The role of fact-checking is getting even more critical because of the distortions, manipulations and outright fabrications that are increasingly becoming commonplace online as everyone with Internet access and a keyboard or smartphone can become a publisher
By Don Wanyama
On Wednesday 6th January, 2016, President Museveni, who is also the NRM presidential flagbearer, held a press briefing at Kabale State Lodge, as is the practice whenever he concludes campaigns in a sub-region.
The structure of the briefing is such that the President makes an address, highlighting the salient issues he has dealt with in the sub-region before taking questions from journalists.
In this particular address, which was also attended by political and opinion leaders from Kigezi sub-region, the President explained the key pillars of the NRM which are unity, strength, peace, development, prosperity, skills enhancement and job-creation; noting their inter-woven nature.
The President who usually takes more questions from journalists limited them to five because of an impending meeting he had with the Kigezi elders and opinion leaders.
The President being the head of state and also the presidential flagbearer of the biggest political party, would mean that any journalist who gets the chance to put a question to him would treat that as a serious matter.
It was therefore surprising to see one journalist ask the President to respond to claims that US Republican presidential flagbearer contestant Donald Trump had said he would "arrest both President Museveni and Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe" if elected US president.
The journalist went on into detail of how Mr Trump made the comments at a dinner of American war veterans in Washington DC.
There was everything wrong with this question. A key marker that enables professional journalists stand out from everyday citizen reporters or "netizens" (now that the Internet has turned everyone into a reporter) is their ability to verify facts, be objective and balanced.
The role of fact-checking is getting even more critical because of the distortions, manipulations and outright fabrications that are increasingly becoming commonplace online as everyone with Internet access and a keyboard or smartphone can become a publisher.
It is for this sole reason that several journalism scholars posit that traditional media will not perish even with the onslaught of new/digital media.
A natural reaction by most people after they have read something on Facebook, Twitter or whatever other e-platforms, is to go to the radio, TV or wait for the newspaper to verify if it is true. The assumption is that traditional media have professionals but also credible gate-keeping processes to sieve truth from fiction.
This public expectation of truth and accuracy places a very big burden on shoulders of journalists—especially those who want to be taken seriously. In light of this, therefore, it was surprising to see a journalist go into detail on a story that if he had bothered to double-check, would have occurred to him to be a concoction.
The so-called Trump story was first published on a website www.spectator.co.ke, on December 30th, 2015. If one bothered to check it out, they would establish that it is a spoof website, fashioned along the lines of the www.theonion.com whose specialty is parody, jokes and satire.
A declaration by a presidential candidate that he will arrest heads of state is no mean announcement. It is the type of news that most credible media would carry and perhaps spend time on. A quick Google search will show you that beyond a few blogs and websites here and there that basically regurgitated the first story, no media of import has the story.
Of course some overzealous opposition supporters here were also circulating the story on platforms like WhatsApp—while either intentionally or ignorantly omitting this context.
But how then do you explain the fact that a journalist, about a week after a concocted story was published and dismissed in most discourse, uses it as a basis to ask the President for a response?
This incident, in my view, points to a deep malaise that media managers must wake up to. Is the Internet replacing the hard old-nosed system of journalists verifying facts, visiting libraries and reading widely? Is this the arm-chair journalism that many have feared about?
How does that impact on the role of mainstream media/journalism against that of citizen journalism? I hope this incident can cause a discussion on these and more by stakeholders.
In several interactions with journalists on this campaign trail, President Museveni has always reminded them to take their key professional duties of information, education and entertainment seriously.
In one such meeting at the State Lodge in Napak, the President actually dwelt on this subject, noting that whereas Ugandan media was good at entertainment, fair at information, it is terrible at education. With such "Trump" incidents, it is becoming clear the President has a point.
The writer is a Special Media Assistant in the Office of NRM National Chairperson.