The Star (Nairobi)

Kenya: Media Must Up Its Game in Campaign Coverage

Finally, the long-awaited election year is here and politicians - veterans and rookies alike - are gearing up for the forthcoming make-or-break general elections.

At the heart of all campaign strategies for any serious politician eying the presidency, is management of the mass media. The mass media is the centre stage of any democracy's political drama and even though it is indispensable to politicians and to a democratic political process, politicians adore and dread it in equal measure. To improve their prospects for election, politicians need the mass media to portray them favourably even when they are unpopular, something which makes their campaign strategy somewhat of a ritual dance before the media.

Most voters never get the chance to meet a presidential candidate in person; they get their information from the media and like the proverbial tree that falls in the forest, political events are not seen or heard unless witnessed for the public by the media. The media therefore shapes the way we view government and politics by focusing our attention on some issues and excluding others -a discretionary decision that ultimately determines the public agenda. In addition, the presentation of news stories can be slanted in a way that influences public opinion in a particular direction. By setting the public agenda and influencing public opinion, the media plays a significant role in bringing about political action.

Disenchanted politicians often criticise the media as a dominant force in public opinion and it is not uncommon for ordinary citizens to opine the same. At the extreme end of the scale, some people are scared witless by the power of the media thinking that it exerts mind control over the population. Nothing however, could be further from the truth. To have such an effect, the media has to reverse strongly held long-term beliefs and attenuate other agents of political socialisation that reinforce them. But be that as it may, government officials are often panic-stricken by the media and a perfect example is the infamous raid of the Standard Group sanctioned by the then Internal Security minister John Michuki and executed by security agents and the infamous foreign mercenaries christened the Artur brothers. That cowardly and abhorrent incident was merely a brazen act of desperation by government officials who were paranoid by the power of the media and vainly sought to intimidate it.

Generally, Kenyans are interested in politics rather strongly and participate actively in politics even without knowing they are by their avid perusal of the local dailies, keen interest in prime time television news and by constantly staying tuned to their favourite radio stations. The is a rich source of fodder for political discussions and even though they easily end up in arguments, they are still a favourite pastime for Kenyans. It is therefore clear that the media is important in politics.

That the media is a significant part of the political equation in a democracy for setting the public agenda and influencing public opinion is clear. As things stand right now, faithfulness to the new constitution and an unqualified commitment to its full implementation is the undisputed priority issue in the forthcoming general elections, but also the economy and in particular the issue of jobs should be a very close second priority issue. It is expected that on matters economy, all sorts of empty promises will be made and the usual rhetoric will reign but the electorate must demand for concrete proposals for public debate on how to grow the economy and create jobs.

If the media is equal to the task, it remains to be seen but I'm afraid I'm not the most optimistic commentator. Reporters and news anchors often do not know enough political issues to give an effective analysis of them during the nightly news and those who do seemingly never get the chance perhaps because producers avoid such analysis erroneously thinking that the public is not interested in such 'dry analysis' of the issues. The focus therefore has for far too long been in merely reporting on the competitive or the proverbial "horse-race" aspects of the campaigns. Just to prove this point, political pundits are engaged only occasionally throughout the election cycle. It is only in the thick of a general election that they are extensively engaged in the analysis of political issues which in any case is a little too late to make to contribute effectively in the political process.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the media's emphasis on tactics and positioning only helps build momentum and expectations which are sadly shallow and devoid of substance. In the struggle to attract and keep the public's attention, the media focus on exciting and surprising events. And just to illustrate the point, a couple of days to the turn of this year, a woman died before arriving at the Kenyatta National Hospital in what the medics suspected was a case of the deadly Ebola virus, creating a national health scare. The country waited with bated breath as medical experts conducted to confirm whether her death was the result of the first case of Ebola in our country and much to the relief of the nation, it was not. That was the end of the story, at least for the media. Now only medical experts and perhaps a few in the medical fraternity know what actually was the cause of her death. And although the issue is not political, it perfectly illustrates the inadequacy of the media. For 2012 elections to have depth and be devoid of the empty rhetoric that stokes the embers of hatred, the media must up its game.

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