By j. Siguru Wahutu
Who are journalists writing their work for? In the early years after independence, the International Press Institute’s Tom Hopkinson defended the apparent shallowness in typical newspaper fare targeting the woman/ man on the street, arguing, “the poorly educated [and] poorly paid are interested in little more than family or football.” By contrast, the news pages are written for political elites, as a platform for ‘high-level’ intrigue and drama. That this elite bias playing out in Kenyan newsrooms is not be surprising considering Dr. Wandia Njoya’s writings on Kenya’s fascination with whiteness and its former colonizer.
It is 2020, and we are still living with the repercussions of this uniquely racist and ethnocentric approach journalism in Kenya, which places the global north’s brand of journalism at a pedestal. For his part, Hopkinson in the early years after independence also sought to ensure African newspapers looked the same as those in the global north but with “black faces behind the desks”.
Today, African media houses still use western news organizations as benchmarks for quality without an appreciation of the fact that these organizations work in a context unique to them. Thus their definition of ‘quality’ is not universal but rather contextually circumscribed.
Nowhere is this more salient than in the selection of whom to quote as a journalist. The decision over whom to use a source for a story is one of the most critical decisions a journalist can make. The people quoted often play a key role in shaping the narrative but also signal to consumers that these people have knowledge that they can share about an event. Essentially, the choice of a source places different voices within what scholars call a “hierarchy of credibility.” With this in mind, let us think about how COVID-19 has been covered in Kenya thus far.
The daily COVID-19 briefings have largely had the Cabinet Secretary for Health giving updates and making commentary on the situation in the country. The CS’s authority to make pronouncements in this case stems from the authority of the office – the CS is not a scientist medical doctor but a political appointee. If Kenya’s journalism field took the research of the profession seriously, one would think that pandemic experts like Dr. Njoki Mwarumba would be much sought after. Yet, while she is highly sought after in the US, nary an organization in Kenya has sought her expertise despite her phenomenal work in Kenya, the one exception being The Elephant. We do not need to hear from cabinet secretaries, while scientific research institutions like KEMRI play second fiddle.
We also need to hear from those that have been affected by this virus, their families and friends, and the broader community. Questions would include how, for example, is COVID-19 changing lives of those still in Dadaab or the almost 160,000 people in IDP camps, those in far-flung towns like Moyale, those needing to trade across the borders? How are doctors in Siaya thinking about how they will get through a coming surge with less than 15 ICU beds? Is there a plan to shift resources should different parts of the current experience surges at different moments? What happened to those who had their homes demolished in the middle of this pandemic?
Last year, I argued it was time for western journalists to learn from their African counterparts how they could operate in a hostile regime. That being said, I think now is the time for Kenyan journalists to think about what their role and responsibilities to Kenya are. As we move into a post-pandemic world, now is the time to move away from western journalistic norms and imagine what representative journalism can look like in Kenya. If not now, when? If journalism is to survive, it will need to rethink its role in society rather than try every new/western mode of transmission. Hillary Ng’weno once argued that African journalists needed to realize that they had skin in the game and thus had a duty to ensure that society was moving away from fracture and championing the ideals of foundations upon which “future freedoms [would] thrive.”
As we move into a post-pandemic world, now is the time to move away from western journalistic norms and imagine what representative journalism can look like in Kenya.
Instead, what we have is the front half of newspaper pages and the A and B blocks of most newscasts being spaces where politicians flex their muscles, where one faction of a political party calls the other faction names. Where a party leader’s jaunt to the Middle East is seen as more newsworthy than the rise of COVID-19 cases in prisons, we as a country can do much better than give grown men a platform of meaningless catchphrases and peacocking while the majority of the country struggle to find food and healthcare amid a pandemic.
We need to interrogate and rethink what is normative – what journalism should look like – rather than transposing western understandings of norms onto a non-western context. What the BBC and New York Times sell as objectivity may harm victims of injustice and give perpetrators a platform to spew their hate. And the sad reality is that the Kenyan media industry cannot retrench its way around this current crisis; now is the time to listen to your audience and provide them with meaningful information rather than pointless political theatre.
j. Siguru Wahutu is an assistant professor in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University (NYU) and a faculty associate at the Berkman Klein Centre for Internet and Society. He has written about global media patterns in covering genocide in Africa, and on ethnicity, land, and politics in Kenya.