Pulitzer Center Update

African Journalists on Covering Crises During a Pandemic

In a conversation moderated by University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Lindsay Palmer, Pulitzer Center grantees Fredrick Mugira and Ejiro Umukoro discussed their experiences covering two crises in Africa—water access in the Nile Basin and gender-based violence in Nigeria, respectively—in the midst of another crisis: the COVID-19 pandemic. The webinar was a collaboration with the University of Wisconsin, one of the Center’s Campus Consortium partners, and part of Africa at Noon, an ongoing series by the university’s African Studies Program.

Mugira and Umukoro covered a range of topics, including the crucial role data journalism played in both of their projects, the reporting obstacles presented by the pandemic, and the line between activism and journalism. The conversation continued despite audio and connection issues that caused both journalists to call into the Zoom via WhatsApp during the hour-long webinar.

The hardest part of Umukoro’s reporting process was obtaining data. In Nigeria, she said, it’s like “squeezing water out of stone.” Umukoro estimates that, for four months, she spent an average of six to seven hours a day pursuing data on abuse from hospitals, government agencies, and NGOs.

“I wanted to understand the root cause of the problem,” Umukoro said. “I did not understand why it was so pervasive, and data was the key. I did not want to hear people's opinions, anecdotes—I’ve heard enough of that.”

For Mugira, the biggest hurdle was the pandemic. InfoNile, a geo-journalism platform co-founded by Mugira that maps data on water issues in the Nile Basin, disbursed grants to 37 journalists as part of his Pulitzer Center-supported project. Some of those reporters had to delay going out into the field for as long as two months due to safety concerns.

During the Q&A portion of the discussion, one audience member asked whether the panelists consider themselves journalists who advocate for issues or activists who use journalistic skills.

Mugira said he considers himself an advocate for water issues and noted the recent turn toward “solutions journalism.” Umukoro echoed Mugira, saying that inside every passionate journalist is “a nugget of advocacy and activism” because the ultimate purpose of journalism is “advocating for a correction of wrong, for something better.”

“When I started doing my story, I did not know there was a term called ‘solutions journalism’ per se,” Umukoro said. “What I did with my story was I proffered solutions to the problem because I understood that if you do not proffer solutions and just write about the problem, the job is not complete. I told myself from the get-go, you have to write it in a manner where people read this, they go away with knowledge that is powerful, and then they put that knowledge to good use.”