When selling PR as news, at least try and fool viewers

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By Phoebe Nadupoi

Media has time and again been ranked top in various surveys as the most trusted institution. A study by the BBC Media Action (2013) attributed this trend to the role media play in holding government to account. The findings of the report show that media provide a platform to question government officials, and opportunities for the public to get explanations on the decisions and actions of their leaders. Another major finding of that study is that media exert considerable influence during election times, although the impact is limited as decision makers shy away from engaging with the populace in general, and even through media in particular.

Indeed, the important role the media play in influencing the ethics of public life cannot be gainsaid. Media wield considerable power and hence the phrase “Forth Estate” attributed to Edmund Burke. Kenya’s media is comparatively vibrant, and has played the watchdog role fairly well.

This is demonstrable through coverage of high-level corruption in the last one year that saw serving cabinet secretaries get implicated. Not everyone holds this view though. There was, for instance, divided opinion as to whether the conduct of media was appropriate in the 2013 General Election, with many arguing that the media failed to provide a “genuine” platform for debate.

The criticisms notwithstanding, the watchdog role of the media is firmly grounded. Sheila Coronel, who affirms this position opines that “…despite the mass media propensity for sleaze, sensationalism and superficiality, the notion of the media as a watchdog, as guardian of public interest, and as conduit between governors and the governed still remains deeply ingrained.”

There are occasions I have watched news items and wondered if segments of our media often decide to veer off and return on course at a later time when it serves their purpose. A number of these stories which relate to devolved functions appear to have been commissioned by the county governments themselves ‒ that is, they are purely for public relations.

I see two main concerns regarding these stories. First, they romanticise devolution and give the impression that it has once and for all dealt with the problems locals had – such as food insecurity and poor health facilities ‒ in the counties featured. This is not what the reality is! If there are pockets of success, they should be reported as such. That way, the question becomes whether the successes can be replicated for more impact.

In this respect, it would be interesting to juxtapose stories under the series “Devolution Works” by NTV’s Mercy Okande featuring Turkana County, and a special feature by Nimrod Taabu dubbed “Millionaire Refugees” featuring the same County. The latter exposes the plight of Turkanas in Kakuma who lack the very basic of social amenities and literally languishing in abject poverty. The story points to failures by both the county and national governments to fulfil their obligations. The “Devolution Works” series, on the other hand, depicts a glorious picture that can lead one to conclude the county government has performed miracles, or believe that it is the only reality there is.

This is not to suggest that devolution has not achieved anything. In fact, a lot has been realised in the last three years. But we need to be honest and avoid overstating our achievements, otherwise if we have achieved all we could, then there is nothing else to work towards.

The second problem with these sort of stories is that they heavily lean on one side as the perspectives are limited. You do not expect a governor or his executives to tell you that standards of service delivery say, at the Level Five Hospital at his county, are wanting, or something along that line. Who really ever asks a salesman if his is a good price or product? If, as studies show, media exert influence, then there is need to exercise responsibility not to betray public trust.

As we gear towards the electioneering period and as political temperatures rise, it is imperative that the media are viewed as balanced. This way, it will be easier to facilitate dissemination of important electoral information and enhance accountability.^

Writer is a communications practitioner;
E-mail: pnadupoi@gmail.com

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