters and editors. Bernard Tabaire believes newsrooms must become smarter about who they recruit. Many normally wait for people to show up at the gate seeking an opportunity. But would you consider â&#x20AC;&#x2DC;spyingâ&#x20AC;&#x2122; on the journalism departments at universities, identifying brilliant students who are keen on journalism and establishing a mentorship relationship that could result into employment? I think newsrooms, just like all businesses, should be more proactive, more serious about how they recruit. The idea is that instead of having 30 people, you have 15 people who are really good or 20 people who are really good and they can produce the work of 30 people with ease and it would be good work, likely [to] be recognised outside by the market.
Tapping, Shaping, and Keeping Talent
But you see newsrooms try to go for shortcuts, just pick anyone who comes or pick the cheapest person. They don’t invest in trying to retain the good people. But how can you thrive as a [media] business when people are so secondary to what you are doing? You can’t. Machines can only do so much. Getting talented and passionate people into the newsroom is one thing. But, Tabaire argues, human resource departments and newsroom managers need to work harder to create a supportive environment – a place where people really want to work. In fact a key problem of the Ugandan mainstream media has been retention. The rate of turnover is worrying as many young and promising reporters and editors easily leave newsrooms. Once people are in the newsroom, regardless of how they came in, it’s really important to identify the good people and try to keep them, try to encourage, try to mentor them, nurture them. If I am a good person and I’m lost in the newsroom; I don’t have any help; I’m just there, I will move. Making workers stay is not [automatic]; even if you are paying them well, there has to be something a little more. People must feel they belong, people must feel valued.
Mentorship, Briefing, and Debriefing Ntulume believes she rose because she had great and systematic oneon-one guidance by newsroom leaders. Some news departments today do not insist on this: the reporter writes the story the way they deem fit and hand it over to the editors to edit and publish. While that may work, Ntulume’s experience suggests things can be better with a little more effort. I was privileged to work as an intern at the Crusader newspaper that was owned by my lecturers. The way those people worked – I remember going to Parliament, for example: Peter Mwesige was at the political desk and he would say: “You are going to cover Parliament today. What is your focus going to be?” I would go to Parliament, get back and brief him and we discuss the angle. After writing the story, I would go and show him, and again we would work on the
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story together. That’s how I learnt to write; we would work on the story together. Then I moved into The Monitor and I was placed on the upcountry desk with Sarah Namulondo under the supervision of the late Kevin Aliro. It’s unfortunate that both of them are gone but I really owe a lot to them. Imagine I was a sub-editor, I would get the stories and sub them and pass them to Kevin. He would then call me to his office and we go through them together, can you imagine? It would take only 15 minutes and then he would re-sub the stories I had subbed with me present. We went through that over three to four days and within no time I was one of the best subs. But other people didn’t get that opportunity. It is a view shared by The EastAfrican’s Julie Nabwire, who believes in ‘coaching tirelessly and guiding’, even where it includes the ‘terrible habit’ of sometimes telling off people. I did benefit from coaching and mentorship. I joined New Vision straight out of the classroom as a sub on the news desk. New Vision then believed in coaching and mentoring people. I was coached by people like Ben Opolot and the late Irene Nambi Sseppuuya. I was [then] transferred to the features desk where I really, really benefitted from Barbara [Kaija]’s coaching and mentorship. Barbara encouraged us to go out and write. Barbara helped us on how to edit stories. And then New Vision also had Ben Bella Ilakut for in-house training of subs, retraining. Of course – and this takes us back to ‘attitude’ – one has to have the humility to want to be mentored. As New Vision deputy news editor Francis Kagolo says, some people do not want to be shown the way. If you are already too good, that is no problem. But no one is so good that they have nothing to learn from their editor; no story is so good that it can’t be improved. In journalism much like other professions, learning is an endless engagement.
Training Opportunities Almost all editors interviewed spoke about the importance of training. New Vision’s Robert Mudhasi says one of the features of his two decades
Tapping, Shaping, and Keeping Talent
in the newsroom has been refresher training provided by the company. This has gone beyond just journalistic work to include things such as management skills and personal finance. Media houses need to have a deliberate policy to encourage journalists to get training, as this will most likely improve their work. Says Bernard Tabaire: A newsroom should encourage its people to go for further training; get opportunities for them, short-term and longterm, and those sorts of things. There’s no magic; media houses just have to do what other businesses have done or what other business are doing to keep their people. People have to see that there is a path to growth; and also, that growth should not mean that if you are a reporter and your passion is reporting that then you have to become a sub-editor to earn a little more pay. Yet, as Francis Kagolo points out, even if the company provided the training, it would be up to the reporter to take it seriously and resolve to put theory into practice. Without that resolve, training would be just another ‘breather’ for overworked staff. Still, it is better to train and hope for the best. �
From Katanga Slum to Deputy News Editor One Scribe’s Route
New Vision’s FRANCIS KAGOLO was one of Uganda’s most efficient and flawless reporters when, in April 2015, he was promoted to deputy news editor. For those who know him, this was not a surprise. A year earlier, I had brought his name up during a conversation with The Observer managing director James Tumusiime – about the scarcity of accomplished young people. Tumusiime replied curtly: “He is very highly regarded there!” And the message was clear: don’t dream about that one. When I interviewed Kagolo, I wanted to know what he has done to rise so fast in the country’s largest newspaper. His story should inspire many young journalists keen to get to the top.
Let’s start at the beginning: how did you end up in the newsroom? I started journalism as an intern in Bukedde [newspaper]; I was at Makerere University doing Mass Communication. That time  New Vision was taking only two interns a year. When New Vision took two of our colleagues, I never wanted to work in any other media house. So, I said since there’s Bukedde and I know how to write Luganda – I studied Luganda up to A-level and I also taught it after my A-level – I decided to go to Bukedde. Now, Bukedde is different from other newspapers. Their beats are [mostly] peripheral: you cover Kalerwe, Katanga, Kibe zone [slummy areas].
From Katanga Slum to Deputy News Editor, One Scribe’s Route
When I went to Bukedde, they told me: ‘okay, since you are at Makerere University for us, you cover Katanga.’ Now imagine you are at the best university in Uganda; you performed well in A-level; you know you are one of the best. Now you come and someone tells you to go to Katanga! They had given me an internship slot at CBS [radio] but I I wanted to work with Vision. So, I had to go to Katanga. Unfortunately there was another reporter assigned to cover Katanga slum! So, there was some competition; that reporter is called Godfrey Lukanga. Later I learnt that Lukanga lives far and usually comes to Katanga late. So, I devised a trick. I would wake up very early in the morning; by 7.30a.m., I am in Katanga, and I go to LC1 chairpersons, police post and speak to a few people, [asking] “what has happened here?” I remember finding a woman called Nakijoba; she was looking after kids. I wrote a feature about her. I was so happy [when it ran in] Bukedde. Eventually I discovered that from Katanga, on my way to office, I could go to Wandegeya police station and get some stories. I went there for a few weeks and stopped because some policemen were asking me for money. I remember earning my first pay from Bukedde; [it] was Shs 62,000. I was very happy. I stopped going to the [Nsibirwa hall] mess and I would sometimes buy chips. Eventually journalism became [very interesting] because of that earning and I was still at Makerere. I went from Katanga to Kibe zone. I discovered that the person who was covering Kibe was also covering Kawempe and Bwaise; so, it was a big area for her. She is called Sarah Zawedde. So, I went to Kibe, Kalerwe and covered some big stories. After I had completed campus, I started sending stories to New Vision. I remember my first story in New Vision was Prof. [Apolo] Nsibambi’s retirement as Makerere University chancellor. It was a half page in late 2007. I was excited. After graduation in 2008, I crossed to Vision but still filed some stories for Bukedde. I free-lanced for one and a half years in New Vision. In 2009, I was made a junior reporter and after some years, reporter, and then senior reporter, and eventually deputy news editor handling general news. That’s what I’m currently doing since April 2015.
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What would you say has helped you to achieve the kind of quality that has seen you rise that fast? I think good writers rarely know they write well. Some do; for me it took me a long time until sub-editors started telling me. I started hearing “I want to edit Kagolo’s stories” and things like that. But back to your question, in the university we used to say “journalism is a baptism of fire.” There is another saying that a good journalist is born, but not made. When you combine these two, for me it means that journalism has so much to do with life skills. Skills we learn at home than what we learn in universities. You may be a good writer, yes; be fluent in English, yes; but fail in journalism because of so many issues. For me I think journalism has to do a lot with hard work. I remember when I was freelancing, I would come here at 5a.m., do a feature story. We used to have brainstorming meetings every morning at 8:30a.m.; by around 8a.m., I am half-way through my feature story; I go for the news meeting [and] get an assignment. Before I go to the field, I would fight to finish my feature story. I would write features and news stories. That helped me. I remember even when I was appointed junior reporter, Cathy Mwesigwa, then features editor, was on leave: she came back and said: “Francis, they have put you on news? I wanted you to go to features” – because I was juggling both desks. You have to understand the nature of your work. If a news editor leaves at 10p.m., why do you leave at 5p.m.? Why do you leave at 4p.m.? I would leave at around 9:30p.m., sometimes even beyond. And whenever the news editor called me back to office, I would still come back. One time I had reached home and relaxed and John Kakande, then news editor, called me. I had to jump on a boda boda and come back; I remember I even came in shorts. So, that is the commitment and hard work; for me that is the number one priority if someone wants to succeed in journalism. With that comes humility and the willingness to learn, and teamwork. These are life skills we learn from home when we are still young. You cannot go to interview someone… sometimes journalists are knowledgeable and informed, but I read that for you to succeed as an interviewer, you must appear as if you are stupid. Now that’s the humility,
From Katanga Slum to Deputy News Editor, One Scribe’s Route
understanding that “I know this issue but I want some information from this man”. Those are the life skills I would start with. I’m a person who always yearns for knowledge. I continuously skill myself. I will tell you that I was not a good writer but I remember John Kakande one time abused me. He said: “a university graduate, how can you write like this?” I felt…I felt… I can’t even explain how I felt. I felt bad, but the humility I talked about, I didn’t respond to him. Then I understood that I have this weakness, I need to improve. I see some reporters when they are told like that, they quarrel; one of them even tried to beat an editor. I remember talking to a friend and I asked him that ‘how can I improve myself?’ I wanted to go back and do some training in English language so that I could become a good writer. He told me: “No; you may not need to do that; you just need to read.” That brings me to another point: that you cannot be a good writer if you are not a good reader. You need to read because that way, you become informed, you get to know current affairs, but also you come to appreciate the different writing styles.
When he said you just have to read, how did you do that? I read more of novels, but also I used to spend some good time in the library, reading newspapers. These days I don’t read novels; I like reading academic stuff. When I see a well-written academic article, I enjoy it. I remember Heritage Oil took me to cover a function in the Albertine region and we went by plane. We spent only one day but I said “I need to come back with some good feature stories.” I went well prepared; I went reading my novels [and thinking]: if I find a story about education, how do I approach it? So, that’s how I improved myself… hard work! Then, I talked about continuous skilling: in those few years [almost seven] I reported, I never took leave to rest, never. Actually I started taking leave when I became editor. I ‘took leave’ when I had training to attend [or] when I had exams to do. In those seven years I think I attended more than 20 journalism trainings. Some of these may look the usual things you do in the newsroom but when you attend that training, it brings some reflection. I remember attending many trainings at ACME [African Centre for Media Excellence]; I never took any training for granted.
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But I guess training also depends if you take it seriously… That’s the problem! Some reporters go for transport refund, relaxing, meeting colleagues, eating food and coming back. But if you take trainings seriously, definitely you will improve yourself. The people who come [to deliver these] trainings are veteran journalists like Peter Mwesige. You learn a lot of things from them. When I was a reporter, I got to a point and thought, ‘maybe we need to emphasise specialisation,’ like we have someone specifically for the education beat, environment and someone to handle health and another person maybe on road infrastructure. But I didn’t have that opportunity to concentrate on one particular beat. I’m a kind of person who, after covering a beat I would feel I need to learn some more, some new stuff somewhere. So, in New Vision I started with education, I covered crime, health, environment, and agriculture. Now, I come to understand when I was appointed editor that a good reporter, a good journalist, needs to know something about everything. And they end up being the best writers in the newsroom. The other issue is open-mindedness! A journalist doesn’t have to be closeminded. It’s common among political writers. Yes, you may know the truth but give the other person an opportunity to speak and when he speaks leave his comment there. When you write, don’t try to draw stories to your side as if you are writing an opinion. You have to be open-minded and know that a journalist is not an activist. Activism has killed a lot of good reporters. Despite being informed and knowledgeable, you don’t have to rule out someone’s comments just because you know he is lying. Let him say what he wants to say. You can give what you have discovered in your investigations and let the other person comment; that’s good journalism to me. You can bring in context and background and your findings, but let the person speak. I’m very critical but open-minded.
Someone said the purpose of education is to replace an empty mind with an open mind… I think journalists also need to go for further training. ‘Experience, experience…’ is not enough. We report about issues that we are not experts in. What can help you is further training. I did a post-graduate
From Katanga Slum to Deputy News Editor, One Scribe’s Route
diploma in investigative journalism and immediately after, I went back for a master’s in sustainable development. That improves your analytical skills and critical thinking. You find someone has reported for 10 years; he came in with a bachelor’s; he is still with that bachelor’s; he hasn’t even attended any short course or training; how will he improve? We need to encourage journalists to [go back to school].
Any other suggestions or strategies for raising the standards in our newsrooms? I don’t believe in job interviews for reporters. I don’t think interviews can give you a good reporter. Given the opportunity, I wouldn’t use that strategy. The other thing I can say is have a pool of freelancers and have a way of motivating them. I have talked to a number of freelancers; freelancing for a long time also frustrates them. But if you have 10 freelancers, you identify one or two who have excelled [and] you pick from that pool. Even when someone graduates from university, they can freelance. When you see that they are committed and they have improved and excelled, then you hire them full-time.
What about newsroom training? In the newsrooms, you need constant trainings, and one-on-one sessions between editor and reporter can help. You can identify one’s strengths and weaknesses. You know a reporter has an eye for news but their writing is not good. Journalism is tricky; it’s hard to get someone who is blessed in all aspects. Someone may be good at sourcing news but when it comes to writing, they are terrible. What you can do is keep in constant touch with them; you can even keep a number of published stories and review them together. It’s not easy because of how much work we have but once in a while I do it.
Do you get positive results? I think I read a quote that was put up by Paul Busharizi on the internet - that more educated people are usually humble and willing to learn. Sometimes you are trying to help someone and you realise that he is
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not forthcoming. What I do is I retreat and try to talk to you better. It’s a process; it’s not easy because it’s a management skill I need to learn.
So, the challenge is for one to have the right attitude, to be humble and ready to learn... It’s good when you discover your weakness and try to improve; but most people don’t. And I think journalism, especially print journalism, is heading into a serious crisis. �
The Last Words On Desire, Bills and Dreams
In March 1996, The Monitor newspaper published a little sports story titled “Violence erupts in Entebbe league”. The author was an unknown senior five student, with an incomprehensible by-line. Days earlier, the writer had walked to The Monitor offices on Dewinton road and told editors he wanted to start writing. He got encouragement but all he had, really, was desire. That student was me. In March 2017, I got an email with something I had been desperate for – an offer to retire me from the newsroom. The 21 years in between have given me everything that journalism can offer; hope and hype, frustration and fame, condemnation and commendation. I write this with my rucksack on the back, as I prepare to leave The Observer newsroom that has been my workplace for 12-and-a-half years. This handbook, therefore, is a timely token of appreciation to journalism for enriching me. I have no doubt there are many young people with the kind of desire I had in 1996 – to become a top journalist. And some of Uganda’s accomplished editors have shared here what they have learnt about good reporting and writing. For me, learning has often come from looking at what the best journalists did. Before that debut article about the schools football league, I read five copies of The Monitor newspaper to understand how people wove disparate words to read like God created them together. By the time I put down the last copy, I told myself, “this thing is not so difficult”. The
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language of my first article was a combination of what I had read and what I used to hear on BBC radio’s Sports Roundup programme. I often remember my excitement at the fact that the editor did not change the first sentence of my first attempt at writing. A cynic could argue this was not my intro but one copied from the BBC. To that charge I would plead guilty, but I would not apologise. And if there was one thing I wish every reader of this book takes away, it is that critically and consistently reading high-quality journalism is a must for those who want to master the craft. I can hardly think of anything important for the development of good journalists that has not already been articulated by the editors in this book. The one thing I normally ask young people who ask for mentorship is to search their soul, look critically at the difficult, taxing, poorly paying thing called journalism, and ask themselves if that is what they want to spend their best years doing. My goal is not to discourage would-be journalists but to encourage honest self-appraisal of why people want to become journalists. Of course we all want to earn from our work, but money and Ugandan journalism have a historically complicated relationship. We journalists often complain that journalism does not pay us as much as other professions pay our classmates. Some even use this excuse to solicit bribes. But while journalism does not pay the highest salaries anywhere in the world, those who give it an honest shot can derive satisfaction – and an honest living – from it. In August 2000, I visited my mother in Masaka. She was happy that finally her son had completed his first degree and intimated that she had talked to a few friends in good places to help me find a job. “Well, mum, I am not looking for a job,” I said calmly, eager to take any pressure off her. “I know you must be anxious,” she said sympathetically. “But leave that to me. We will find the job.” “But I do not need to look for a job now!” “Richard?” Mum said gravely, putting down two glasses on the counter of her shop. “What do you mean?” “Mum, I am just not looking for a job. I am fine.”
The Last Words, On Desire, Bills and Dreams
“What are you going to do?” “I am already a freelance journalist!” “Journalism?” my mother’s face dropped. “There is no money in journalism. I am not going to pay your rent after suffering to pay your school fees.” “Well, Mum, let me do what I love to do. If I fail to pay my bills, I will come back and we look for a job.” The jury is still out on whether I have managed to pay my bills. It depends on who you ask. Certainly the children would like a “big car” today, an aeroplane tomorrow, and a storeyed house the next day. I guess as they get older, they will agree that all they need is a strong, stable foundation so that they will be able to pursue their own dreams. This handbook is meant to support those who dream to report completely and write with professional flair. Good luck!
Further Reading Hart, Jack (2007) A Writer’s Coach: The Complete Guide To Writing Strategies That Work. Anchor Books, New York. Williams, Joseph M. (1990) Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. Miller, Joan I & Taylor, Bruce J (2008) The Punctuation Handbook, WIPF & Stock, Oregon. Strunk, W., Jr., & White, E.B. (1999).The Elements of Style. New York: Allyn& Bacon Zinsser, William Knowlton. (2006) On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, New York : HarperCollins, Trends in Newsrooms 2016; Published by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA). Available on: http:// www.thehinducentre.com/multimedia/archive/02895/WAN-IFRA_Trends_ Ne_2895264a.pdf; accessed on 27/10/2016 National Public Radio social media guidelines: http://ethics.npr.org/tag/socialmedia/ BBC Michelle Nkamankeng interview: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/ p04brpz8 Ordering adjectives: https://literalminded.wordpress.com/2011/07/14/orderingyour-adjectives/ http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/learningenglish/grammar/learnit/learnitv302. shtml http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/learningenglish/grammar/learnit/learnitv202. shtml http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/home.html http://www.techtoolsforwriters.com/ https://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/sep/25/writing.journalism.news http://impertinentremarks.com/2013/03/52-transitional-phrases-to-keep-yourwriting-connected/ http://writingcenter.tamu.edu/Students/Writing-Speaking-Guides/AlphabeticalList-of-Guides/Drafting/Transitions.ww