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Just report the news, leave predictions to pundits and pollsters

Journalists report the news. That means they gather, package and disseminate information about current matters of public interest. News helps people to understand the world around them in order to make informed choices about their lives.

But sometimes scribes feel sufficiently prophetic to peer into the future and make predictions. Not bad. Journalists are not mere mouthpieces of others, or disinterested conveyor-belts of the views of newsmakers. They are active participants in the daily life of their societies. So, they might play the role of oracle – which is opinion, not news.

Advances in Kenya’s democracy and media have spawned pundits and pollsters. The former are knowledgeable persons whose grasp of public affairs qualifies them to make predictions about important matters and trends in society. They are the talking heads on TV and radio current affairs programmes and the sources of much of the interpretive journalism you read in newspapers.

Pollsters are researchers who deploy scientific methods to measure public opinion on hot topics, like who is likely to win an election or how widespread is the hated vice of “kukula fare” in an international city like Nairobi. (The Stingy Men Association of Kenya was launched last week, by the way).

Dabbling in opinion research is a risky affair for the credibility of a media house. It is now about a decade since TV stations stopped running non-scientific opinion polls during prime time news.

“Do you think it is time for another tribe to rule Kenya?” A group of interested guys could text each other and gang up to vote. At the end of the bulletin, you see the result: Yes, 82%; No, 18%. That result displayed on a major TV station could sway public opinion, yet it is no better than voodoo stats.

If a media house wants to conduct an opinion poll on any issue, the best way is to contract an independent pollster. Details of when and how the survey was conducted would be published alongside the findings.

But Lion Place decide to do things the kienyeji way. In its December 11-13, 2020 issue, The Star carried a story headlined, “Boga headed for a huge win in Msambweni”(p.2).

“A Radio Africa poll has projected a landslide victory for ODM’s Omar Boga in the upcoming Msambweni parliamentary by-election,” the paper reported.

“The poll gives Boga a commanding lead in all the four wards ahead of the Tuesday vote occasioned by the death of former MP Suleiman Dori in March.”

Landslide victory. Commanding lead. Kizungu mingi.

“According to the poll conducted on Wednesday, nearly half – 41.5 per cent – of the respondents say they will vote for the ODM candidate,” The Star reported.

“Independent candidate Feisal Bader who is being backed by Deputy President William Ruto came a distant second with 15.5 per cent of the voters.”

How was the survey conducted? “The opinion poll, done and funded by Radio Africa Limited, was carried out between December 4 and 9. Some 775 residents aged 18 years and above residing in all the four wards were interviewed through computer aided telephone interview.”

Pwaaah! When the results of the by-election were announced, Lion Place ran around like a headless chicken in search of a place to hide. ODM was massacred by the independent candidate Feisal.

Lesson? Just report the news or commission a competent and independent pollster. Or your kienyeji poll will be greeted with comments from smart people, like: “In truth, our beloved meat doesn’t deserve to be wrapped in The Star.”

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