Between sensationalism and objectivity

What ought to drive journalism, objectivity, content or rating?

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By Paul Otieno Onyango

I wish to start this reflection by citing part of the interview done by Jeff Koinange in his Thursday programme of The State of the Nation in JKL aired on KTN, in which he interviewed the emblematic PLO Lumumba and Barack Muluka.

Jeff to Barack: When you see a headline saying (that) already 2017 is a two-horse race, I mean (are) they just selling (News) Papers, or is that the feeling on the ground?

Barrack: I think the media should also refrain from limiting the choices of the nation… Sometimes as a journalist and trainer of journalists, I start wondering about our own probity. What is the prompting? What is pushing us? What frill are we using?

Without using the exact words, the issue at hand is about the constitutive elements of good journalism. Despite the fact Jeff restricted his observation to print media only, the pertinence of question and the validity of the answer cannot be underestimated, it being that we dealing with a medium of communication and information.

The preoccupation of Jeff Koinange Live is objectivity, content and rating, three elements that are at the core of journalism, and reason some governments pass laws that try to regulate media. The same is discernible from Muluka’s response.

At the end of the day, the quality of the programme aired on whichever medium depends on the intentions of the presenter and the expectations of the audience. Hence, it is the right of a viewer, listener or reader, who is not only a mere consumer but a stakeholder as well to ask: what really moves a journalist? Is it objectivity, content or rating? On the basis of the above-mentioned issues, I wish to give a viewer’s opinion of the Jeff Koinange Live show, presented by one of the most talented media personalities in Kenya, Jeff Koinange.

From the outset, I wish to clarify that this article is not about the personality of the individual, nor is intended to put into question his exceptional professional formation.
Recently, Jeff hosted Tony Gachoka. It was immediately obvious that the guest was tipsy and was not in control of words and/or movements. Why the managers allowed him to appear on national television in his state we may never know. What followed as host interviewed guest left many smarting, not to mention leaving the news editors and producers with egg on their face, even as it is conceded that KTN is an independent station with the right to invite whoever they feel will add value to their programmes. Needless to say, Gachoka has since been banned from both JKL and KTN.
That said, it must also be understood by KTN that viewers deserve to be treated with the courtesy and respect they deserve, and not as mere consumers of their content. In all fairness, Jeff owes KTN viewers an apology.
Could it be that JKL is already suffering from the same disease that has infested and rendered powerless Kenyan media? Something happened to media after 2002 to the extent that it no longer commands the respect it once did, or inspire the awe it has long been associated with as the Fourth Estate. Today, media is just another big business that seeks to provide content tailored to get the highest possible rating. Television programmes in the country are modelled, designed and packaged to attain good ratings. It is this that has even seen journalists engage in wars online, and shamelessly compete and scramble to be the first to break news or interview some big personality.
In the process, media industry has forgotten that it needs to live by a set of expectations and socio-cultural projections, with the aim of intellectually enriching the public. Today, we see a media that has lost its horizon and in its desire to occupy the first place of honour in the rating jungle, has decided to bet on products or personalities that feed sensationalism, while ignoring the responsibility they owe to viewers/readers/listeners.
There is no denying that JKL has cut an important niche for itself. The programme has breathed fresh air into opinion-based programmes on TV by focusing mainly on national issues. Besides, most media houses would not dedicate the resources KTN has to make successful a programme that does not conform to the tastes of the powers that be. In this respect, JKL is has set a high standard that most others may find difficult to emulate or uphold.
But, it is also true that too much of something can be dangerous. Jeff’s gripping personality and influence is also turning out to be the undoing of the programme. With the banning of Gachoka, one must ask oneself, why did the host invite him in the first place, inebriated as he was? What did he want to achieve? How will he achieve that which he strived to accomplish by Gachoka´s presence in the programme now that he is suddenly unwanted? At what point did Gachoka turn from a buddy-boy into a thorn in the flesh?
Peculiar blend of guests
The JKL programme has the distinctiveness of creating a peculiar blend of guests’ list especially for the State of the Nation section, in that he invites polarising figures, whose main purpose is to create sensation – through creating something to talk about. This is the purpose the likes of Gachoka (and David Matsanga) serve; the rate at which they appear on the show is incredulous. On other side are the serious opinion-shapers such as Muluka and Makau Mutua, who get invited once in a while. This blend is new in Kenyan media, and it forms the core of the JKL format. There is an objective to be achieved with this design.
In a comparative manner, JKL at its inception, was frequented by polemic figures to discuss topics such as homosexuality. In sporadic turns, these episodes would be punctuated by well-informed, non polarising figures, a format intended to cast the programme both as popular and desirable. Unfortunately, public interest does not seem to have weaved its way into the core objectives of the show. Those well informed about how the media industry works will tell you that this format is solely aimed at driving viewership, and therefore rating. Jeff has positioned himself as an opinion-shaper. In any TV station, opinion-shapers drive up ratings, which attract advertisement and this, is what media owners are all about.
The problem with this pursuit for high ratings is that it necessarily depends on sensationalism of the news item or opinion, often to the detriment of a rigorous informative public-interest programme.
How is Jeff sensational? Most obviously, through his asking of questions. He asks questions to create a conflict that his guest or panel must then attempt to resolve –hence the symbolism of the fire extinguisher. On this I would wish to refer him or any other person to the opinion of one of his favourite guests, Muluka, referred to above. What is the fire extinguisher doing on the show? Well, it is well dressed sensationalism! On this front, JKL rates highly.
For the purpose of this discourse, objectivity refers to the manner in which the issues are tackled in the JKL. Content will refer to the data or issues brought to the bench for discussion. If there is another first for the programme, it is its content. Jeff has made appreciable attempts to bring issues affecting the ordinary citizen in their diversity and density, and subject them to a discourse. This variety of content makes the programme particularly interesting. In the history of media, scandal always sells. This is the biggest selling point today.
Does journalistic objectivity exist then? In this context, I would wish quote Hubert Beuve-Méry, founder of the newspaper Le Monde Daily: “…in journalism, objectivity does not exist; honesty yes.” Consequently, the word objectivity is used here to refer to the sense in which a journalist nears in his or her presentation to the reality of things, and how honest s/he is with the content being presented.
I do think there are two ways in which JKL is failing in terms of objectivity, understood in the sense explained above or, if you prefer, the honesty that Jeff strives to bring into his programme. Two elements are imbued in the programme design or format to the extent that they form part of the constitutive elements of JKL. These are the static guest list and sensational language.
The beef I have with the JKL guest list has got nothing to do with the capability or the professional qualification of the individuals invited. On the contrary, most of them are respected opinion leaders. The objectivity of the programme is affected by the lack of creativity in the list; that is, inviting the self-same people all the time inhibits the diversity that such a programme is trying to plant. I am partisan to the idea that the objectivity of a Television Programme is also determined by having a variety of people to talk about the same issue. This seems not to be the intention of JKL. This state of affairs creates a kind of “nothing new” attitude with the programme. The host must bring in different people in the programme, not necessarily at the same time, to create a kind of “informational freshness” and also to give a possibility to the viewers to have a wider picture of the country.
Another issue with JKL is that it is punctuated with a “fix it” attitude where the intention is to make uncomfortable the interviewed, and this can only be achieved by pushing him or her to the corner on some issues. What is more, most of the people mentioned in the programme are seldom given the opportunity to respond to the said accusations. Such omissions are not only unfair to the mentioned individuals but are also an abuse to the intelligence of the viewers.
One then has to wonder as to what the real intentions of the programme are. Why the current design or format of the programme? The answer, perhaps, to these questions lies in what I will call “the intentionality of Jeff”. Given that all information obeys one or various intentions, some of which are expressed openly while others are implicit. Be they explicit or implicit, intentions of the presenter governs the elaboration of the information hence the design of the programme. The, intentions of the host of JKL are to impose rules that form, deform, cut and cover up, among others, the items presented for discussion.
Is that all there is to it?
Of course not. One must recognise the freshness JKL has brought to the media industry in Kenya, especially the programmes of opinions and also the presentation. Kenyan media is not known for sponsoring such programme, let alone give it live coverage. That said, JKL is getting into the usual area of money making by looking for rating at the expense of allowing a serious debate on issues of the day. The menu of JKL guest’s list is wanting, especially for a programme that fashions its agenda as being to analyse the state of the nation. I do feel he needs to work a lot on this. The same goes to the sensationalism aspect of the programme, even respecting the fact that each programme has a “personalised” aspect depending on the character and intentions of the presenter.
If the Kenyan media fraternity want to be worth their attributes, the Fourth Estate/Power, then they must transcend their form of (high) priestly journalism, and offer more investigative journalism. By priestly, I refer to the thinking among most media houses and programmes that they are the interpreters of the words of the gods (politicians and Kenyan economic and social elite) to the masses. This kind of journalism is characterised by a descending movement whereby the journalist only seeks to report what has been said. If they are the first to say it, even better! What consumers need is the opposite, where the journalist and media houses work from the bottom up, through interrogating the scene of information to gather that which the gods have not said.
JKL, in my opinion, is suffering the same disease that is killing Kenyan media: structural organisation. It is true that Kenyan media is more diversified, as is attested to by the number of TV and radio stations, and the print media offerings. But then this diversity to me is a polarised one since most of these mediums do not exhibit internal plurality. The owners of the big media houses are also the owners of the smaller ones.
I conclude by quoting Amin Maalouf, a Lebanese-born French author: “People sometimes imagine that just because they have access to so many newspapers, radio and TV channels, they will get an infinity of different opinions. Then they discover that things are just the opposite: the power of these loudspeakers only amplifies the opinion prevalent at a certain time, to the point where it covers any other opinion.” ^

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