What is Africawoman? Essay
What is Africawoman?
Africawoman is a professional news/feature service whose chief objective is to provide a guaranteed platform for the voices of African women to be heard in the debates coming out of the continent.
It is the flagship of Africawoman Communications, a non-governmental organisation registered in Kenya as an affiliate of the Scotland-based Worldwoman media charity. Africawoman works closely with the British Council and the Department for International Development.
Targeting both print and electronic media, Africawoman is produced by 90 women journalists in nine African countries. The project is currently being undertaken in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon. Ultimately, Africawoman intends to cover the entire continent.
The main distribution channel for Africawoman stories is a monthly virtual newspaper of the same name. It is available at www.Africawoman.net. To ensure onward transmission to grassroots women, Africawoman has entered into partnerships with community radio stations that broadcast within the project sites. Special reports tied to international themes are produced when the need arises.
Africawoman also doubles up as a training forum for women journalists either starting out in their careers or approaching middle-level management. They are paired with mentors based in the United Kingdom, who help Africa’s next generation of topflight writers and editors to fine-tune their skills to world-class standards.
Launched in 2001, Africawoman is managed from Nairobi but produced jointly with experts based in Canada and the United Kingdom. Besides the African journalists, the network comprises 30 other professionals in the UK.
Africawoman stands by the Statement of Shared Purpose developed by an international cast of journalists, which offers a common understanding of what defines our work:
“The central purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with accurate and reliable information they need to function in a free society. This encompasses myriad roles -helping define community, creating common language and common knowledge, identifying a community’s goals, heroes and villains and pushing people beyond complacency. This purpose also involves other requirements, such as being entertaining, serving as watchdog and offering voice to the voiceless.”
Africawoman seeks to be a newspaper of influence and authority. For this reason, we choose to be guided by the following principles, which are built upon an international framework of codes of ethics that guide journalistic conduct: Integrity, respect, justice and fairness and the highest professional standards.
Integrity: Journalism has been described as the first draft of history. This places a heavy responsibility on our shoulders, requiring us to put out reliable and accurate facts within the right context. Indeed, all other journalistic skills and practices – context, interpretation, comment, criticism, analysis and debate – are based upon a foundation of accuracy. Africawoman journalists will not request or receive bribes and other favours that might lead to a conflict of interests.
Respect: We believe in respect – among ourselves as members of the Africawoman family, in our relations with our sources and in our interactions with society in general. We shall adhere to codes of ethics that compel the media to avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to race, ethnicity, religion, political affiliation, sex or sexual orientation or to physical or mental illness or handicap – unless they are relevant to the story, of course.
Even though we have a clear focus defined by our motto “For and About Women”, we aspire to represent the interests of all members of society and will practice no discrimination against anyone or any segment of society. We will accord everyone the human dignity that they deserve, therefore we will not publish obscene, vulgar or material offensive to public tastes.
Justice and fairness: We will make all reasonable efforts to report all sides of a story and accord the right of reply to anyone mentioned in a story. Children should not be identified in cases to do with sexual offences, neither shall we photograph or interview them – except in matters of public interest – without the consent of a parent, guardian or authorities responsible for the welfare of the child. Indeed, all victims of sex crimes should not be identified except where they voluntarily choose to waive this right.
The public interest can be defined as: Detecting or exposing crime or serious misdemeanour or anti-social conduct; protecting public health, morality or security; and preventing the public from being misled by some statement or action.
Highest professional standards: As journalists committed to producing a respected newspaper, we shall adhere to the following principles:
Whereas journalists have an obligation to protect confidential sources, Africawoman will generally not use stories based on unnamed sources unless the circumstances are truly exceptional. Unless in extreme circumstances, and only where information cannot be obtained otherwise, our writers are expected to identify themselves and not seek to obtain information by subterfuge.
Plagiarism is completely unacceptable in Africawoman. We will not use articles lifted wholesale from other sources or already published elsewhere in precisely the same form. Quotations and statements from other sources should be appropriately attributed. Africawoman writers are expected to jealously safeguard their independence and ensure the authenticity of the information they present for publication.
Intrusion into people’s privacy is acceptable only where there is an overriding public interest. Where intrusion into grief or shock is necessary, writers are required to conduct themselves in a humane and sensitivity.
When is it an Africawoman story?
Africawoman’s work can be classified in five categories: Giving women a voice, changing the portrayal of women in the media, giving direction and mission, identifying and developing strategies for social change and mentoring and providing role models for African women.
In their daily routine, most journalists tend to focus on the news perspective. Nothing wrong with that. But, being a monthly newspaper, Africawoman asks for something more than the simple, parochial approach to issues and events in our countries. Though our articles are necessarily based on news, our strength lies in taking the debate beyond simple reporting and putting it in the right context.
As Africawoman writers, we are called upon to look at the news within the context of issues rather than one-off events. Take the case of domestic violence. Whereas a Ugandan newspaper or magazine would be expected to break the news of former Vice-President Specioza Kazibwe’s public admission that she has been a battered wife, Africawoman uses the story as an entry point to discuss the intricate details of domestic violence on the continent.
We raise fundamental questions to do with the kind of pressures that African women experience in trying to get out of abusive relationships – including the legal aspects and the practical needs such as where to take refuge. We analyse the role that culture and traditions play in forcing women to put up with abuse. And, most important, we place these arguments within the context of international discourse on gender violence. Whenever there is a crosscutting issue such as domestic violence, Africawoman treats the matter as a special report pooling resources and experiences across the continent.
Put in a different way, Africawoman demands of its writers an analytical approach to stories. The basic rule is that the Africawoman story does not stop at presenting women as helpless victims; the writer is required to pinpoint evidence of what women are doing to help themselves and document the changes that are taking place in society as a result of these initiatives.
There is a simple philosophy behind this thinking: All too often, women have been virtually non-existent in African media. When they are reported at all, they are often portrayed as passive and within stereotypes.
Africawoman seeks to reinforce the message that women are not basket cases waiting for others to come to their assistance. Whereas they may be oppressed by certain cultures and traditions, African women are often innovative survivors and leaders in their own right. There are plenty of local initiatives to deal with the problems and many coping mechanisms developed and spearheaded by women. Let’s celebrate the creativity of African women, even as we point out the challenges they face!
In this spirit, Africawoman does not focus on the sensational for the sake of titillating readers. We have a mission, which is to get women’s perspectives into the news. This does not mean ignoring news that presents initially as sensation. Consider the case of a serial killer targeting women in a key town in Ghana. The Africawoman writer will not go into the gory details of the killings. But she is allowed to use the story as a news peg to discuss what the implications are for society and women, whether policies and laws adequately protect women and what needs to be done to ensure justice for women.
The temptation will be to turn to women as our key news sources. This will not always be possible or, indeed, advisable – for the simple reason that women do not live in a vacuum. Whatever happens to women and whatever they do has an impact on the rest of society. It is only good journalism that we try to seek diverse opinions in our approach to news, while seeking to ensure that women’s perspectives take precedence.
Let’s look at a story on food shortages and famine. In most countries, policy and decision-making tends to be male-dominated. If we focused purely on the official version of the story, we would probably find ourselves with a story that completely ignores the fact that food shortages and famine impact on women and men in different ways.
The Africawoman writer will get the relevant facts and figures from the decision-makers in government and relief agencies but make it her business to ask pointed questions on women specifically. Rather than lead into the story with the bureaucrats, she will then speak to women and kick off with their experiences. Do not forget to constantly make references to these women at regular intervals, the purpose being to remind the reader that we are telling the story through women’s eyes.
Africawoman journalists may also write commentaries on wider continental and international issues, such as the African Union’s New Partnership for Development initiative or the US-led war on Iraq. This can only enrich the debates by looking at issues and events from a woman’s perspective.
Remember this: It is only in rare circumstances that Africawoman stories will be presented as news stories. In order to give ourselves the latitude to be considered influential and authoritative, we must go beyond the superficial and transitory and package our stories in the following formats: News analysis, commentary or investigative. These are covered in detail in part three of this manual.
PART II WRITING STYLE
Setting the right tone
Whereas the work we do can broadly be described as development communication, we must take care not to fall into the trap of compromising our professional standards by using boring, pedantic language that sounds very intelligent but means absolutely nothing to the average reader.
It is the Africawoman style when the story is gripping and effectively utilises the tools of pace, rhythm and the right words at the right time. The challenge for our writers is to present stories that our audience will read through to the end without feeling the need to take a break. Experience shows that once a story is shelved, the reader will probably never return to it. The rule of thumb is to write as you talk. The story should be clear in your head before you turn to your notebook!
What are the ingredients of a winning story?
We are all familiar with the journalist’s basic tools: The Who, What, Where, When, Why and How. For Africawoman, however, there is more to life than just stating the bare facts of the story. It is about presentation and bringing your intellectual participation into the story. We do not carry straight news stories, our focus being on analysis, commentary and investigative work. Regardless of the approach you take, however, there are minimum standards that are expected in your story – which are captured succinctly in these tips from the Editor and Publisher:
State the theme clearly. If you have trouble, ask yourself, “Does the story need to be written?” If the answer is yes, then ask yourself, “Have I done enough reporting? Do I have all the facts?”
Stick to the theme throughout. Though a story may have many angles, remember that you can only effectively discuss one idea at a time.
Report the consequences of the news to your readers. Readers care very little about government process, but they care very much how the decisions of government will affect their lives.
Use anecdotes and quotes for illustration, not decoration. No matter how colourful an anecdote or quote is, leave it out if it is not relevant to the theme of the story.
Creativity should be the result of good reporting, not merely the clever use of words. Avoid pretentious prose.
Look for insight, not just the superficial. Looking for insight includes but is not limited to: Asking the second “why” question; going to the scene; drawing conclusions you can back up with facts and talking to more than one source.
Don’t just tell the reader, show them. Let them smell, taste, hear, see and feel the story. Describe people and situations so the reader knows what you know. If your story took you to a horrible place, take the reader there by describing the assault on your senses.
Leading into the story
The intro is the most important part of the article. Indeed, many journalists spend significant time agonising over the lead, which sets the pace and rhythm for the rest of the story. Some may even say that the lead is 90 percent of the work.
A good lead must give the reader a clear picture of what your story is about, smartly hooking their attention while giving them sufficient information. We can begin by sketching the scene: “The young woman looks into the distance, tears welling in her eyes…” The reader will no doubt want to know why, but it is up to our writer to then move in fast with the details of the gripping tale.
Journalism is often seen as the art of storytelling. Consider the effect of this delayed impact introduction:
“Ofosua Poku was 39. She had already given birth to eight children, five of whom were alive. As the wife of a poor farmer, she knew they could not afford another baby. But the baby came anyway and her husband Kwame said it was a gift from God…
She visited the antenatal clinic twice during her pregnancy, the first in her sixth month. The nurse chastised her for leaving it so late and for having so many children. She told her she was anaemic and gave her a lot of pills to take. She stopped taking them after a while, though. When she died, she still had some in her bag.
Neither did she go hospital when she noticed some bleeding in her eighth month. She did not have enough money for transport, she said. The few drops of blood turned into massive bleeding in the night, and only four hours later did her husband decide to take her to hospital. It would be another three before they could find a truck to transport her and another 30 minutes before they could find a doctor. She died on the operating table.”
Poku’s story is typical of the four delays that contribute to the high maternal deaths in Africa. According to the Ministry of Health in Ghana, she was just one of 851 women who died in childbirth in 2002…”
In the original story, it took the writer six long paragraphs to bring out the essence of the story – which was about maternal mortality in Africa. Whereas the writer graphically brings alive the story, delayed intros are dicey.
They might well end up being the story in themselves, obscuring the real object of the article – which is an analysis of the issue at hand. Avoid too much detail, and do not attempt to tell the entire story in the lead. Bring out the issues pertinent to the story and discuss and illustrate the details later in the main body.
Unsubstantiated claims will only serve to water down your story at best or ruin your reputation as a journalist. Take a look at the following example:
“When discussing violence, the elderly are usually ignored. Yet every other hour an elderly person suffers sexual, physical or verbal violence at the hands of her child or grandchild.”
And now for the evidence:
“Only last month, a man hacked his elderly mother to death after they quarrelled over family land that had just been sold. The man repeatedly beat his mother with a walking stick until she died. In February, a relative attacked a 62-year-old woman over a land dispute and she was admitted to hospital…. A few like Gaudentia Githinji have been rejected by their children and have moved into homes for the elderly.”
If you must quote statistics, make sure your source is credible and the data is attributed accordingly. Here’s another example of sweeping statements:
“A group of 87 child mothers sit expectantly under a big tree in Kaptanyain Tingey country in eastern Uganda. Some carrying babies on their backs and others under their arms, the mothers, mostly 14 to 17, look desperate and frustrated with their new motherly status . . . “
Then we come across 14-year-old Irene Chebet (who should not have been named in the first place!). She reportedly “narrates her experiences with humour, sending the crowd into laughter”.
Communicate, not confuse
Use straight and simple language and explain the background of the subject. Do not take it for granted that every one of your readers’ is starting on the same page, so make sure you include enough detail to set the stage for your article.
Avoid jargon, fancy words and terminologies straight out of the dictionary. This will only put off general readers. We are here to inform, educate and entertain them, not dazzle them with our knowledge of specialist language. Africawoman is not a technical news service but, rather, targets a broad-based readership.
In the course of their work, non-governmental organisations have coined jargon all of their own. Unfortunately, these have increasingly crept into African media. You know the vocabulary – capacity building, modalities, stakeholders, empowerment, emancipation, sustainability, girl-child, corporate entities, people-driven this-and-that and so on. Leave those words right where they belong. We are communicators and we do our readers a great service by using language that is easily understood (not accessible!).
Apply this simple test every time you are tempted to use any of these words: How would I explain this concept to my mother in the village? This might sometimes mean using more words. But it is all for a good cause and the good editor (the surgeon, not the butcher) will forgive you for it.
Quotations are crucial in every story, not only to give voice to authentic sources but also because they add spice to the article and give the reader a welcome break from the writer’s paraphrasing and perceptions.
There are several concerns to be noted about the use of quotes, however. Do not begin a story with a quote unless it is truly outstanding. Whereas quotations are useful in bringing out interesting quirks in the character of the person you are interviewing, huge blocks of long quotes point to a lazy writer and are often difficult to read. The secret with quotes is to keep them short and sweet, using them mainly to back up an argument or remark already presented. Do not say in quotes what you have already paraphrased.
It is up to the writer to judge which quotes are likely to colourfully support a story, especially a profile, and use them appropriately. Writers often try out different forms of attribution to colour their stories. This is not necessary. A simple “says” or “said” will do, perhaps accompanied by a description of an action that is relevant to capturing the mood of the interview. An example: “You won’t believe how long it took,” she said, tapping impatiently on her computer. “I can’t abide this red tape.”
As with all good things: use quotes only when necessary. Do not pepper your article with so many quotes that the other essential elements of the story – paraphrasing and analysis – appear almost incidental. Also ensure that you have quotes from a variety of sources. A one-source story is the hallmark of a lazy writer and will immediately be spiked.
Whereas Africawoman handles news and information of some gravity, the presentation should be anything but dull and ponderous. We aim to bring alive the people, issues and events, especially considering that many of our readers will probably not have prior knowledge or only limited exposure to the countries and peoples being reported.
Painting a pen picture involves the judicial use of description of place and people that adds value to the story. Thus we avoid use of general terms and instead look out for details of facial expression and scenes that vividly capture emotions and the circumstances that our news sources operate in.
Tell us what people within the community you are visiting do for a living and something about the traditional lifestyle of the people – whatever is relevant to your story. A word of caution: Do not go overboard in your use of colour or the excess baggage may end up distracting the reader from the real story you want to tell. The Africawoman style is a cross between news reporting and the reader-friendly feature format that is highly readable and, above all, provocative.
Africawoman uses UK English. Some examples: Organisation rather than organization; behaviour not behavior; labour instead of labor (feel free to fill in other examples).
Measurements should be expressed in metric terms: kilometres instead of miles, metres instead of yards, litres instead of pints and kilogrammes instead of pounds. Where the original information is presented in imperial terms, writers are advised to convert to the metric system. When it comes to money, however, figures should be written in local currency and also converted to US dollars in brackets, as is common practice in most newspapers.
Numbers one to nine should be spelt out and those above written as digits. It is not necessary to do so with millions and above, however. These should be presented as $5 million, for example. Fractions should be written out as words, such as one-third or three-quarters.
Names of books, published reports, newspapers and films should be written in italics.
If you intend to use acronyms, they should be spelt out in the first instance. Acronyms should be used sparingly – and then only when they are easily recognised – since they are often in capitals and only serve to distract the eye. Those that can be read out, such as Ecowas, should be written as words in second and subsequent references.
Any data and statistics that you gather in your research should be quoted and acknowledged appropriately. Accuracy cannot be stressed often enough. When in doubt, double check the information, especially when there is a chance of libel.
Statistics or research findings from documented sources should be appropriately acknowledged by report title and author, unless they have passed into common usage.
Names, places, time and dates
Africawoman does not use the standard courtesy titles such as Mr, Mrs, Ms, Dr or Prof. This is designed to establish a common standard for all news sources. Always use two names in the first instance and the last name in subsequent references. Under no circumstances will we publish stories with one-name sources and only in exceptional circumstances will we use un-named sources. Please consult the editor for guidance on this.
Where someone’s profession or status is important to the story, a description should be given in the body of the article – So-and-so, a professor of zoology at the University of Zimbabwe. Use non-sexist titles such as chair or chairperson instead of chairman or chairwoman.
Since it is unlikely that all readers will be familiar with place names and the geography of your country, ensure that they are spelt correctly and some sense of direction (in relation to the capital, for example) is given early in the story. An example would be: Kisumu, a port on Lake Victoria about 400km west of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.
Where it is relevant, bear in mind the different time zones and ensure that you quote GMT alongside local time. Be as precise as possible about dates, as in June 30, 2002. Last week or last Thursday could mean anything in a monthly publication. “Recently” and “some time ago” are not acceptable either.
Length of articles
The typical Africawoman story is about 1,000 words long. Shorter articles of 600 and 200 words may be accepted for news round-ups and Umbeya, which is essentially news about the Africawoman family. Articles should be accompanied by photographs or graphics, where possible, to retain local flavour.
PART III SKILLS DEVELOPMENT
For the purposes of Africawoman, analysis must be located within a news peg. There are two reasons for this: First, the news upon which it is based gives it currency and context in the mind of the reader. Second, in trying to influence policies, laws and practices to make the world a better place for women, we often have to fall back on analysis in order to help readers understand the background and implications of the story. Indeed, it is in this direction that most of journalism is moving.
There are six factors to take into account when we do analysis: Ideas and how they are developed, how the work is organised, the writer’s voice, word choice, sentence fluency and the standard conventions of writing – including grammar, punctuation, spelling, paragraphs, and correct usage of words.
The writer is called upon to lead us into the analysis creatively. You dissect the news, assess it and interpret it. You place it within a context (background) and use quotes, statistics and other data to back up your arguments and you give pointers to the future (direct). And, finally you pay as much attention to the conclusion as you did the introduction.
It is inevitable that opinion will feature in your article. In an election analysis, for example, you may conclude that so-and-so has their work cut out for them, going by voting trends in the constituency, which has always ended up as a two-horse race between the two largest clans.
You come into analysis from an “expert” position, and the strength of your article will be judged from your knowledge of the nuts and bolts of your subject. The good analyst shows insight of the situation, people, issues and events. She selects relevant details that keep the main idea(s) in focus. Even though the analysis comes from your personal perspective, there has to be a sense of balance in the article. You are a good analyst indeed if you are in control of your subject and develop it appropriately throughout. If the reader has to stop and ponder what you mean, you have probably failed to produce an effective analysis.
Unlike straight news reporting, analysis offers you an opportunity to stamp your individual authority in the reader’s mind in the way you present your data and engage with the subject in a compelling manner.
“In 1996, ministers of women’s affairs from the Commonwealth set themselves a task: To increase women’s representation in decision-making positions in the political, public and private sectors by 30 percent by the year 2005.
With only two years to go, very few countries have achieved this target; in fact, some have taken a few steps backward. According to the Commonwealth Secretariat, only seven countries, including South Africa and the Seychelles, had 30 percent or more women’s representation in parliament and local government by January 2000 . . .
. . . Zimbabwe, on whose soil commonwealth countries met to craft the Harare Declaration – in which members committed themselves to promoting democracy, good governance, human rights and gender equality – stands accused of reneging on the very principles espoused under its own roof in 1991.
With a general election marred by reports of violence and intimidation, and a presidential election that is still the subject of court action, many Zimbabweans believe democracy is in the intensive care unit. Lying alongside it are noble programmes such as the 1995 Commonwealth Action Plan on Gender . . . .”
Commentary has been described as a dialogue with your reader on paper. More than anywhere else in the paper, you are allowed to indulge in your own point of view, seeking either to direct the readers’ thoughts on the subject chosen or to facilitate a greater understanding of the issues at stake.
Commentary writing shares many of the principles of analytical writing, the main difference being that the commentator chooses to pick only one or two strands of an issue to focus on. Commentary gives you the opportunity to respond to the issue from a very personal perspective. This does not, however, exempt you from the basic rule of fair comment based on the facts rather than diverting into personal attacks on the source.
The basic structure of a commentary will revolve around the four Cs – context, content, construction and conclusion. These can be translated into an introduction, theme, style and conclusion.
In general, it is wise to place your commentary within the context of a news item because the issue will be current and fresh in the readers’ minds. Indicate the news peg that has just taken place before the commentary, without repeating the story blow by blow. For Africawoman purposes, the issue should be broad based enough to be of appeal or concern to people beyond your own local community.
In developing your content, focus on analysis. Place your opinion within facts and data that reinforce your observations. The key writing tools discussed earlier apply to commentary writing too.
In constructing your commentary, ensure that you use relevant examples and offer your reader your own unique perspective of the issue at hand. Since the commentary is your own creation, you will be judged by choice of vocabulary, how you structure your sentences and the pace and rhythm that you set in your writing. Remember that it is the analysis that will make the difference, not just observation.
Finally, there must be a conclusion to your commentary. You will, at this point, pull together all the strands of the arguments you have put forward in the article and again repeat your stand on the matter. Just as you strive to draw the reader creatively into your commentary, it is useful to end on a high note.
Chicago journalist and humourist Finley Peter Dunne said at the turn of the last century that journalism’s watchdog role means, “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”. While this may be a tongue-in-cheek approach, investigative reporters set out to uncover what public figures want to remain hidden. Some of it may be illegal activity and others may be just simple mistakes or oversights, but it is well worth the journalists’ time to go into muckraking if we are to truly play our role as the Fourth Estate.
What does an investigative story involve?
* Fact finding, not just opinion sampling
* Wrongdoing, which can mean breaking rules or endangering life or livelihood or both
* Secrecy, often secret to the majority but known about by those closely affected
* Pubic interest, not just tittle tattle
* Stress, even danger, anxiety and the perception of trouble making. So …
* Time and patience, just look at the list of processes below.
How to decide if a story is worth the effort
Look at the six factors above and imagine each has a scale of one to 10. The more your story hits the 10 end of the scale in each category, the more worthwhile it is. If you don’t hit more than 5/10 in most categories, jump it. Or think again about the question.
What does it take to work investigatively?
Question: Focus on the question to be investigated. It may change but there must be a clear question as the starting point, e.g. is this hospital using expired drugs?
Clear-cut methods: Checking allegations, checking rules that govern the area under investigation, getting reaction from all interest groups concerned, for example get a lab assistant or pharmacist to check if the drugs are ineffective/old/decayed.
Measurement Use the information you get to measure the problem as precisely as possible. The more accurate you can be the easier it is to get answers, for example 25 percent of the drugs used in this hospital ward are ineffective according to clinical trials – much better than we think some drugs are duds.
Findings. List them. Any good investigation ill raise lots more questions, and start to involve lots more authorities. List the questions so you can cover all the bases, for example who authorised buying this consignment of drugs? If they were made in India, does it suggest other generic drugs may also be defective? How would we know? Are these drugs being smuggled in – why does customs not seize them? How much does the hospital save using generic (cheaper) drugs rather than the (often European or American) originals? Do they harm patients or just fail to heal?
Consult. Other interest groups will now be in a good position to comment, which will strengthen your case and give “killer questions” to put to the authorities, for example, associations representing doctors, pharmacists, patients, research institutes. Or impartial authorities like watchdogs – the Food and Drugs Agency, World Health Organisation. Always bear in mind though that some interest groups may tip off your main targets! Or land you in more trouble than they are worth – for example, opposition politicians. So be careful. Other journalists in the virtual newsroom may be able to tell you if this is happening elsewhere. And then….
Consider. Has the real story changed? Is it now Generic drug supplies being full of fakes – or smuggled drugs being used by hospitals? Decide on your main line in the light of all your information.
Confront the authorities – this can be tough. They may use any of the following classic dodges:
* I didn’t know
* It’s not my problem (buck passing)
* Some not all (you’ve found an individual problem but not all or most situations are like this.) Or they are cowboys – we are law abiding.
* Prove it – sometimes followed up with “… or I’ll sue you!”
* No comment
Publish to get maximum splash! This could mean sitting on the story a bit to coincide with a larger national or even international story. Publish the story about generic drugs at start of a real G8 meeting on drugs.
Follow up. When you tire of the story – or your editor does, the public and interest groups may just be starting to consider its implications. If you keep in touch you may find developments, for example patients harmed by the expired drugs are taking the manufacturers to court. You could even make sure other papers/wire services know so story spreads.
Stop! Knowing when to stop is important, otherwise the sources for whom the story is life and death will take over your entire life!
* Sources. Make sure they are credible, and protect them.
* How far? Most stories can always be taken a stage further. Force yourself to think bigger. What does World Health Organisation think of this expired/dud generic drugs problem? But don’t beat yourself up if you run out of time!
* Find help. When you know the story is yours and won’t get “nicked” you could ask editor for another pair of hands – in the virtual newsroom anyway!
Reporting projects, conferences and research
Broad, generalised stories are not acceptable in Africawoman. Much of the news reported in African countries comes from news conferences and the activities of governments, non-governmental organisations and inter-governmental organisations such as the United Nations and the World Bank.
Your country may have come in for praise on its poverty reduction strategies, for example. Whereas this is probably good news for the national interests, the Africawoman writer is not expected to present this information in raw form. You are expected to critically assess the information, bringing your own intellectual insights into the issue. You are not expected to simply repeat the platitudes so common at such meetings.
Consider the following story:
“Poverty, it is said, has the face of women and children and it does not really matter whether it emanates from the developing world or the developed countries. A probing analysis of growing child poverty and diminishing social services reveals that the numbers of vulnerable children and youths are reaching alarming levels. The key underlying causes of child poverty are falling earnings and more families with female heads. Worker earnings have lagged behind the rising cost of living.
A number of non-governmental organisations have been working hard to bring some relief into the lives of women and children, especially teenage mothers. At Abiriw in the eastern region of Ghana, the Planned Parenthood Association of Ghana and the Government of Japan have built a teenage mothers’ centre for the girls who have dropped out of school. The centre provides maternal and child health services to teenage mothers in the area. It also offers information, education and counselling services on sexual and reproductive health to teenage mothers as well as equip them with employable skills…”
Whereas there is no doubt that we are writing here of a worthy cause, this reads like a public relations piece meant for an in-house NGO newsletter. It begins with broad general statements and is completely lacking in focus – in other words, it breaks all key Africawoman rules.
Conferences offer an opportunity to get a wide variety of expert opinion and links to people and projects that you need for your story background. There is no room for straight news reporting of conferences and meetings in Africawoman. Local media and news agencies on a daily basis are already handling this effectively.
Research findings are often a source of useful information on trends and developments in your country. But they are of use to Africawoman only when you put faces and people’s voices in the story.
We may occasionally be able to package this information as sidebars or news in brief, but writers are encouraged to dig out the additional information required to turn it into a major story. This will mean you have to work harder to ferret out the right information, but you will certainly have the better story at the end of the day. Remember, your job is not to repeat what has already been printed in your local papers or broadcast on radio and television. You are in the business of bringing new insights into the story, turning an everyday affair into a highly polished gem.
Every now and then, an opportunity will present itself to carry the profile of an outstanding African. Though the subject of our profile need not necessarily be female, there should be an element of improving the lives of women and girls in the person’s life story. An example would be an individual working to get men and boys to change their attitudes to women and girls. Whatever the case, the focus should not just be on the individual. The idea is that their work must be innovative, original and driven by the initiative and personality of the person.
Whereas profiles are expected to blend in the professional and personal aspects of the subject, it is not necessary to include sleazy details of their relationships. If you must ask a woman how she manages to balance her private and professional lives, remember that the rule must apply to male sources too.
Avoid stereotypical terms such as dimunitive, middle-aged, matronly and so on, unless they are truly relevant to the story. Africawoman profiles are expected to be an honest portrayal of the personality – warts and all. As with all other stories, the writer should speak with more than one source. You will have spoken with colleagues, friends and detractors of the person being profiled and place the work they are doing within the wider framework of achieving social change. Do not interview someone and then simply report what she or he tells you. You have to observe the work they do, and report on it. Get anecdotes to spice your story.
“When I was growing up, I often felt too short for any great tasks. Too female. Too kind. Too apologetic. My voice was not loud enough. One teacher said to me in form two ‘speak loud enough, I am not your mother-in-law!’. He was a great teacher but these words were shocking to me. But the mind has its own limitless horizons and I am glad. “
This is what renowned author Yvonne Vera said recently as she reflected on her life in the wake of yet another successful literary endeavour. The little girl who could not speak loud enough has found a way of speaking so loudly and effectively that her voice echoes and reverberates throughout the world.
Now a multiple award-winning novelist of international stature, her books, written in English, have been translated into Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Swedish, German, Norwegian, Catalan and Finnish. All of her novels feature strong female characters . . . .”
With an imaginative approach like this, it would be difficult to put down the article. The rest of the article proceeds to demonstrate exactly how Vera has put her former teacher to shame as she writes powerful words on the lives and times of powerful female characters. Quotation intros must be used judiciously, though, and only when they are so powerful that they cannot be resisted. Too much use of this device is the hallmark of a lazy writer, however – just the kind who has no place in Africawoman.