When Wenceslaus Mushi watches the evening news on the television at his home in Dar es Salaam, he often finds himself shouting out tips to the reporters. “They aren’t asking the right questions,” says Mushi, a 40-year news veteran and former managing editor of the government-owned Daily News.
Making sure that journalists ask the right questions is now part of Mushi’s mission as a project director at Internews Network, an international nonprofit that works to empower local media. “Journalists needs support to do their jobs better so that they can talk in a more informed way about education, health, agriculture and other issues critical to the development of Tanzania,” he says.
Mushi recently collaborated with the Strategic Impact Evaluation Fund (SIEF) and the United Nations Foundation for a training workshop for journalists in Dar es Salaam. The training brought together a dozen leading journalists from the country’s top Kiswahili and English-language media outlets to focus on how to use data to better cover education issues. During the training, journalists learned about impact evaluation and how evidence generated from randomized control trials can be used to better report on development issues.
In a recent conversation, Mushi discussed what economists need to do to get their research in the media, why journalist training matters, and why his favorite section of the newspaper isn’t the news.
How did you get your start in journalism?
When I graduated from the University of Dar es Salaam in 1977, Tanzania was still a communist country and the government assigned people to different companies. I had studied economics and so I was sent to join the Daily News to work on business development. When I reported for duty, the editor told me I would be a reporter instead. I was young, it was an adventure, and I was ready to learn.
Was it hard to make the shift from economist to journalist?
I usually covered budget sessions, the finance ministry, and the Bank of Tanzania, and so my background was helpful. The challenge was to translate the economics news into a language that average readers could understand. This experience made me realize that unless a journalist has a specialized background in the subject they’re covering – like I had in economics – it can be very difficult to make sense of what you’re reporting. So subject matter training, like we did at the recent workshop, is all the more important.
Then you shifted again into training?
At a certain point, it becomes time to try something new. I still loved journalism, so I decided to get involved in mentoring and training because that’s what helped me so much in my own career.
So media isn’t dead?
Social media matters, but it doesn’t replace good reporting – in fact, it relies on it. In Tanzania especially, newspapers, radio, and television are important platforms for the national conversation. The focus that journalists can give to issues can be critical in getting people to pay attention. At the same time, journalists need to be conscious of their power —and well-trained and prepared— so that they don’t mislead or misinform.
What makes for a good training?
At the joint training we did with SIEF and the UN Foundation, we talked about the issue of inclusiveness in education, but the journalists didn’t necessarily understand how big the problem was until we visited a school for children with disabilities. The facilities were so poor and there was a severe staff shortage and the children weren’t learning. Education in Tanzania is supposed to be inclusive and as a group, we talked about this issue and why it’s an important story that needs to be told. We also talked about the kinds of questions we need to ask: How are we inclusive if children who can’t walk have no way of getting to school? How can a deaf child learn without a sign language interpreter? Afterwards, the journalists wrote stories about the center. This got the attention of the Ministry of Education. The Ministry sent people to look at the school and are now writing a report. And the journalists we worked with will continue to follow up and write more stories.
What’s the most gratifying part of your job?
I used to think I would be an economist who crunches numbers, but I was lucky to end up in journalism. As an economist, you work on something and come back after two years to check on the status, but as a journalist, I’ve been able to see how things evolve and change on a daily basis.
What part of the newspaper do you like to read the most?
I love human interest stories because I believe they can inspire people and that’s the kind of journalism we need more of. In the school we visited during the training, one of the teachers was also the mother of a child at the school. Her daughter, who is 10 years old, can’t walk. Every day, the mother puts the child on her back and carries her to school, where she then feeds and cares for the children at the school. She is changing their lives, but she’s also telling a bigger story, which is that we all have something to contribute.
Do you have any tips for how researchers can interest journalists in their work?
Researchers need to explain their work in simple, clear terms, because journalists need to communicate this information to readers who don’t have the same knowledge and expertise as the researcher. Journalists can’t do this if they themselves don’t understand the issue. Researchers also need to be patient when they share their knowledge: journalists don’t want to make themselves look foolish or ask “stupid” questions.
What are your hopes for the future of journalism in Tanzania?
We shouldn’t just accept poverty as a fact of life in Tanzania. Journalists can help our nation see the possibilities for change.