14 November 2012

Kenya: The Slap - Whom to Believe When Accounts Differ

On October 17, the Star carried a dramatic, page 1 headline: 'Sonko slapped AG Muigai'. The story, accompanied by a large illustration showing an altercation between Makadara MP Mike Sonko and Attorney General Githu Muigai, provided details supplied by a Star reporter who had witnessed the event a few days before.

The next day, the Star carried a page 2 'For the Record' item stating that Muigai had contacted the paper "to clarify that he was not struck" by Sonko.

I wasn't the only one who wondered what was going on. Editor Catherine Gicheru, who was out of the office attending a conference, says a group of attendees came up to her and asked: "What is the truth? Did Sonko slap him or didn't he?" And one, in a barbed reference to the Star's credibility, asked: "Should we read page 2 before we read page 1?"


The incident highlights a cause of friction in all newsroom relationships: the extent to which editors trust their reporters. It also speaks to the question of how news organisations treat powerful people.

And it raises again the contentious issue of the Star's corrections policy. (Let me make clear before going any further that I am not passing judgment on the AG's actions or statements, which I have no way of independently verifying. Rather, my interest is in the role of the Star.)

As it happened, I had spoken to Ibrahim Oruko, the reporter who was present at the incident, after the newsroom meeting at which "the slap" was first raised.

That discussion was prompted by the Law Society of Kenya's release of a letter asking the Speaker of the House to take disciplinary action against Sonko. When the editors started talking about the letter, Oruko spoke up.

On a slow news day, "the slap" suddenly became a hot story. When I asked Oruko later why he hadn't told anyone what he'd seen prior to the newsroom discussion, he said that the AG had asked him and a couple of other reporters who were present not to write about it.

Remembering advice he'd been given to stay friendly with potentially helpful sources, he said, he had agreed. But he now ruefully conceded that he would have been better off not giving any assurances before consulting his superiors.

I left Oruko contemplating how to resolve the conflict between writing about the event and going back on his word. As Star readers saw on the next day's front page, writing about the event won out.

Did he alert the AG to that decision? No, Oruko said, because he was told not to, lest the AG try to intervene. The AG, however, didn't stay quiet for long.

On the morning the story ran, he rang up William Pike, the Star's managing director, and, in Pike's words, told him that "there was an altercation but he wasn't touched".

Pike, who says he's "known [the AG] for years", queried Oruko further about the incident and decided, he says, the reporter might have been mistaken: "It was Githu's word against Ibrahim's." Pike decided that the paper should run a 'For the Record' item.

Sentiment in the newsroom was decidedly opposed. One editor told me that it made it appear that the Star "is rushing into doing stories without all the facts".

Others expressed concern about the effect on newsroom morale. "We have a tendency to give a lot of people the benefit of the doubt without giving our own guys the credit they deserve," one editor said.

A reporter said he was distressed that "someone else was being believed rather than our own". So, we are left with an unhappy AG and an unhappy newsroom. Could things have been handled differently?

My own feeling -- as always arrived at with the benefit of hindsight -- is yes. First, the editors took a risk in splashing the reporter's account so prominently, given the article's limited corroboration and comment.

But then, when the AG's challenge came, the Star abruptly backtracked. Far better would have been to tell the AG that the paper would look further into the matter before making any public comment.

Instead, it not only hung its own reporter out to dry but also caused confusion among its readers and joy among its critics.

Sonko posted a screen shot of the 'For the Record' item on his Facebook page, along with an assertion that "God is my witness I never assaulted anyone".

Finally, a word about the Star's corrections policy. A few months ago, in a break with Kenyan newspaper tradition, the Star editors instituted 'For the Record' and began using it to acknowledge many more errors, big and small, along with relevant further details about published accounts. This is in line with a worldwide trend, spurred in large part by the relentless fact-checking of readers with access to the internet.

But it's my clear impression that even if most Star editors said they were in favour of the change, their hearts were not in it. They feared -- and continue to fear, with some justification -- that their detractors would use it to discredit the paper.

I continue to believe that if the Star resolutely stays the course, eventually others will follow and readers will come to expect universal frankness.

But there's no question that in the short run, it's tough. And, as "the slap" shows, 'For the Record' isn't always the right way to go.

With the rise in prominence of the Mombasa Republican Council, the need to give balanced and fair coverage to its leaders and opponents has increased as well.

I was therefore concerned recently when I read a Media Council of Kenya study that found that the Star had the poorest record among the dailies with regard to one-source and one-viewpoint stories on the MRC.

"More than a third of all news reports referred to only one source and nearly one-third presented only one viewpoint," the report, which looked at coverage during the month of May, concluded.

"Most of the one-source and one-viewpoint news reports were published in the Star." The MRC study followed an earlier one on election coverage that was equally critical: it found that about three-quarters of reports in the Star "provided only one view".

Isabel Rodde, the technical adviser to the Media Council's media monitoring programme, told me that one reason for the Star's weak showing is that it carries many more short stories than its competitors, often about inherently one-source events like regional political rallies.

But, she said, even such stories as these could and should provide "more context" or, when appropriate, an opposing view.

When I asked at a news meeting how many editors had read the reports, the answer was none. I'd like to see journalists at the Star and elsewhere engage in debates about the Media Council's conclusions, and hopefully learn something from them.

But the necessary first step is for the Media Council to do a better job of publicising its findings. Interested readers can find the reports at www.mediacouncil.or.ke/Resources/reports.html .

Send your questions and comments to publiceditor@the-star.co.ke.

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