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Media Monitoring: Is it time to regulate online content?

Last Monday, February 4, a stampede occurred at Kakamega Primary School in Kakemga County leading to the death of 14 pupils. Almost every online user immediately began circulating stories of the incident.

The stories differed in the number of the dead or injured pupils but more importantly, the clear display of the photograph of a girl alleged to have witnessed the stampede.

The confusion in the casualties brought into sharp focus the role of mobile phones and internet, especially the level of unprecedented access to information. Blogs and other forms of online publication are today labelled ‘citizen journalism’, which is distinct from traditional media or professional journalism.

The concern has been that leaving citizen journalism unregulated might confuse access to information as anyone would post any content of dubious accuracy.

“Journalists don’t even decide what the biggest story of the day is anymore, rather, society does, and the news that goes viral is often produced by social media users themselves.”

Ellie Mason, Art + Marketing, January 2018

Citizen journalism allows anyone without formal journalism training to use available technological tools to create content that would not be revealed by professional journalists due to ethical principles.

A notable case is the photograph of an alleged Grade 4 girl posted online indicating she witnessed the stampede in Kakamega Primary School. K24 television (in its online platform) blurred her face and so did Pulse media (online). Pulse went further to identify the parents of the girl and subsequently using the mother’s photographs seated with her. This demonstrates the understanding that professional media exercise in its work.

Compare this with the work of other users, so called “citizen journalists” – they displayed the girl’s photograph without much care of what impact this kind of exposure might cause.

Well, consumers are treated to the same news story, one operating within certain professional ethics, the other not bound by any ethical restrictions.

Is it time to regulate online content? We recognize there are other cases showing the increasing popularity of internet, and the number of non-journalists in Kenya who share news and opinions through blogs and social networking sites. This debate ought to be taken forward to ensure citizen journalism or online users understand the implications of posting misleading content online.

As citizen journalism grows, advocates of media regulation should be looking at the impact it has on society and propose interventions that might include training, thereby bridging the professional gap. Of course, this will have to be done without necessarily infringing on freedom of expression and other freedoms enshrined in the Constitution of Kenya.

Protection of children is addressed in the Code of Conduct for the Practice of Journalism in Kenya. “Children shall not be approached or photographed while at school and other formal institutions without the permission of school authorities.”

Considering the news stories or photograph of the Grade 4 pupil at Kakamega Primary School as used, it would be prudent to have anyone who involves themselves in the collection and dissemination of news held accountable for their content to prevent the public from consuming inaccurate or biased news.

The increase in misleading information in online platforms attracts more audiences, who will likely redistribute the content. It thus becomes a challenge for professional journalism to inform the public of events or give them facts.

Perhaps, this presents an opportunity for extensive media information and literacy programs targeting not just the public but online none-journalist content producers? Maybe, time is ripe for online content regulation. Maybe.

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