Why the Kenyan Journalist fails you – @oleshitemi

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During an assignment in Turkana County, a journalist for a leading media house’ role was only to take photos and shoot videos then send them to Nairobi and another journalist, likely senior is given the story to report it. He has done this for the past three years and really feels underutilized. Turkana County is 77, 000 km squared. The biggest county whose terrain makes covering it as a journalist rougher leave alone the scotching sun as early as 8 AM.

In doing only photos and videos, he is unable to tap into the emotions, feelings and put good background to a story. Even a brief two minute story can get some better information with the journalist doing this than someone else. The mastery of issues and players at his finger tips is amazing and what if he was given the opportunity to tell this story himself!

Since he can’t, someone else in Nairobi will do it and in the process, the audience will lose some critical information that would have created better impact. Even basics like who the interviewee is normally lacking in the story and so when you somehow question the authority asserting certain words, you pretty much have to keep your instincts to yourself neither could you do better follow-up later.

In the period I was there, mid-November, the Pokot-Turkana hostage situation broke out. The Pokots had taken custody a police station and several villages in Lokoron area at the border of Turkana and West Pokot Counties in Turkana South constituency. This place is about three hour drive from Lodwar where he is based and the headquarters of Turkana County.

His experience and knowhow of the place has helped him create a rich network. So on this assignment, the county government was taking food stuffs to the villages there and he was able to negotiate some space for him and other colleagues. They were also given some out of pocket of sh2500 to enable them buy a few essentials while in Lokichar where they were based including housing.

From Nairobi, the editors were on his neck every minute wanting him to send them footage of the hostage situation. These editors have no clue of how he got himself there and how he is surviving. The media house did not facilitate the trip including airtime for modem to enable him send the story. But it demanded to have footage and new footage every often. Of course he did his part and sent them as always. It was not the first neither the last for such to happen.

This tale gives a small percentage of why stories get to be told inaccurately. Sometimes, they even decide to send a reporter from Nairobi to go cover a story and his role is reduced to a fixer. If tomorrow there is corruption at the county government, would these journalists report it! If they do, what guarantees do they have that tomorrow they will be assisted tell their stories! What’s the possibility that a journalist in the field would better tell the story than the one in the comfort of the newsroom!

There are other reasons that could explain why the Kenyan story is not better told. Lecturers lack practical experience. Most of the lecturers in institutions of higher learning have no previous experience in the profession. This means, they cannot relate to the students how tough or good the field is and relate to them how challenging the theory from the practical. They also cannot share how to get out of different situations.

In many discussions with producers and editors, they both share the frustrations they go through with fresh graduates who can’t do basic script writing or a 300 word story. This is despite the fact that they have a degree and four years to add to it. Some few universities have however seen the gap and now have radio stations. Others have magazine in which print journalism students can explore.

There is a grave issue of poor investment in the profession. When you look at most of the features done on TV, radio and newspapers, they are supported by other organization. This is very laudable as everyone should help tell stories about life to make it a better place to live in. Institutions like Internews Kenya, PAWA254 and Hivos – Kenya Media program, have facilitated journalists tell stories that their media houses declined to sponsor or they know cannot.

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These institutions have done well not even to claim credit publicly. They are just happy to see a good story getting airtime and creating an impact. This impact and even an award will however be most glorified by the media house. While these organizations continue to do this splendid work and they should be encouraged, more stories can be done with direct support from the media house not just approving the journalists to travel and assenting to airing or publishing it.

Also, there is a weak on the job training. Only the Nation Media Group has a training program. The one year training largely targets school leaving journalism students but also those already in the newsroom get trained on it. This transcends to also solid policies on reporting that it has. Other media houses will and are always happy to poach already baked products knowing they have gone through a good system.

If more media houses were to make training a core part of their business, stories will be better told. They would at first help bridge the weak learning in colleges and or universities. They would also have an impact directly on storytelling which would be more incisive and informative right from the beginning.

Another issue is the political ownership conundrum. A report done by Internews  revealed how most of our media houses are owned by politicians. Those that may not be direct, are owned indirectly through companies or the stock exchange. This ownership being directly linked to business magnates means that they can easily call an editor to kill a certain story or influence how it is done to favor one person from another. A journalist would rather let the story lay knowing well that you cannot bite the hand that feeds you. The result is that the audience, mostly naïve on the matter gets a raw deal. He or she will never know the behind the scenes and never get to know better.

Advertising determines the revenues media houses make. When concerns are raised about why certain stories which are critical and targeting blue chip companies are not told, just look at advertising. Do find some analysis on how advertising influences media in Kenya especially the money made here The Untouchables.

When the then Information and Communications permanent secretary with other stakeholders proposed some change of law in 2008 that would have among others seen KBC split into a public and private broadcaster, media moguls fought it. The result would have been that the public broadcaster would operate like BBC and receive funds directly from the consolidated funds. This would have gone a long way in shielding the editors from influence from corporations and they would do some good work. But the moguls knew the impact this would have on their business and they had their way.

Corruption is real in media. In fact, the only reason why media does not feature when Transparency International does its bribery Index is because it would be a misnomer for media to report itself. A good number of stories that have done are sponsored or influenced by some actor somewhere. It could be to get airtime that would help their business. Or some investigation to kill competitors.

Sometimes it about connections with the said person. The editor will get hold of your story and tell you to wait. What you don’t know is that he or she knows the person in the article, say a leader in a corruption scandal, and he or she will be called, somehow you will just come to learn that it was never published and will not be.

Beyond these, some people pay heavily to get their views aired or published since it is good image. They could be in government or private sector. In general, hardly any worthy leader both public and private lacks a spin doctor directly in media houses or outside the media but one that can influence or tilt a story.

All is not lost though, 50 years of political independence, the media has grown. Probably there is too much of western media and how they tell their stories, influences the perception or reality of poor storytelling by Africans on African issues. It can only get better with time. But the demand and wish that at least Africans tell that African tale better than the outsider should always be emphasized. It is a bare minimum request to yearn for.

This is a guest post from Shitemi Khamadi. Follow him on twitter at @oleshitemi.

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