By David Matende
There are early signs that the campaigns for next year’s poll will be a classical case of the theatre of the absurd – with the accompanying conflict, cliffhangers, hyperbole and irony.
And media seem more than ready to amplify this tragic-comedy. In such a pathetic political theatre, rumour is often treated as fact and opinion passed around as news.
They rolled it in mid September. If you recall, on Friday, September 16, newspapers and TVs had predicted that there was going to be a clash pitting Cord and Jubilee supporters at a Nairobi estate. The two main competing political groups in Kenya, media excitedly reported, would on Sunday, September 18, clash at the Masinde Muliro Grounds in Huruma, as each claimed to have booked the same venue for their separate rallies.
For two days, the media prophesied chaos in Huruma. Even after one party finally said they would hold their rally at a different venue, the prophets of doom in the Sunday Nation (September 18) continued to spread their ominous message.
Needless to say, there was no bloody confrontation between the antagonists that Sunday and the two parties held rallies on separate grounds, which were relatively peaceful, except for the burning of a vehicle that had reportedly knocked down a Cord supporter.
This was a typical example of speculative journalism. Known as the lazy journalist’s specialty, speculative journalism is frowned upon by professionals because it goes against the principals of quality journalism.
While the Kenyan media are light on investigative journalism – the crème de le crème of professional journalism – they are heavy on speculative journalism.
The Huruma story was just one example where the media deceived people; they do that every day. It seems that with increased freedom and expanded platforms, media’s propensity for speculation, hyperbole and sensation has been taken a notch higher.
A day hardly passes without some newspaper splashing a deceptive headline and content, leading to the conclusion there is no seriousness among professional journalists these days.
Publishing articles with no factual basis has the effect of leaving the public confused and misinformed.
To be fair, media everywhere in the world are guilty of this sin. Take the venerated BBC for instance. Months after the Indonesian Flight MH370 disappeared without trace, the BBC published a very speculative headline “Could it have been suicide?” Without a shred of evidence, the BBC had insinuated through that headline that the pilot of the ill-fated plane could have been on a suicide mission.
The BBC was accused of insensitivity for speculating on an event as tragic as the disappearance of Flight MH370, and not caring about the feelings of the loved ones of staff and passengers on board.
Similarly, well-known British papers such as the Daily Mail, the Sun and the Daily Mirror publish eye-catching titles all the time, which end up contradicting the content of such pieces.
The objective of speculative reporting is not to inform the reader, but to make money, using freedom of speech as an excuse to mislead, offend and even defame.
It should be repeated here that media play an important role in democracy as they allow for individual and collective discussion. They are a very powerful institution and it behoves them to deploy their power in a responsible way.
But are our media committed to their calling, or are media companies all about selling newspapers and increasing ratings? It would be correct to say that now it is no longer about quality; it is about gaining influence and ultimately, money.
The regulator, the Media Council of Kenya, has its work cut out, especially with political activities heightening ahead of the August 2017 poll. The new MCK Board must bite; otherwise this kind of reporting might just contribute to poisoned political atmosphere.
It is in the interest of media organisations to report professionally, because they will be judged on the accuracy and reliability of their journalism.
Editors who encourage well-sourced stories, supported by strong evidence, gain credibility. Conversely, those that publish unverified facts rumour and speculation will be consigned to ignominy.
Accuracy is essential if journalism is to properly inform the public debate. A journalist should never rush to publish a story he is not sure of; accuracy, not speed, should be the guiding principle.
This also gives us an opportunity to talk about reporting facts and reporting people’s opinions, because a lot of our media are mixing facts with opinion in news stories as if they are unable, or simply do not care, to distinguish between them.
Professional journalists should know how to deal with what they are told and also how to pass the information to readers or listeners.
While most media have no problem reporting proven facts, they seem to have problems reporting facts which are probably true though they have not been proved; and facts which could be true, although they appear to be lies.
Our newspapers often report statements which they have reason to think are true, but are not able to prove themselves, either because they do not have access to the information or (which is mostly the case) are too lazy to check.
For instance, our media casually report statements from government officials without questions because they assume that these officials are in a position to know the truth, without realising that they could be lying or even wrong.
On the other hand, people may make statements which seem, on the surface to be untrue, but which might just be true. For instance, a claim that “a foreigner has been expelled for seducing a senior politician’s wife” may seem highly unlikely, but it just might be true. It is upon the journalist to find out the truth on behalf of his audience.
Journalist should check such statements before using them, and never use them without confirming them first. Once proven true, they do not need attributing; they have become proven facts.
As for opinion, although it can be any statement of what a person believes to be true (as distinct from a proven fact), for journalists there are two main categories of opinions: verifiable and expert.
Verifiable opinions are conclusions that can be verified (shown to be true, or false), such as predicting the results of an election based on what is known about the candidates. Once the voting is over, that opinion is proved to be either correct or incorrect.
The journalist must treat verifiable opinions as if they could be wrong and always attribute them to the person who gave them.
As for expert opinion, experts can give their opinion on an issue, based on their special knowledge of the facts. The best kind of expert opinion is one in which the expert keeps their own personal feelings out of their conclusions. They look at the facts as they see them, and draw a conclusion based only on those facts.
However, even opinion from an impartial expert must be attributed, so that readers or listeners can judge the likely truth or otherwise of what they say.
In an intense political season, journalists encounter a lot of politicians who want to express their personal opinions in order to impress and influence people’s choices. They see newspapers, radio or television stations as a useful way of getting their personal feelings across to people.
These politicians think that they know what is right or wrong for others and have a desire to get their opinions to the people so that they may gain their support. Media must make it clear that such is opinion, because the risk is that once something is repeated long enough, some people might think it is true.
If media leant any lessons in 2007/8, they know the consequences of over-dramatising the country’s toxic politics. The public expects them to do just one thing – tell the truth.