By Ezekiel Mutua
The critical role of the media in any country is to set the agenda for crucial issues affecting society. In the School of Journalism, University of Nairobi, they taught me that the role of the media is not to tell people what to think, but rather what to think about.
But watching the performance of our media on a number of recent happenings in Kenya, one gets the feeling that they are obsessed with negativity to a point of being blind to anything good. Indeed, the media analogy that when a dog bites a man it is not news but that when a man bites a dog then it is, appears to be the guiding criterion for news media in this country.
Take for example the overzealous manner of the recent reporting and analysis on the war on corruption, the alleged drug trafficking expose, The Hague debate and the WikiLeaks cables. One gets the feeling that the reporting of these matters, important as they are, runs the danger of obfuscating the good story of Kenya, ultimately hurting the country’s national brand.
The Government has made it abundantly clear that it is resolutely committed to the war on graft, lending it the vital ingredient of political will at the very top. But the good news of all these efforts and achievements is in danger of being lost in the incredibly negative din that is the seriously inane – sometimes insane – manner in which the media report, comment on and analyse the war on corruption.
It is a fact of life that for every corrupt individual Kenyan, there are thousands who serve family, country, nation and world selflessly and excellently. We need to hear much more about these positive developments in the multimedia news columns, editorials, comments and features headlines.
The anti-corruption drive has seen a large number of investigations launched and the Kenya Anti-Corruption Authority is performing wonders under the new and eminently proactive leadership of PLO Lumumba. But the screaming headlines and screeching editorials would have you believe that very little is happening in the war against graft and that only the public sector harbours the corrupt or is the disproportionately corrupt.
Worse still is the fact that even the citizen journalism of the blogosphere is failing the country seriously and contributing to the denting of the nation’s brand at precisely the moment when Kenyans should be brimming with unalloyed confidence and national pride, particularly since Kenya became a new republic by promulgating a new constitution late last year. Kenyans’ Internet chatter, both locally and in the Diaspora, is shameful.
It is too full of ethnic special-pleading and name-calling when it comes to discussing the anti-graft drive.
Add that to the noise emanating from the civil society about corruption and violation of human rights, and you get the feeling that Kenya is dead in the high waters.
Our media need to know that there are other countries where corruption, crime and moral decadence are the order of the day. But this is reported without endangering local, regional, international and even global perceptions of the nation brand. In America, for instance, there are numerous congressional hearings at any one time looking into such diverse sordid activities as drug dealing, gunrunning, money laundering, human trafficking, government procurement fraud, electoral fraud and cybercrime, human rights violations, among many others.
But the US media handle reporting, commentary and analysis of anti-corruption in a manner that never militates against the patriotic imperatives of love of one’s country and the integrity of the nation brand.
My extensive and deep reading has opened my mind to the fact that a rule of thumb in the Western media is that the bad news is never allowed to overshadow the good news, not even in war-time! And I don’t mean manipulation here. A working, functioning nation is, above all, a self-confident nation.
National self-confidence and good reputation must never be sacrificed at the altar of instant gratification by the media of news gathering and dissemination.
How to find a balance between exposing the ills of our society and the integrity of Kenya’s nation brand is one of the most urgent issues facing journalists. One of the major challenges that public communicators charged with selling Kenya, including myself, face whether at home or abroad is how to deal with the negative perceptions created by the media.
Kenya’s good news story must be told with conviction and spontaneity by all these officials in a ferociously competitive world. But this is no easy task when one is trailed by an overkill emphasis in the local media focused on the corrupt and the criminal in our midst; indeed, it can be daunting to the point of intimidation, particularly when addressing a foreign audience.
There is, therefore, an urgent need for the Kenyan media to invest in seminars, workshops and in-house training to instil in the minds of well meaning journalists the fact that negative developments in our country must be covered without hurting the nation brand. It’s important to find out how others do it and the Brand Kenya Board may want to guide this engagement.
As of the time of penning this piece, the original James Bond star, actor Sean Connery, now aged 80, was facing fraud charges brought against him in a Spanish court in a US$51 million suit. The reporting of this case has been proportionate and dignified and has not lost sight of the fact that, though he is one of the world’s most famous, richest and longest-lasting cinematic franchises and comes originally from Scotland, he is an individual. The 007 brand and the Scotland nation brand do not come into it. Food for thought!
The writer is the Director of Information and Public Communications – email: [email protected]