Since the early days of journalism, story selection and agenda-setting have involved ethics. When we are dealing with another country, this is particularly difficult.
For the past three summers, I have participated in and moderated students in cross-cultural immersion programs in Ghana, Kenya and Tanzania, thanks to my employer, Iona College.
Besides the program activities, I regularly attended to daily electronic and print media in these countries, and spoke with several journalists, educators, community leaders and citizens about the rights, responsibilities and results of the news media in each nation, and took extensive notes.
In my informal discussions with journalists and media consumers, most expressed a general dissatisfaction with the local news media. They criticized the news media for not taking an aggressive role in exposing scandals or investigating corruption. Instead, they complained that major media owners used their influence to curry political favor and increase profits. Back home in New York, I chatted with some Kenyan diplomats (also government employees), who stated that the country's "free" news media sometimes exaggerated the post-election violence to sell more newspapers. (Since most of these discussions were not conducted as on-the-record interviews for publication, I am not using any real names of the journalists, educators or community leaders. My interview with Big Issue Kenya was for publication so the real names appear.)
During those informal chats and media monitoring, one dominant theme kept surfacing: the mainstream African media did not frequently or accurately report the region's political, social and economic problems. This was particularly evident in Kenya among the people we worked with in Kibera, generally agreed to be Sub-Sahara Africa's worst slum, in Nairobi.
Father Renato Sesana, an Italian Catholic missionary priest in Kenya for 20 years, and founder of Koinonia Media Center, which publishes New People magazine and operates Radio Waumini, the first Catholic radio station in Kenya, points out that "There has been a deterioration in the Kenyan press over the last decade. They are taking care of the upper class in Kenya. They write stories about slimming down, going to the gym because you're too fat, focusing on the upper middle class. Write about things about food and dieting much more than ten years ago. We talk about different problems."
Only one journalist, a section editor for the leading newspaper, insisted that the nation's media truly reflected the realities of Kenyan life. The rest agreed that the media focused on politics, crime and middle-class values, rather than the true needs of Kenya's poor.
So, would a tourist get a true reflection of life in Kenya by reading the daily newspapers or watching evening news cloned from the American genre (i.e., male anchor, female anchor, sports guy, weather person and happy talk)?
From a media ethical perspective, I reflected on several questions, which I posed to the journalists I talked with. Do the Kenyan news media misrepresent the daily lives of their readers? In setting the news agenda (i.e. telling the people what issues are important), why do the Kenyan media play up politics and crime, while ignoring poverty and unemployment? Are the Kenyan news media acting as leaders in cultural and social development or as handmaidens of the government by seeking favor and profit over social reality? (After all, Members of Parliament and government ministers are among the major stockholders in the Kenyan media-and employees will try to please their owners.) Do they crusade for social change and investigate corruption or simply favor the status quo and avoid harsh criticism of governmental and political leaders?
In reading the major Kenyan newspapers, listening to Nairobi radio and viewing national TV news programs during my visits, I found few stories addressing the issues that concern the people of Kibera or other Kenyans below the poverty level. During my visit in the summer of 2007, a presidential election involving 134 registered political parties was scheduled for December. The print and electronic news media were dominated by multiple stories on politics and government affairs typically controlled by candidates and news media, not by voters' interests. (The next most popular kind of story during this period was crime, particularly the more violent, followed by business, sports, lifestyles and entertainment.) "The media is [sic] interested only in themselves," said Kathy, a human rights attorney. "They are only interested in which political party is fighting each other."
The disputed results of the election would cause two months of violence resulting in the deaths of some 800 Kenyans and displacement of 600,000 others in a country previously considered to be among Africa's more peaceful nations. During the crisis, the news media did plead for reconciliation but the government also restrained press freedom, such as by restricting live coverage of violence. The Daily Nation, Kenya's largest, best-selling and most influential daily newspaper, ran a cover page headline "Save our Country!" during this crisis; at the same time the government threatened to shut down any TV station showing post-election violence.
Yet despite this obsession with politics, the media, except for opinion columnists, offered sparse analysis, much less any criticism of the government, particularly President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga. Although political stories followed the traditional "inverted pyramid" news writing style, they typically lacked analysis and detail. Even stories with a hard news element frequently sounded like a rewrite of a political campaign news release.
Similar to the American news media's fascination with celebrities and staged news events bringing attention to social issues, the Kenyan media will follow politicians anywhere. For example, Daily Nation, ran a photograph of three visiting NBA basketball players on a politician-guided tour of Kibera, which did not include a clinic for the local youth. "The only time when the media comes is when a political leader comes to a slum like Kibera is to give out blankets or something," Kathy explained. "Then the media comes to cover it, then goes away."
A cultural studies professor at Tangaza College echoed that sentiment in a lengthy critique of the Kenyan news media. Business profits and political ties take precedence over objectivity and investigative reporting. "The media are owned by rich men," the professor said. "The shareholders of the major media houses are ministers of government." Citing the experience of a cousin employed at a major media outlet, he explained that writers, reporters and electronic "presenters" are pressured to write stories that promote their employers' political interests, not the key social and political issues facing Kenya.
"In the Kenyan media, once you're employed, you are told this is how we want the story," the professor said. "The editors are told by the owners to promote their man in government. "The role of the media then is not to educate the people, but to promote political agenda."
Two radio journalists, employed at a national radio network, attributed the political change to multi-party politics as a crucial element in the role of the news media in Kenya. "Under one leadership, the Fourth Estate could be sued for libel or arrested, so there was light criticism of the government," the male radio reporter said. "[With] the advent of multi-party politics, the media were challenged to look at issues-AIDS, the environment, scandals-more objectively. The media changed. Today there are multiple stations, many voices. Some are pro-government; some are anti-government; some moderate. Some are sympathetic; some are critical."
Yet, he added, some journalists struggle with editors who edit or even kill a story that does not favor his/her political friends. "There are so many stories waiting to be told," said the male reporter, who won an award from UNESCO for his reporting. "The large media forget that the average Kenyan is struggling to make a living. For big media, it's politics, politics, politics."
Despite the influence of politics on the media, some journalists do focus on key social issues, the female radio journalist stated. "The media is [sic] a success story," she said. "With the founding of new media houses, there are more reports on more issues of the common people, such as getting information on HIV and AIDS. There is a freedom to report in a way that will benefit the common person."
A middle-level editor at the Nation contradicted the criticisms by the other journalists and our interviewees. He maintained that his paper does sharply criticize or hold accountable the government and political leaders. The focus on politics reflects the interests of most viewers since "politics is the favorite sport of Kenya," he explained.
As in any business, the news media must be concerned with the bottom line, namely making a profit (usually) by increasing revenue. But the business concerns do not affect editorial content or eliminate objectivity as a journalistic value, he insisted.
Circulation figures and informal interviews with Kenyan citizens conclude that most get their news from radio, followed by newspapers and television. Even in Kibera, many families have battery-operated radios and some have television sets. A surprising number of those interviewed did not get their news from any news medium, but from friends who follow the news more closely.
According to the Nation editor interviewed, the Nation sells an average of 160,000 copies during the week and 200,000 on Sunday, while dominating the advertising market. The Standard lags, with 70,000 daily sales, followed by the Kenyan Times with 50,000 daily sales. A newcomer to the Kenya newspaper market, the Nairobi Star, a sensational tabloid first published in early July, prints 50,000 copies, but only manages to sell 25,000. Daily newspapers in other major cities, such as Mombasa, Eldoret and Kisumu, average below 25,000 copies each. Yet critics such as those I interviewed charge that such circulation figures are overly high, since most sales come from street vendors who might inflate their actual sales.
The population of Kenya is estimated at 32 million and the capital city of Nairobi at 8 million. With the daily circulation of the four national daily newspapers just exceeding 305,000 copies and perhaps twice that number in actual readership (a single newspaper is usually read by more than one person), only a dismal 10% of the target audience reads a daily newspaper.
Other factors affecting low newspaper readership are cost and a high rate of illiteracy. When a family whose income is below the poverty-level must budget for food, fuel and water, spending 50 to 60 shillings for a daily newspaper is not in their budget. Those precious coins could be used to buy enough maize or beans to feed a family of five for several days.
In my treks deep into Kibera, I did not see a single newsstand selling newspapers and magazines. The only newspapers I saw there were those pasted to the insides of mud-brick walls in an effort to keep out the cold and noise. In the City Center, however, I spotted side-walk vendors and stalls every block selling periodicals to the office workers and other bus commuters.
Because of these factors of cost and low level of literacy, many adult Kenyans do not read and enjoy a daily newspaper. Instead, they opt for "free media," such as radio and television, which only require a receiver and antenna. Even those with a high school education or higher admitted that they do not regularly buy or read a newspaper because of the overemphasis on politics and crime. In their opinion, the Kenyan news media do not report stories that affect their daily lives.
Our immersion guides, in their early 20s, whom I observed reading a newspaper only glanced quickly at the news stories and features. Even with a high school education or higher, they instead focused on the employment advertisements, followed by sports, puzzles and entertainment pages. When I asked why they rarely read or bought a paper, their response was similar to that of many young American readers-the major Kenyan media do not report on issues or stories focusing on their age group or lifestyles.
Most television viewers reside in Nairobi and the other major Kenyan cities. Despite a low proportion of viewers in the general population, television is a major factor in socialization, especially among children. In many households, cultural mores and traditional stories are not passed down by parents or grandparents, but by television. "My daughter comes home and she wants to watch television," Irene, a professor of African studies at Tangaza College, complained. "She does not want to hear stories from me. She wants to watch the fake people on television instead."
One hopeful sign of media involvement in promoting social awareness and advocating change is the efforts of community-based journalism.
Father Renato Sesana's latest venture is Big Issue Kenya, a community-based street magazine, which has published since January, 2007, averaging 3,500 sold copies, and added a Web page last year. Interrupted during the post-election violence, the magazine resumed limited distribution last fall. Having joined the International Street Paper Foundation, the project receives funding from Lloyds TSB Foundation and the Scottish National Executive Foundation to cover printing costs.
The major motivating factors behind the project are creating job opportunities for the 60% of Kenyans who are unemployed, particularly in slums such as Kibera, and creating social awareness and eliminating poverty. "[The] primary idea is to create some employment for vendors and create awareness of social issues that many people are not talking about," Father Kizito (as Father Renato Sesana is popularly called) explained. So far Big Issue Kenya has created job opportunities for more than 130 unemployed Kenyans in Nairobi and three other cities. "If a vendor sells 5-7 per day, averages 200 copies a month, that person can make 10,000 KS, not even a salary person could make that," said Big Issue's social development director Cosmas Nduva, 25, one of our immersion guides. "So selling Big Issue is a major opportunity for the 18-25 youth, especially those in the slums. Fifty percent of the vendors are from Kibera."
Despite a lack of advertising sales and problems with the Nairobi City Council's insistence that Big Issue's vendors be licensed, the editors are confident the project can succeed. "Operating philosophy of the Big Issue worldwide, the vendor gets 50% of the cover price so they don't beg," said former Big Issue editor Zachary Ochien, who also produced News from Africa, an on- line publication with Big Issue managing editor Clement Njoroge. "They actually earn a living without begging on the streets."
Several media workers and community leaders applauded the new effort of Big Issue Kenya and the contributions of community-based journalism. "The contribution of community-based media lies in solutions," the cultural studies professor said, citing the reporting of genocide in Rwanda as an example. "National radio and TV will support the status quo. We need community-based journalism. They encourage religious and civil groups to use media, not to sell an agenda, not to promote ethnocentrism, but to promote social change and peaceful solutions."
Community-based newspapers can also provide an alternative news source for the "voiceless" in Kenyan society. "There is a need to see the human aspects of people," the professor said. "They come up with better features. They tell stories in the simplest way possible that people will understand. They can tell stories without fear of being edited."
"They give voice to the so-called voiceless people."