Sunday, May 31, 2009

Please Leave a Message

In the grand scheme of things, journalists tend to want it quick. It's the logic behind the idea of "a scoop." Among reporters who casually aspire to get the next big story, it's the kind of attitude that quickly defines incompetence. All things considered, however, who is to deny the role mobile phones play in helping reporters balance stories, cross-check facts and, above all, beat deadlines?

In Uganda, one of a handful of African countries that have witnessed a perfectly furious growth of mobile telephony, jobless peasants who can't afford the next meal can be seen carrying expensive handsets. They talk. They think they are happy. And President Yoweri Museveni is happy to claim bragging rights.

In the same way those peasants don't realize how much those phones are hurting them, Uganda's reporters -- i am one of them -- have found the mobile phone a reliable partner in crime. In Kampala, you could call a Cabinet source at midnight and have a silly chat on what he thinks about the alleged shenanigans of the government ombudsman, Faith Mwondha. The culture of voice mail as practiced in America is unheard of and, as i've found out, even dubious.

Almost all the sources i've interviewed as a reporter for the Kansas City Star did not answer their phones when i first called. My first instinct, at least when one source called me seconds after i hang up, was to imagine that there was some kind of sinful pleasure to be derived from listening to voice mail. Keen to satisfy my curiosity, i tried it at home and walked away dissatisfied. It was an act of great dishonesty; i should have picked the bloody phone!

To be sure, voice mail is an important part of the American lexicon. I've seen reporters at the Star record messages in the most farcical ways possible. It works, however funny it may sound. And it may be good for journalism in ways Ugandan (or African, for that matter) journalists could benefit from. The patience it takes to leave a voice message when working on an important story is a virtue to be cherished by every self-respecting journalist. It is not a routine that will improve a reporter's overall craft, but i find that leaving a message, even if grudgingly, is to reaffirm your commitment to seeking the truth. It is to do journalism nice and slow.

In the weeks since i discovered the beauty of voice mail, only once has it failed to serve me. Back home after a slow day, i realized that i had left some of my valuables at my office desk. Calling my desk phone would have been a hopeless idea, of course, but i was also sure that the reporter who sits next to me would have given me a please-leave-a-message deal -- a bad deal.

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