Journalism and public relations intersect in ferry tragedy story

Wednesday March 18 2020

The widower of Mariam Kighenda, a victim of the Likoni ferry tragedy, Mr John Wambua, receives an insurance payout for his car from Mayfair Insurance Company on October 14, 2019 in Mombasa. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


Disgracing. Distasteful. Insensitive. Manipulative. These are some of the words readers used to describe story, “Insurance claim for Likoni car settled”, in the Daily Nation of Tuesday this week.

The story, on page 7, plays up the fact that John Wambua made his claim while the car was still lying in the depths of the Indian Ocean seabed with his wife and child in it.

The Coast edition of the Daily Nation used the story as its front-page splash: “Ferry victim’s husband gets speedy car payout”.

The public was mourning with him and it took 13 harrowing days before the car could be pulled out.

The Nation story highlighted a posed picture of Mr Wambua receiving the cheque from the insurance company on Monday — three days after the car was recovered. And it took only a week to process the claim.

None was more miffed by the Nation story than Moses Ndegwa, a Nairobi accountant, who describes it as “insensitive and distasteful”.


He e-mailed me on Wednesday: “I draw your attention to an article on Daily Nation Facebook page that appeared on 15th October at 4:30pm, which reads: "As plans to retrieve a vehicle that plunged into the Indian Ocean in the Likoni Channel in Mombasa were under way, Mr John Wambua was busy working to secure the insurance payouts for his car, it has emerged."

“I find the headline insensitive and shallow, more so to a man who is facing a difficult time with a loss of his wife and a child in the most gruesome way one can imagine, and unforgiving to imagine a media powerhouse that has been at the forefront in promoting ethical journalism could sink this low....

“I would want to assume that elements of ethical journalism include humanity, fairness and impartiality, which lack in this article, and it is on this same breath that I request the insensitive article be pulled down on all your online platform and an apology issued to the grieving man, Mr John Wambua, for causing him unnecessary ridicule and public shame. It is deplorable to create such an insensitive click bait for profits.”


Was the Nation at fault? Hardly. The NMG editorial policy only requires that, in covering the bereaved, “enquiries should be carried out and approaches made with sympathy, empathy and discretion”.

The Nation had to tell the story. Mr Wambua was the man of the moment. His family tragedy, his pain, had captured the imagination and sympathy of the whole nation.

If in telling the story Mr Wambua appears like a man who loves money before his family, that is not the fault of the Nation.

If anything, Mr Wambua is to be blame for allowing himself to be used in what looks like a publicity stunt for the insurance company.

Truly, this is a genuine case where journalism and public relations intersect. Mayfair Insurance, which has a branch in Mombasa, seized the opportunity for maximum and free publicity for their brand.

So they called the Nation bureau in Mombasa and invited them for the cheque presentation. This resulted in a good exclusive story for the Nation and high-octane publicity for the insurer.


However, the Nation could have better worded the opening paragraph of the story, which said “it has emerged” that Mr Wambua “was busy working to secure the insurance payouts for his car” while his wife and child were still in the car lying on the ocean floor.

How did the reporter, Mohamed Ahmed, know Mr Wambua’s preoccupation? If you are busy, says Cambridge Dictionary, you are working hard, or giving your attention to a particular thing. Was that true of Mr Wambua with regard to the insurance?

The second paragraph of the story contradicts the claim. It says, “Mr Wambua contacted his agent to follow up on his comprehensive insurance.”

So, he could not have been busy solely giving attention to the insurance claim at the expense of other things.

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