Media houses are failing on foreign affairs

There is a glaring lack of specialisation of media training in our institutions

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By Joel Okwemba

There have been many instances where journalists have been discouraged from pursuing important subjects of public interest in relation to the country’s foreign policy agenda and the larger global affairs issues as a discussion led by the Centre for International and Security Affairs revealed.

The event themed “Enhancing Public Interest in Global Affairs: The Role of the Media” convened the diplomatic community, journalists, international organizations, academia and students in exploring the bottlenecks on these matters.

Education

There is a glaring lack of specialisation of media training in our universities and media schools on matters diplomacy and global affairs. The impact of this is that there is a general lack of interest on the subject from existing journalists who are currently organised around political, sports, business reporting. The other effect is that no deeper interrogation of these subjects is done even when covered, as evidenced by the light questions to foreign affairs officials, visiting heads of states and government and other visiting dignitaries. For schools of diplomacy and international relations, very few have courses or training on media aspects of their knowledge. The combined effect is that journalists don’t have a deep understanding of the issues, and those that do don’t understand media and communication aspects of the same. It would also help if journalists learnt foreign languages to enhance their relations with diplomats and media houses tasked with hiring interpreters so as to speak in the language of the foreign diplomat to create better expressions and understanding of the issues.

Institutional challenges

The journalists, in response to some of the concerns raised, brought out the underlying challenges they face in the line of duty, including a lack of goodwill to support some news stories that would include financial considerations. As such, the preference would be to cover news stories around the city for convenience. On this the journalists were challenged to be innovative around sourcing for financial support for stories or news items at an individual capacity.

The “facilitation problem” has become a culture that the journalists have become accustomed to that impedes trickling down of vital information through the media to the public. This was expressed in no uncertain terms and organizations present regretted this practice. Journalists were challenged to be independent so as to be objective in their reporting. Facilitation – meaning taking money to do a story – is also experienced by journalists in efforts to access key persons with information and knowledge on foreign affairs – in that the bureaucratic nature of government and other institutions demand journalists to spend money or “play by the game”, to access vital information.

Changing landscape

Diplomats, foreign officials and journalists are now alive to the reality of social media as a powerful means of communication.

Presidents speak to each other on Twitter, almost bringing to question the role of public diplomacy. Despite this, radio stations still have the widest coverage in Kenya, as newspapers and television struggle to retain their numbers. Regrettably, the content on radios remains largely un-educative on foreign affairs issues as more shows remain entertaining.

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