Good Reporting Can Produce Stunning Results

Jun 122010

Any reporter who relies on official sources will often miss the real story. That may sound like a cliche, but in countries that don’t have much experience with an independent press, it’s a lesson many reporters are just starting to learn. When they do, however, the results can be stunning.

In 2008, reporter Kakaire A. Kirunda of the Daily Monitor newspaper set out to write a story about the country’s hospital system. On paper, it’s an 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 desired system of triage doesn’t work. Patients flock in large numbers to the higher level ones, which are overwhelmed.

Kakaire’s project 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 people like Freddie Ssengooba, a lecturer at Makerere University School of Public Health, who were 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.

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

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 pretty weak stories, many experts are wary of dealing with them.

In early 2008, I sought to narrow the gap between reporters and experts by launching a series of workshops designed to bring both together.The very first workshop, in April 2008, sought to improve reporting on epidemics. That was when Dr. William Mbabazi, then a top epidemiologist for the World Health Organization, first met Eve Mashoo, who at the time was a rooky reporter for the Daily Monitor.

Over the ensuing months, the two got to know each other better, and slowly trust replaced suspicion.

It all paid off almost a year after the workshop. Polio had emerged as a new health threat in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda’s neighbor to the west, and there were signs it was spreading to Uganda. WHO had prepared an emergency vaccination plan, but it stalled, apparently stuck in a bureaucratic quagmire at the Uganda Ministry of Health.

Dr. Mbabazi had tried to shake the funds loose, but the Ministry was ummoved. So he called Eve. With the help of Kakaire, she wrote a story that appeared on the Monitor’s front page. The effect was electrifying. Within 24 hours, the Ministry released $2 million to launch the long delayed-vaccination program. WHO said it was the only African country at the time to put its own money into a polio campaign.

The Monitor’s front-page story, which described the conflict between WHO and the Ugandan agency, also energized the public. People started flocking to vaccination sites. In fact, the number of children vaccinated was more than in any such campaign ever, according to Mbabazi. In many communities, more children turned up for vaccines than the Ministry had thought were there!

And it all began when Mbabazi met a young reporter and both got a chance to know each other.