Our last session in what has been a five part virtual summit series on the future of the media ended with an insightful discussion by Kenyan media pioneers who took us down memory lane. The panel was titled ‘The Good Old Days? Exploring What Needs to Stay Past and What Should Remain for The Present and Future,’ and comprised Dorothy Kweyu, Rosemary Okello-Orlale, Kwamchetsi Makokha and Joseph Odindo.
Media and communications expert Rosemary Okello-Orlale set the tone of the discussion with a keynote presentation where she began by arguing against the sentiment that the media has lost direction. She presented a rich and insightful description what journalism looked like in the 1980s and 90s. She says that time to craft a story was a resource for journalists then that is increasingly scarce today, and the two most important tools for a journalist were a pen and a notebook. Rosemary believes that as it stands, the media in Kenya is at a crossroads, citing that democratization processes as well as growing access to technology has resulted in tremendous growth in citizen and social journalism.
Within a globally changing media environment, it is important to contextualize the big changes that have occurred in the past few decades and the implications on journalism of the same. “I think that one thing that the Kenyan media can be proud of over the period that I have been practising is that it has been resilient in the sense that in spite of moments when they would just have caved in they stood their ground and managed to be on top of things.” explained Dorothy Kweyu. “They remained to be the conscience of society, unearthing the scandals that might otherwise have remained hidden.”
Kweyu’s sentiments on the best of what constitutes the Kenyan media complement Kwamchetsi Makhokha’s, who believes that the Kenyan media has cultivated trust over time. “I think the media in Kenya has done a pretty decent job of managing national conversations and being this place of trust where people can have conversations with one another.”
Still, it is hard to ignore the audience distrust in the media, which surveys have shown has been rising over recent years. The Kenyan media has been accused of siding with commercial forces and repressive power, essentially throwing the general public under the bus. In response to this, Kwamchetsi thinks that some of the media might have ‘backslid’, losing their way. He maintains that although there is a general decline in public trust, that trust that the media enjoys was never automatic, that there are certain things that the media did to earn that trust.
In session four, our keynote speaker, Nanjala Nyabola, used the term ‘retreat’ in describing what Kwamchetsi in this session terms as backsliding. Joseph Odindo, a lecturer at Aga Khan University who has been a journalist for over 40 years, admits that even though there is an acknowledgement of change, media should not be judged without taking into consideration the context and the times in which it was and is operating. “I would not call it an abdication [of duty],” he says. “I think the Kenyan media has been adaptable. There has been a very conscious effort to adapt to the times, which the media must do.”
The digital age has been a great turning point in how news is gathered and processed. These changes are happening within times where there is an increase in audience participation and contribution. This means, as Kwamchetsi puts it, “there is a struggle for power. The media is in the business of creating narratives and sometimes audiences are creating narratives that are completely bereft of the facts.”
Media distrust goes hand in hand with a decline in credibility. With technology and social media platforms, audiences have the tools to cross-check information coming from news sources. Odindo believes that media credibility is being challenged more because they have failed to respond to the environment they are operating in and not because they have simply failed. He insists that the core is still intact, pointing to a hope that the Kenyan media indeed has a future – we should put the funeral dirges on hold.