Better Sources and Tougher Questions Lead to More Funds for Uganda's Hospitals

Dec 92010
  • One report in The Daily Monitor included photos of a young boy with a broken leg waiting for a doctor, and a woman with a fractured vertebra lying on a hospital floor.

A reporter who relies only on official sources will often miss the real story. To a seasoned journalist, that may sound like a cliché. But through my Knight International Journalism Fellowship in Uganda, where independent media are very new, I’m trying to help journalists understand the need to dig deeper and find new sources, especially when it comes to health reporting. Recently, I got to see stunning results-- $130 million worth in fact. In 2008, a reporter I was working with, Kakaire Kirunda of the Daily Monitor newspaper, set out to write a story about the country’s hospital system. On paper, it’s an orderly and well-conceived array of district, regional and national hospitals, each designed to handle certain types of cases while passing more complex ones up to higher levels. In reality, though, the system is broken. The lower-level facilities often lack manpower and equipment, so the triage system doesn’t work. Patients flock in large numbers to the higher level sites, which are overwhelmed.

Kakaire’s story became a series that the Monitor called “Our Sick Hospitals.” It worked because it relied not on official sources, who generally painted a rosy picture based on the theoretical ideal, but on patients who used the shoddy hospitals and on experts like Freddie Ssengooba, a lecturer at Makerere University School of Public Health, who was more focused on the underlying problems.

Better sources led to better stories. And better stories had a bigger impact. Ssengooba says he started hearing from officials at the Ministry of Health almost as soon as the articles began to appear. “The big people felt embarrassed by these stories,” he was told, and they were demanding a response. Soon, the government applied for a World Bank loan designed to help them fix the problem.

By the time Kakaire worked on his story, he already was a seasoned reporter by Ugandan standards. But the majority of reporters are poorly trained, paid a pittance and almost universally young. Not surprisingly, they are easily intimidated – or stonewalled – by official sources. And because they often produce weak stories, many experts are wary of dealing with them. Part of my goal as a fellow is to change this cycle, so we have stronger reporters writing stronger stories that lead to stronger results.

I’m happy to say the World Bank loan was approved in May, bringing Uganda $130 million to start fixing its hospital problems. This story isn't over yet. I’m urging journalists to track how the loan money is spent to make sure it is being used as promised – and to see if it is working.

The Knight International Fellowships are funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provides additional funding for fellowships focused on improving coverage of health and poverty issues in Africa.