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Mediascape: Did media cheat parents, students with ‘schools set to reopen’ stories?

A trained surgeon, Education CS Prof George Magoha uses words like a scalpel, sharp and pointed.

And whenever words fail him in theatres of words that are press conferences, the surgeon turned educationist turns to one standard answer: That is a non-issue.

Problem is, the education reporters on the beat for Magoha’s story cannot return to the newsroom and file a story headlined: “It’s a non-issue, says Education CS.”

The rule of the game is that the reporter must return to the news desk with a story. But what is a poor reporter to do in the face of a non-smiling CS who dismisses a question such as when schools will reopen from months of lockdown as “a non-issue”?

Simple: Look for another source inside the Education ministry.

The surgeon, who formed a small committee to report to a bigger committee which will in turn report to an even bigger committee on when schools will reopen, is not amused by our ingenuity.

Of late, Magoha has used every opportunity to complain that the Fourth Estate has been “putting words in his mouth” about schools reopening.

Well, the good surgeon may be right on this one.

Since schools closed in March to ward off a covid-19 explosion inside congested dormitories and classrooms, we have been “mixing” or “changanyaring”, to use the street slang, our audiences, especially parents and students with a promising angle of “schools set to reopen.”

And while one would have expected a quote from the surgeon of human bodies turned surgeon of education, most of our stories have been citing faceless “sources from the education ministry.”

At best, we have been citing “sources privy to discussions.”

The result has been that the narrative “schools set to reopen” has been running on our headlines for months now, raising false hopes among anxious students and parents who trust and believe everything we report.

Indeed, the “timetable” for schools reopening has appeared over and over on several media outlets over the months, and schools were “set to reopen” in weeks time, then in months time, then in a year’s time.

While these mixed signals might be a reflection of a communication weakness in the surgeon’s office, it raised questions on the reliability of our faceless, nameless sources for our “schools set to reopen” stories.

Who exactly have been these “senior education officials” we have been citing in our reportage of “schools set to reopen” for the last six months now?

With thousands of professionals in its payroll, from nursery school teachers to senior school principals and thousands of support staff, the education ministry has the largest pool of news sources on school matters in the country.

Each of these sources is a “senior education ministry official” in his or her area. Why, even a cook in a school kitchen can indeed grant an interview on a “schools set to reopen” story, something like: “I have been directed to clean up the kitchen. This means schools are set to reopen…”

Certainly, it is not up to us in the media to help the surgeon-turned-teacher to control the wagging tongues of those under him.

But here at the mediascape, we feel Magoha’s frustration with our faceless sources in the education ministry who, like amateur meteorologists who look out the window to predict the weather, have been unapologetically shifting goal posts on schools reopening and feeding their false predictions to our newsrooms.

Yes, there is something in the little red book of media ethics about the use of anonymous sources; something about any journalist worth the title refraining from citing anonymous sources unless there are valid reasons.

This prevents quacks out there from creating nonexistent sources.

And unless our education desks come out to tell us who these faceless, nameless “senior Education ministry officials” were that they used to keep the “schools set to reopen” angle running for months now, we will be forgiven for siding with Magoha on this one: That we have been engaging in speculative journalism; that we are guilty of taking advantage of the anxiety generated by schools shutdown to sell hope to our audiences as opposed to truth and facts.

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