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Moi, Kibaki health and media’s job

Except when Eliud Kipchoge the GOAT stuns the world, or a similar incident catches everyone’s attention, you can be sure most of the news headlines on any day would be negative, often depressing.

Horrific deaths, rape, drought and famine, floods, billions of shillings stolen from public offers, rigged elections, inflated tenders, jobless graduates roasting maize to earn a living, pastor caught with someone’s wife, priests preying on children, gay priests, climate disaster, threats of nuclear war, refugees drowning en route to Europe, terrorism, sex slavery, etcetera.

If it bleeds it leads. That is the adage in the news business. There are a million heart-warming stories unfolding in our world everyday, everywhere. But they will rarely make the headlines.

Journalism seems to have settled on the idea that you grab people’s attention through shock rather than via positive news that might be considered trite. Fear appears to be the best selling point of news. But, why not, even in a remote village, the bad news travels faster and gets more attention than the good.

One prominent global religious figure once revealed that he neither read newspapers nor watched TV. They apparently depressed him with their dreary portrayal of the world. Well, nice way to bury one’s head in the sand.

There is justification for the media focus on negative news, beyond scaremongering. A watchdog is always looking for something negative to raise the alarm.

And so it was that one of the leading stories last week was the admission to the same hospital of Kenya’s two retired presidents. In a weird coincidence, Daniel arap Moi and his successor Mwai Kibaki were admitted to The Nairobi Hospital.

“Mzee Moi in critical condition”, the Star screamed on October 29. Blurb: “The 95-year-old former head of state is on life support as doctors fight to save his life.”

Dramatic. Moi was re-admitted hardly two weeks after he was discharged from the same hospital, the paper reported. Doctors told the Star Moi was “rushed” to the hospital from his Kabarnet Gardens home in Nairobi.

But the Star provided no details of the claim that Moi was on “life support”.

Moi’s long-time spokesman Lee Njiru dismissed the report when contacted by the Star. His boss, he said, was “relaxing at Kabarnet Gardens”. Of course the Star did not believe him.

Other news outlets treated the story calmly. “Anxiety over Moi health”, the Nation headline read. The paper carried Njiru’s version of the incident, that is, routine check-up.

The People Daily had a news brief titled, “Moi admitted to Nairobi Hospital” (p.2). The Standard seemingly missed the story, as did many other media houses. But social media was abuzz with all sorts of speculations.

Two days later on October 31, the Star again screamed: “Kibaki rushed to hospital over knee pain”. The former president, aged 88, had reportedly returned from London days earlier where he had sought medical treatment.

“Family sources said Kenya’s third president was admitted to hospital on Monday after he complained of pain on his knee,” the paper reported.

That, of course, doesn’t justify the alarm conveyed in the headline, or does it? People don’t get “rushed to hospital” for pain on a knee, do they?

In both instances, the spokesmen of the two former presidents (Njiru for Moi and Ngari Gituku for Kibaki) downplayed the reports. Both said their bosses were not in hospital – but later Njiru changed tune.

Njiru and Gituku took offence about the media reports, with Moi’s pressman cautioning the media against alarming reports and asking journalists to wait for official reports.

Njiru’s caution to the media is disingenuous. Not once, he has proved himself to be unreliable regarding news about his boss. Last week, he was contacted about Moi’s health but denied the retired president was in hospital – only later to turn around and say he was.

It would be gross dereliction of duty for scribes to sit around twiddling their toes waiting for official reports about any matter of public interest. Moi and Kibaki are prominent personalities in Kenya and at their advanced age, the media must keep an eye on them.

Creative attribution: Star source ‘refused’ to talk

In a story last Thursday about retired president Mwai Kibaki sick in hospital, the Star wrote a creative attribution that we, miserable eggheads here at the Observer, haven’t seen in our combined 70 years-plus of practicing journalism.

They wrote that a source “refused” to do something.

The October 31 story by Star Team titled, “Kibaki admitted at the Nairobi hospital with knee pain,” started out that only days after he returned form treatment in London, Kibaki, 88, was back in a ward, this time at The Nairobi hospital.

Then a quote about prayers, attributed to a “family source.” Then, something about Kibaki’s private secretary Ngari Gituku denying “vehemently that the retired president was admitted.” That, in fact, the old man was “cheerful and alert,” buoyant” (yeah, like a floating lifeboat) and lucid.” (Why do they do this in Africa, the people around big people, perpetually denying even the mere thought that their charge, the big man, could even have a cold!)

And then, in paragraph 9, the Star wrote this: “Our source refused to divulge more information.”

First, who is “our source,” the same Gituku? It is not clear.

Second, what is “divulge?” In journalism, such a word sounds almost dirty. You would think news reporting was a conspiracy. Or, worse, a waterboarding interrogation. Plain English words will suffice. Like “say.” Or “give.”

Third, and more startling, the part about a source “refusing” to do something; this diction is a stranger to news writing.

What could the reporter have done to make a source “refuse” to do something? Did the reporter threaten the source with hellfire? Twist their arm, perhaps? Glare maddeningly at them? Or, maybe, beg? Because only under such circumstances would one “refuse” to do something, isn’t it?

On the other hand, this word choice created a distraction. Let’s assume the reporter meant that the source declined to give more information. (See what we did there? Declined!) Would that be newsworthy? And how does the revelation that a source declined to talk with a reporter paint the reporter, in positive or negative light?

Writing that a source “refused” to talk communicates a reporter’s failure. It’s not informative. It takes away credit. And it adds no value to the news.

The Star might borrow from Reuters some guidelines about sourcing. In its Handbook of Journalism, Reuters recommends the following about honesty in sourcing:

One: “Be honest in sourcing and never deliberately mislead the reader. Never cite sources in the plural when you have only one source.”

The Star wrote in paragraph 2: “Family sources said Kenya’s third president was admitted to hospital […] after he complained of pain on the knee.” Exactly how many people from the former president’s family said this? It’s not clear.

Two: about on-the-record and off-the-record quotes: “We cannot quote a [source] as declining to comment if he or she provides off-the-record information. But if on-the-record comment is needed, it should be sought from another individual with knowledge of the matter.”

There you have it.

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