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Kenya's media must explain, analyse and put events in context

Sunday January 15 2017

By NANJIRA SAMBULI
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It is not uncommon these days to hear Kenyans say they do not watch local news or purchase newspapers.

News consumption for a number of us is predominantly online, where there is the added thrill of public commentary on various social media platforms.

Some of us can opt out of broadcast media coverage, either for online alternatives, or in protest and distaste of how news is framed.

For others, switching on to seven or nine o’clock news or purchasing newspapers is an age-old habit; for others still, a yearning for more than surface-level, episodic reporting.

Peer-to-peer sharing on platforms like WhatsApp (“forwarded/sent as received” tidbits) and Facebook groups and following traditional media’s online presence offer options for consuming news as it happens.

The role of broadcast and print or online media, then, is being forced to shift. Informing the masses is not just about breaking news, or episodic reporting (event X happened, and this what persons Y and Z said). We have the aforementioned breaking news channels for that.

Media products such as prime time news or newspaper columns should now address the thematic framing of issues, that is, placing issues and events in context, be it political, environmental or social.

POLITICAL BENT

The media industry, like many others, is suffering through the impact of digital disruption. Attention, which was an almost guaranteed currency yesteryear, is no longer the preserve of TV, radio or print, the hallmarks of the media establishment.

However, there is an even bigger segment of the population who may not have the social media supplements that many of us (like you reading this digital-only column) have. For them, TV and radio remain a primary source of information,

Now that it’s an election year, we already expect most news coverage to have a political bent. Media companies have argued that Kenyans are political animals; ratings soar and newspapers sell with political headlines, especially if they carry the name of a politician.

"Demand yields supply" is a justifiable rationale. Furthermore, media houses have (persons with) political bias, not to mention the dynamics of media ownership and implications thereof.

I believe this is Kenyan mainstream media's year of reckoning. How they chose to proceed with news coverage and analysis of this election season will either strengthen or obliterate the authority of the fourth estate in this country.

The big question in my mind is how will Kenyan media define and shape public interest in this attention economy?

TRUST IS WANING

Political campaigns and their intrigues are contending for prominence alongside serious socio-economic issues, such as the doctors' strike and the oncoming drought in many parts of Kenya.

Mainstream media’s coverage of the latter issues is, for many of us, deeply unsatisfactory. Even election-related issues, such as the kerfuffle around electronic voting and ‘manual’ backups have largely been covered through a ‘he-said, she-said’ lens.

Diving into context and explanation of the issues in contention has seemingly been an afterthought or relegated to opinion columns.

As media houses restructure and adapt to the times, I really hope that it dawns on managers and editors that the true win lies beyond entertainment and clickbait news. As much as such content rewards the metrics and therefore the (ad revenue) bottom line, it is increasingly alienating audiences.

You can bet we are yearning for more than just political news of the "politician X did this and said that, party Y said this, did that" variety.

There is a currency that the fourth estate trades in that is not necessarily directly rewarded by quantitative metrics: credibility, a qualitative, harder-to-measure metric that is just as crucial.

Trust in and credibility of establishment media in Kenya is waning; it is being redistributed to a range of alternatives. Every time outlets fail to answer the ‘why, how, how come, what do we do’ questions arising, audiences are forced to seek answers elsewhere.

QUICKLY 'TAMED'

Plurality of media is definitely a good thing, because diversity of voices allows for multiple perspectives. But it also may be a double-edged sword, especially as self-selection takes root; we will tend to stick to news sources that either confirm what we believe to be true or make us feel good.

There also are risks of news ‘filter bubbles’, and consumption of disinformation as seen with the ‘fake news’ phenomenon that is predominantly happening online. Traditional media can still transcend this, but that window of opportunity is fast closing.

Individual journalists whom I have spoken to tell me they want to tell these stories and speak truth to power, but face an establishment that discourages their plans and ideas. Experimentation and investigative journalism are under-resourced.

In other cases, new products or shows are canned before they take root and command audiences. Those that are launched fall short of their potential, as they are quickly "tamed". Almost everything must tie directly to a financial bottom line, with very little investment provided as input.

Editorials are underwhelming and nondescript. Other players in the industry have opted to align with short-term wins by becoming agents of clickbait and entertainment that preys on problematic stereotypes.

LONG-TERM WINS

But, dear Kenyan media, we switch on the televisions and purchase those newspapers looking for explanations.

Explanations about exactly what the collective bargaining agreement that doctors are agitating for means and analysis on what’s at stake: the future of public healthcare and the increasing privatisation of public services.

We want political discussions that probe politicians’ visions and seek accountability on promises. We want this, not in fits and starts, but as the norm.

This discontent may not be reflected in the metrics you measure, but it is being registered online and offline.

As you, members of the fourth estate, try to figure out your role and niche in an interconnected, always-on world, credibility and trust in your products and outputs is perhaps your only saving grace.

What shall it be? Short-term gains at the expense of trust, or long-term wins by joining the fight to preserve and uphold democratic institutions and principles in an unjust, unequal, divided country?

Twitter: @NiNanjira