Why media is also under the spotlight

We relay too much opinion, we report too many untested claims. FILE PHOTO | NMG
We relay too much opinion, we report too many untested claims. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Today, I write a personal perspective, for I came to Kenya for professional reasons. I have been a journalist all my life. I knew early on that it was all I ever wanted to do, or be.

For, in a British election in my early teens, I watched information distorted, and votes and an election won on it. It’s a practice that has continued in the UK, to the shame of the media there, culminating in a Brexit vote that was won on unsubstantiated and untested claims that exiting Europe would bring Britain great wealth and new funding for its health service: which was never true, even on the barest analysis.

But if people can be misled on facts, they can be misled.

Thus, reporting requires a dedication to investigating events, and relaying the genuine array of winners and losers. And that is a service that every democratic citizenry deserves, in steering themselves to a future they value.

As it is, many before me, and many after, will speak to the infringement of freedom of speech represented by last week’s move by the government to turn off our TV channels: it was an attack on a pillar of our democracy.

Yet, as I watched the outpourings on social media, the message that also clamoured, for me, was one of media failure too. For, even as the government attacked the media, many in the opposition, and many others beside, also flailed the media for its service.

Of course, the media can turn from that universal condemnation if it wishes. It is easy to argue that being condemned from all sides represents a monument to impartiality.

These present pages notably excepted, I see no shortage of blame on the media itself for that degree of public antipathy, and loss, indeed, of public faith.

That in no way excuses the closedown. But it does leave the media itself with a decision, on whether it wishes to analyse its own contribution, or simply rest on its laurels.

And at the heart of that issue lies an examination of exactly what represents a genuine service in information.

For sure, it is not only Kenyan journalism that has lost its way on that: it is a global phenomenon, even named in academic circles, as ‘he says, she says’ journalism.

This approach to reporting confuses giving the facts, in order to achieve understanding, with giving two contrary views, and thereby covering all bases.

The key to which is more likely to be right is the evidence that has led each analyst to that conclusion: present an audience with that evidence and they too can make an informed judgment, and need no longer get tangled up in Jack or Bert’s greater or lesser analytical prowess.

Yet our own media is plagued by reporting of an event, a quote, and a counter quote, that leave us no further informed, and leaves scope for perceived injustice from every side.

For, ironically, both Bert and Jack feel cheated by this form of journalism too, with their case not made, and position undermined by the contradiction.

It is a form of reporting that does not increase understanding. It does not conciliate or do justice to a matter. It simply polarises.

And it has left the Kenyan media now running on a wing and a prayer. The government claim it is unbalanced. The opposition claim it is unbalanced.

As it is, our media produces examples of outstanding journalism every single day. It earns its place at the table. But it also very often fails in fulfilling its role as the fourth estate, which is to give the facts.

We relay too much opinion, we report too many untested claims, we fail in interrogation, and confuse statements with supporting evidence.

And that, of itself, is a failure that we should examine very seriously indeed. Not for government. Not for the opposition. But for Kenya.