Kenyan media must not abuse anonymity

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BY DENNIS ITUMBI

Kenyan media stories are increasingly reliant on "sources."

Lots of stories in the public domain are attributed to people we rarely see, yet they control over half of public debates and even influence policy.

For the record, I agree with the Editor\’s Guild when they say that journalists should never be forced to reveal their sources. Brian Okumu who taught me the principle of sources was more radical; "The moment you grant anonymity to a source, you silently sign an oath to die in their place should a gun be pointed at you."

Whereas reporters swear to protect their sources, no responsibility is required from the sources and that\’s where a serious disconnect begins.

Reporters, in that sacred relationship, silently swear to take the bullet for the source but when the story turns to be false as it did in the Standard story headlined  "ICC suspect loses Sh840 million at JKIA" the source has no responsibility.

The Standard story quoted a single police source as saying that one of the three suspects who had jetted back from The Hague where they had appeared at the International Criminal Court had lost $10 million (Sh840m) at the airport.

Though the story did not name Finance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, it turned out that he had indeed reported a missing bag.  The story was the lead in the Standard newspapers sparking debate that concluded it was not only impracticable to carry a 97.4kg bag of currency as hand luggage, but also impossible to get clearance through any airport with such kind of cash.

As a cardinal rule, anonymous sources should be used only as "a last resort when the story is of compelling public interest and the information is not available any other way."

The Standard story has highlighted the need for an Anonymous Source Policy across newsrooms.

In that policy, media houses should go back to the basics. First, once a decision is reached to use a source, there should be an explanation why a source needs anonymity and a rider to help a reader decide how reliable the person\’s information is.

Further, the policy should say that the media house will not allow personal or partisan attacks from behind a mask of anonymity.

Newsrooms should also make it difficult to use anonymous sources by insisting, like the Washington Post does, that their "reporters must request an on-the-record reason for concealing a source\’s identity and should include the reason in the story."

The policy must have an approval system; there must be a clearance level before anonymous sources are allowed in stories.

Description of sources like happens in most international media, must be made a norm. It is not enough to say \’Government sources\’ or the more ridiculous Kenya phrase, "sources close to the minister", a little more about department and maybe their level to information would be a better way to refer to sources.

Finally, such a policy should make it impossible to use a single source for a story, reporters must be made to work to get the right information.

While granting anonymity may induce reluctant or nervous sources to talk, it doesn\’t guarantee they will say anything worth listening to.

I am not advocating for the elimination of anonymous sources, all I am calling for is a more careful and firm association with anonymity.

That said, I maintain that journalistic sources should never be revealed at whatever cost, but facts and truth should never be sacrificed at the altar of anonymity.

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