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Back to naivety. Confessions of a journalist after visiting Uganda

26 March 2014

Paulina Pacula is journalist from Poland. She recently travelled with MRG to Uganda under the Minority Realities Programme. Here she recounts how meeting Batwa was a life changing experience which made her understand the basics of her profession again, and adopt naivety as a way of thinking.

I feel a little bit ashamed to admit what I’m about to say. Maybe I should speak only for myself, but at the same time I tend to think that I’m not the only one beating their breast about how in our everyday work, with all the hurry and routine, we journalists forget to ask ourselves the most important questions.

Which questions? I’ll come to that….

Journalism is about the mission, but you know how it really is. In planning the story we have to think, ’Will people be interested in this subject so they click, buy or stay on our TV channel? Is this story exclusive enough to impress the audience or make other media quote us and make our brand stronger?’

Clicking, buying and watching are the most important activities of the audience from an economics point of view. They all mean money – the more people click, buy, watch, the more advertisements we get and business can go on. Because it’s all about business, isn’t it?

But it’s difficult to admit that out loud. Why? Because we journalists are ambitious people. We don’t like to do things the easy way and of course we don’t do our job for the media owners to earn money. No! We have a mission. Only sometimes the reality makes us forget this.

However I am lucky. I was reminded about it during a recent trip with MRG to Uganda. We visited two Batwa communities – indigenous people of Central and East Africa, who for the last five thousand years have lived in the rainforest along with colobus monkeys, chimpanzees and mountain gorillas. Unfortunately in the 1990s they were evicted by the Ugandan government to make way for a national park.

What happens to them today? Those who were lucky enough to get a piece of land as a form of compensation from the government or from an NGO live outside the forest. That makes them totally unable to continue with traditions as all of their religious, social and health practices were connected with their natural habitat. They are traumatized, vulnerable and they have no voice. But at least they are not starving as they can grow some food.

Those who haven’t got any land live in slums around bigger towns. Deprived of everything, they live in shacks made from garbage and burn old tires to warm up and cook food. Most of them die before reaching forty, not to mention that almost every woman has an experience of losing a child as the level of child mortality is so high.

Batwa man in a slum on the outskirts of the town on Kisoro. Credit: Paulina Pacula

Seeing all of this made me feel overwhelmed. I was no longer thinking as I had at the beginning of this trip, ’Oh, this is so great, I’m going to bring all these amazing, exotic, exclusive stories back to Europe.’

Instead of that I had this word jumping in to my head: responsibility. What is my responsibility towards these people? What can I do to help them? Had I lost my faith in journalism? Could my stories change anything?

And the person who enlightened me was Lee Kanyare-Kaguongo, the director of the Ugandan Media Academy, and our lecturer during the MRG training workshop on ethical reporting in Kampala. When we came back from the visit to the Batwa communities and the next day we were sitting and discussing our stories, he kept asking this question to all of us, ‘What will be the impact of your story?’

The impact of my story. What a brilliant question!

I was lost, because I didn’t feel sense in my work. And suddenly I got it. What do you want to be the outcome of your story? What do you want to achieve with it? That basically means, what do you write it for?

I was never satisfied with the idea that I write ‘to have it published’, ’to earn money’ or ’to have my name under the big headline on front page.’ But finally I realized that this was because I always felt my responsibility to the people who give me their story goes far beyond that.

Listening to Lee I understood that I can be far more successful in making impact with my stories by being conscious about this impact. Thinking deeper than making it clickable.

The question about impact is also a question about whether I reinforce stereotypes in my story or challenge them. Can my story make someone vulnerable and how can I prevent that? Will I open people up to reflection and discussion, or rather give them easy answers which do not make them understand others better? What actions do I want to see after the story is published? Who do I want to put pressure on? The government? Public institutions? Business people?

Only by doing that can we fulfill the role of the media as a watchdog. And with this comes another issue – the follow up stories and if there is a need to keep the pressure up. Journalism is not about writing and forgetting! And I see this pattern in the media too often.

As Lee brilliantly pointed out, media plays a significant role in our society as an agent of change. They can facilitate dialogue, debate and discussion at both the national and international level.

Brilliant. I believe in journalism again!

Some may call this approach naïve – I’m fine with that. As Javier Goma Lanzon, the Spanish philosopher pointed out recently, ‘Naivety is a method for traversing the dense cloud created by skepticism, relativism and particularism. It’s a way to deal with our culture dominated by the philosophy of suspicion, destruction, deconstruction, as well as proclamations such as the death of God, the death of Man, the end of History, and other such funereal declarations.’

Yeah, I can be naïve!

This article reflects the opinion of its author only and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.