On Tuesday this week, NTV Tonight by Mark Masai and Smriti Vidyarthi reported the arrest of Senator Ledama ole Kina in the most professional and neutral manner.
Maybe a trifle too neutral. The senator is accused of inciting the Maasai against other communities.
The item was one minute and 35 seconds long. Most TV news items should be between 30 seconds and three minutes, and it’s refreshing that long and rambling stories seem to be a thing of the past.
Ms Vidyarthi introduces the story: “Elsewhere, Narok Senator Ledama ole Kina has been released a few hours after he was arrested over the remarks he made on Saturday that were deemed to be inciting. Mr Masai follows: “Ledama claims his arrest is witch-hunt… Sharon Barang’a has more details.”
Ms Barang’a proceeds to give a no-nonsense account of what happened. She eschews giving background information that could have deepened the story but at the risk of suggesting that Mr ole Kina was a confirmed rabble rouser.
She could, for example, have included in her story that, in 2018, the senator was cautioned by the National Cohesion and Integration Commission against making inciting statements.
Contrast that with the story on Pastor James Ng’ang’a as reported in the NTV Weekend Edition by Dennis Okari and Olive Burrows on February 2, 2020.
The story was three minutes and 21 seconds — almost twice as long as the Ole Kina story. It was pegged on a letter written by Kenya Railways Corporation to the pastor claiming the land on which his church is built belongs to them.
After stating that Pastor Ng’ang’a denied having received the letter, NTV goes on to say that the pastor claimed he had purchased the plot in a Central Bank of Kenya auction.
But “he declined to provide any evidence to that effect and instead referred us to the Lands Registrar and the County Council of Nairobi”.
NTV, apparently, did not take that advice seriously because what followed was not confirmation whether or not the pastor had bought the plot in an auction but mostly a rendition of his bad character and past behaviour.
For example, showing a clip of the pastor slapping a woman in church, NTV says he has over the years “gained notoriety for attacks uttered on and off the pulpit”.
Showing another clip of the pastor slapping a young man, NTV says: “That has seen him run afoul of the law and made him the subject of derision.”
Be that as it may, journalists sometimes use, consciously or unconsciously, irrelevant and negative antecedents of an accused person as background information.
Antecedents — the term used in criminal cases — are past deeds or behaviour. Journalists use antecedents, ideally, to give a fuller and more complete and meaningful story.
Courts use antecedents to help them to make decisions — such as whether or not to give bail. For example, on May 8, 2019, High Court Judge Roseline Lagat-Korir denied bail to six KWS rangers accused of murder because of their antecedents.
They were accused of resisting investigation and intimidating police investigators after they allegedly killed a man and dumped his body in the crocodile-infested Galana River in Tsavo East National Park in December 2018.
Justice Lagat-Korir said the six had demonstrated through their antecedents — resisting investigation and intimidating police investigators — that they were “capable of interfering with and intimidating witnesses”.
It is legitimate to bring up the antecedents of an accused person to help the court to decide on evidence or mitigation in sentencing.
It’s also legitimate in journalism to bring them up to give the story completeness and help the reader to understand it better.
But antecedents must be material, relevant and related to the story. Unfortunately, in their zest to expose wrongdoers, journalists sometimes draw on background information that is not pertinent to the main story.
By doing so, they exceed the limits of ethical and fair reporting. Journalists should avoid suggesting guilt by bringing up past behaviours that have no nexus to the story at hand.
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