Last week in Nairobi, there was a rather interesting event. Hosted by the Digital Communication Network Africa, and sponsored by the US Embassy, it took a critical look at the state of the media. It had local and foreign guests and speakers from several countries, many of whom were making their first visit to Kenya, and some even on the continent.
The themes reflected the challenges and opportunities facing the media. One speaker said that a CNN study had found that over half of Americans get their news from social media, have less trust in traditional media and a good number believe that news stations are paid by sources.
It was also an event for discovering some local facts: that some cyber cafes do good business installing WhatsApp and filing tax returns for people who don’t have email addresses; that Kenya has a leader who loves to quote numbers that are fodder for fact-checkers; that the loss of Paul Otuoma in the Busia Governor ODM party nominations 2017, could partly be attributed to a fake newspaper headline that circulated the day of the election.
Journalists still have a responsibility to be truth tellers. But this is also a new media world that is also populated by bad guys who learnt their techniques from real journalists. And they are sometimes willing to invest in digital assets to tarnish brands by creating imitation websites, and any credibility built up over 20 years can disappear in a short time.
But misinformation is not only a political problem. It can also spread to other areas like food safety and public health. We learnt that every exam season in Kenya, Google searches spike for ''leakage'' as there is a generation seeking answers on the Internet. We are sometimes complicit in the spread of misinformation and we were cautioned that if we see something shared online that we know is incorrect, even from loved ones, to take the time to challenge it as people get tricked every day.
The advice to media, by veteran journalists from different countries, had similar themes: invest in fact-checking, increase transparency, share your data, engage with audiences and ask what stories they would like to see media focus on more. Also to show behind-the-scenes stuff; show how reporters work for long hours investigating their stories to arm themselves against critics. Also to stop competing with bloggers, who are often paid to post stories that mainstream media will then pick up, and to stop trying to cover everything. Forget scale and trends, and avoid hot takes, as there is no value created by having a million clicks of a story everyone else has.
They were further advised to focus on stories that are relevant to local communities, equip readers with facts and historical perspectives, give context to conflicts and create visual designs out of complex data.
And in regard to the all-important bottom line of achieving profits at a time of declining advertising revenue, they should get into partnerships with other media organisations, and be creative with obtaining funding. Many of the lessons shared have been applied in local media houses.
This is an era when anyone with the simplest of tools - a smartphone and an Internet connection can be a newsmaker. Since 9/11 the biggest stories have been brought forward by mobile phones, and with three billion phones in the world with tons of video uploaded each day, we are only scratching the surface of content. The role of the journalist to find and amplify relevant stories for an audience that is unmotivated and uninterested in the news-gathering process but who still rely on journalists to make sense of all the noise of social media has changed.