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Journalism that insults readers’ intelligence

A story in the Sunday Standard on January 13 stood out for the wrong things. It ignored all journalism principles.

The report was first published online with the title, “Is Raila doing it again?” By evening the title had been rehashed to, “Raila does it again as Jubilee implodes.” This story by Daniel Wesangula and Nzau Musau stood out like a sore thumb. With zero attribution or other traits for journalistic reporting, it smelled like a planted story.

It started out with a dead giveaway and a cliché: “It can either be by design or by default, but Raila Odinga’s political maneuvers have over the years confounded friend and foe.”

The first part of this opening sentence gives away where the writers are going. They could as well have put up a sign saying, “Readers are stupid; don’t bother thinking; we have thought this through for you.” The second part clutches at a tired refrain that conveys zero fresh information.

Then it went from bad to worse.

“For yet another moment in his career, events of the past six months have added another interesting chapter in the highlights reel of his political career.

“[…] like he has done so many other times, the master tactician reinvented himself and quashed any thoughts of succession within his party.

“On the contrary though, his improbable consolidation of power within opposition politics has had an unfortunate impact on the political composition of the ruling Jubilee Party.

‘He is doing it again,’ is the chorus in Central Kenya and Rift Valley as confusion sweeps through their barely two­ year ­old party.”

It is journalistic malpractice if at this point a writer does not tell readers who is singing this decided chorus. The writers do not.

Then, without providing a single logic, the story blames Raila for “the current confusion triggered by the President’s own yes men, MP Moses Kuria and ex-MP David Murathe.”

The writers convict Raila with these paragraphs:

“For Jubilee this may be a crisis moment but for Raila this is another walk down a familiar path. A path that has led to the building up and bringing down of partnerships in equal measure.”

The ODM leader honed his skills “with these things” in Ford Kenya, the party that took him to Parliament for the first time in 1992. “With the death of his father Jaramogi Oginga in 1994, it did not take long for Ford Kenya to implode from within.”

Yes, it is recorded in Kenya’s history of multiparty politics that Raila joined Ford Kenya; that both former vice president Kijana Wamalwa, deceased, and Raila fought bitterly to lead Ford Kenya and that the party thereafter split into factions. The usual story of KANU’s breakup and Narc government is also recounted, all blamed on Raila.

No problem there. The problem is that the Standard’s story is told in a pedestrian manner without anything journalistic about it.

It ends where it started, with the “readers are stupid” sign: “Already, his dipping his feet into affairs of the ruling party has resulted in unforeseen nightmares. Like so many other times before, Raila Odinga has done it again.”

The dogma in journalism writing says, “show me, don’t tell me.” Competent reporting should not patronize readers. After you show readers, you should have enough sense to trust that readers are able to make up their own minds.

In fact, at approximately 9:00 am on the Sunday morning the story ran, a reader with the handle Mbugua Albert called out the writers with this comment: “The argument that the writer places here is defective and is calculated to introduce mistrust […] and all of us can see that it is obvious who the beneficiary is meant to be — the tangatanga squad.”

The moment the audience can smell that a story particularly benefits any party, the story’s credibility blows up in smoke. It’s like motive in crime investigation. One of the first things crime detectives hound relentlessly at the start of crime investigation is motive. The moment they identify motive, a suspect is nailed. Without motive, it’s near impossible to convict a suspect. Find motive and you have a case.

So it is with journalism. Find a story that clearly benefits any side of an argument (or worse, a political fight) and you have a tainted reporter. The only thing that saves the reporter in such cases is the use of journalistic imperatives, like attribution, pertinent quotes, minimal adjectives – because adjectives tend to wrongly inject a writer into the story – and zero editorializing.

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