Sub Editors are butchers of words! Stories are spiked and killed! Editors are gatekeepers and use professional discretion in using stories! Journalism is not for the faint-hearted! Media sets the agenda for society! Newsrooms are freedom halls!
These were common phrases in newsrooms and journalism classes a few decades ago to show the brutal face of this profession- the tough choices required of journalists and the frustrations in the profession.
While the face of mean-looking fellows in tattered jeans, tough insensitive and never give damn guys have changed over the years, the basic tenets of journalism practice remain the same: responsible and professional service to the people- seeking and reporting the truth, minimizing harm in the society, being accountable and transparent and above all, using professional and independent judgment while serving the public interest.
With the country facing a referendum, a president serving his last term and keen on leaving a legacy and a number of Governors facing a similar situation, a political class intent on clinging to their positions at whatever cost and an emotional tribal-based cheering crowd in the mix, journalists will be expected to be highly professional, cautious about their safety and exercise high-level solidarity and support for each other in the course of their work.
The year 2021 is going to be demanding and messy especially on the political front and journalists must be ready to make tough decisions-butcher hate speech without caring who uttered them, spike unworthy stories irrespective of the sources, exercise professional discretion without fear or favour and set a national agenda for Kenyans that will change their lives, especially amidst the adverse effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Without necessarily gagging people, while showing the true face of some of our leaders, media will have to rise up and say no to some stories that might push the country to the brink of a precipice- the level of intolerance and frustration from both sides of the political divide is evident, and the media has been the most used as a market place of ideas, but where clearly the people given space in the media have no idea, please don’t allow pedestrian talk to spread. Let people use their personal publicity spaces to do their dirty work.
As we start 2021, the most noticeable challenges facing the media in Kenya are competition for audience and advert revenue where we have seen a highly commercialized media employing cost-cutting strategies, linear and over-quoted sources largely elites in towns, routine PR sources for news from pre-planned events.
Digital migration has seen an increased number of more media outlets, government spending on adverts is reducing, we have seen media concentration and cross-ownership in terms of media ownership, editorial influence by the big corporates- advertising, journalists working for media houses while at the same time working for county governments or media advisors for politicians.
A lot of people now want media attention and coverage; the big players in the country especially the political and business class have invested in media campaigns and will want to sway public opinion to their side-they will cry out and blame media whenever critical stories come out on them. In the same breath, a number of media relation brokers/middlemen and quacks are in the market in search of the politicians’ millions in the name of fixing their media problems.
Many with past media working connections have bought media equipment including cameras, recorders, and notebooks and have media badges, to convince none suspecting Kenyans of how they will secure media coverage; especially positive stories covered or negative ones killed, but their only interest is the money.
Media practitioners should not allow themselves to be used as the flame for violence, hate speech and tool for radicalizing Kenyans on non-issues. Media must remain vigilant and only allow ideas that facilitate dialogue and responsible conversations informed by the need to enable Kenyans to get reliable and factual information.
Let the media set an agenda for the country including on reforms, 2022 politics, post COVID-19 interventions, legacy politics and related professionally. Let the media be brutal to those fake news peddlers by setting strong fact-checking desks, establish internal mechanisms for identifying hate speech and allow more diversity in sourcing stories. More importantly, the safety of journalists is paramount.
Professional journalists will be expected to move from lamentations, welcome feedback and peer reviews, interactions amongst themselves to share lessons, and support self -regulation in the profession by respecting their own code and subjecting themselves to accountability.
Similarly, Kenyans should be aware that not all the people wielding cameras, recorders and notebooks are journalists or work for legitimate and credible media outlets; many are mere cons and brokers looking for your money.
Press conferences will be parked to capacity, fake interviews will be done and a number of sources will be asked to facilitate or “release” the “journalists” after those interviews or press conferences, but no stories will be forthcoming.
Angry sources after failing to see the articles will accuse the media of all manner of things creating a very hostile working environment for journalists and other media practitioners who are legitimate.
Misrepresentation as most of the quacks in the industry do is a criminal offence and attracts prosecution. Public places including hotels and offices should always seek to authenticate those claiming to be working for media.
Don’t fall prey to cons in town.
Victor Bwire is the Deputy CEO at the Media Council of Kenya