(Dis)trusting the media: An Honest, Intergenerational Dialogue

Our second #FutureorFuneral session explored trust in the Kenyan media, recognising that an inter-generational vantage point is crucial to understand the overt and subtle forces that have got us to the point where just four in 10 Kenyans say they trust the news media.

Odanga Madung, keynote speaker and co-founder of data analysis firm Odipo Dev, highlighted his organisation’s own research which has found that Kenyans consume a large quantity and wide variety of information and media. Citizen demand for news may be one of the Kenyan media’s greatest advantages.

However, it is becoming increasingly difficult for people to agree on what is a reliable news source. And audiences continue to express frustration with their news sources, which operate in a context of misinformation and perceived bias.

This tension has played out as news organisations experienced a surge in readership and viewership with the onset Covid-19 pandemic as people sought to understand this novel threat, described by Madung as “the Corona bump”. Still, months into the pandemic, many Kenyans seem to not be convinced that the coronavirus actually exists.

“The [current] distrust in media was never an inevitable, organic process,” explained Rasna Warah, speaking as a panel guest. “You will notice that there was a great dip in media trust after the 2013 elections where different media organisations might have been co-opted to take different political sides.” Warah is a op-ed writer, editor and author of six books.

In fact, it isn’t a coincidence that as the political environment became more polarised and media organisations perceived to be more captured, the term githeri media entered the public consciousness, a way of Kenyan audiences expressing dissatisfaction with shallow, inconsequential pieces. “The term was coined by Kenyans in 2017 when there was one of the highest records of audiences distrusting the media, a figure still rising,” said Madung.

What could explain this disconnect? “Social media has made everyone sort of their own journalist, so individual reporting is on the rise,” said panelist Wayua Muli, journalist, editor and lead of new ventures at Nation.Africa. “For example, if someone witnesses something and records and uploads it, the journalistic process is bypassed.”

“Therefore when newsrooms come in and report something different from what was uploaded on social media, then the disconnect happens and trust is questioned. The mismatch in information contributes a great deal to this.”

Warah believes that trust can be regained by reviving the quality of great storytelling and especially investigative journalism. “Audiences are also tired of toxic politics which dominate the news.”

For BBC editor and journalist Bonney Tunya, “people want three things in their media consumption diet,” he points out. “ One, tips – something as mundane as how to make banana bread; second, holding power to account, such as investigative journalism does; and third, entertainment.”

Perhaps there is an opportunity for the news media to take influencer culture seriously – the tendency for journalists is to dismiss the whole gamut of “content creators.” In the Kenyan context, it has also meant only paying lip service to youth culture and youth trends, when in reality half of the Kenyan population today was born after the year 2000, and young people under the age of 35 make up nearly three quarters of the population.

“Influencers seem to have figured out the language of the future; they have figured out how to engage with their audience in a way only they can. We need to ask what the audiences want instead of producing content that suites just us in the newsrooms, resulting a situation where audiences don’t feel heard,” said Tunya.

Ultimately, he believes that there is a lot of hope in good stories. “[News] doesn’t have to be a scandal everyday for [it] to sell. We need to be bold enough as gatekeepers to make these choices that might seem to be against the grain.”

And for Warah, the most important thing is not to underestimate our readers. “Let us not box them into categories then assume that they would only want to read certain things.”

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