Lessons Kenya’s media had better learn

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By David Matende

It is now universally accepted that Kenya’s media engaged in the most blatant partisan reporting ever during the campaigns for the August 8 election.

But as unprofessional as this might have been, it may not have influenced how people voted, with studies from elsewhere showing that getting something on the agenda is not the same as changing people’s positions

As the country prepares for a repeat of the presidential election on October 26, it is important to reflect on the election reporting lessons learnt from the pre-August 8 election campaign.

The Daily Nation, particularly, distinguished itself for its bias against Nasa, consistently portraying the coalition’s candidate as destined for electoral defeat, in the process disappointing some of its ardent readers who switched to other titles.

So disgusted was Nasa with the Nation that it called for a boycott of the Nation Media Group’s products after the disputed election, leading to massive drop in sales and viewership – until the management of the paper persuaded Nasa to endorse their products again in September.

In the days before the start of the official campaign and during the campaigns, the media in general, but The Nation and The Star newspapers in particular, struggled to push the agenda that president Uhuru Kenyatta’s Jubilee was the most popular party. Day in, day out, the two newspapers sought to paint the Opposition Nasa as being incapable of winning the presidential election.

Before the presidential nominations, these media houses had attempted to sow seeds of discord in Nasa by predicting a split, but their doom prophecy came to naught. As they worked to scatter Nasa, they fell over themselves in their praise of Kenyatta, as if in competition for a trophy in sycophancy journalism.

And a month or so to the election, The Nation, in the most mischievous brand of journalism ever seen this side of the Indian Ocean, attempted to sanitize corruption in government by consistently and repeatedly publishing stories that pushed the fallacy that because the Opposition was working with allegedly corrupt personalities – either that corruption was okay or the Opposition had no business talking about it.

The editors of the newspaper had a clear aim: undermine Nasa’s campaign, whose key platform was the fight against corruption that had grown tenfold under Kenyatta’s watch.
This was besides the clever manipulation of visuals by many TVs and newspaper that was aimed at giving Jubilee an advantage in the optics department.

In retrospect, the decision by most media to support Jubilee helped Nasa to build an “underdog” image and may have helped in pulling back wavering voters.

While election campaign politics is characterized by rallies, press conferences and other such battles for reference and sound bites, the belief that a lot of this in the media will swing the election in favour of the most quoted is considerably overdrawn.

Some clever people have done research on the impact of political communication, and they have found out that media audiences are not as susceptible to this type of campaign as they are commonly assumed to be.

The researchers, mainly US-based, have found out that getting something on the agenda is different from changing people’s opinions. While media owners and media managers are able to dictate the content, this is quite different from directly controlling what the public see as important to their political decision-making.

As early as 1968, Max McCombs and Donald Shaw, studying the US election, had demonstrated that there was no empirical impact of media agendas on public consciousness.

Subsequent studies of this effect over many years (they are legion) have shown there is a considerable time lag between strong editorial positions appearing consistently in the media and this filtering through into the public consciousness.

It can be months before people start to spontaneously recall consistent media messages as being an important issue. It is more so in situations where the audience has the capacity to assess the issue independently of the media’s messaging.

The second lesson, which Kenya’s editors should learn, is that controlling the agenda is not the same as shaping how people feel about what’s on it.

While the election gives enough time for a concerted media campaign to go from “news” to a topic of public interest and discussion, this priming effect is not the same as shaping how people feel about the issues discussed, the researchers say.

The shaping of public dispositions towards people and issues develops over quite long time frames, and while media coverage is important in informing the society, social relationships, audience background, and levels of political knowledge and interest often moderate media perspectives.

Negative campaigns can alert voters to issues and the characteristics of individuals, but it takes considerably longer to shift attitudes in the minds of the people than a five-week election campaign.

No amount of media attention on some negative issue concerning Kenyatta will make his Kikuyu supporters change position and no amount of criticism of Nasa’s Raila Odinga will affect his support among the Luo, for example.

But rather than change opinions, this media focus may simply orient them towards attention to these factors as important things to be aware of.

For a real “negative campaign” to take effect in the short term, there has to exist the germ of dislike in the minds of the public.

Even if media were to build upon and activate existing concerns in the minds of their readers such as the corruption in the Kenyatta government and its poor economic credentials, his supporters will remain unmoved, at least during the campaign period
This is why, irrespective of years of reporting on Kenyatta’s personality and management style as leader, evidence shows these messages are just not accepted by particularity his Kikuyu supporters.

The final lesson is that biased coverage doesn’t affect who you think it does. While there’s an assumption that “undecided” voters will be strongly influenced by a negative media campaign, this is not always the case.

Unfortunately for the political communicators and their cohorts in the media, studies show that the political opinions of the least-informed voters, just like those of the most-informed ones, are not really affected by media coverage.

The most informed voters’ well-developed positions make them strongly resistant to challenging media narratives. And because the least informed tend to consume less political media, it is harder to use the media to cultivate their positions and views.

This is why political parties spend a lot of money on advertising to capture people who just won’t read the front part of a newspaper. As “undecided” voters are the key to electoral success in the hotly contested Kenyan presidential election, this further undermines the power of consistent electoral media campaigns.

Overall, studies show, events can be more important than “spin”. President Kenyatta’s quarrels in Makueni a few days to the election may have cost him more than whatever he may have gained by the spin that he had brought development to the area.

So, as the presidential candidate’s campaign for the repeat election enter the home stretch, their spin doctors and their friends in the newsroom had better understand that media spinning or propaganda is not likely to achieve much, even among the so-called undecided.
Instead of engaging in a futile propaganda such as they did before August 8, media should put emphasis on the salient issues in this month’s election. Specifically, their eyes should remain focused on the IEBC to ensure that it delivers a credible poll whose results none of the candidates will dispute.

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