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Great quotes bring life to stories, know how to use them

A scan through a score of news stories shows that quotes, indispensable cogs in storytelling, are in danger. If they’re not carelessly spluttered about or treated as afterthoughts, they smell manufactured.

The Star romped into the new week with a huge story. “Uhuru’s family has Sh3.3 billion in an offshore account – Pandora Papers,” the heading announced October 3.

The by-line read Oliver Mathenge. But this was actually a story of a story. It was basically excerpts from “records obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and shared with more than 600 reporters and media organisations around the world.”

Anyway, a big story. But readers waited until the sixth paragraph for the first quote.

“Kenyatta and his family did not reply to requests for comment,’ ICIJ said.”

First harm: a by-line should mean originally reported by so-and-so. But weaving a third-party report about the First Family, whose members live in your town, and failing to get a single live quote, even from State House spokesperson, is unforgivable.

Second harm: Those 10 words were not worth a quote. They provide the reader with no credibility, no insight. They should be paraphrased.

From The Standard, a heading reporting on Senator Gideon Moi’s campaign for president said, “Buoyed by Kanu delegates endorsement Gideon takes vote hunt to Rift Valley.” The October 4 story by Moses Nyamari was guilty of wordy quotes, and something smelly.

Again, readers waited too long, until the seventh paragraph, for the first quote. It cited Kanu secretary general Nick Salat saying – and we’re interpreting this for the writer – that his party doesn’t really have an agenda to run on. Instead, they’ll go around the country to ask delegates to come up with a “development agenda.”

“We want to start with Rift Valley then we move to other regions. We want to do things differently, involving delegations in each region. We are going full hog; no stopping now that we have identified our flag bearer,’ said Salat”.

Many long quotes follow. But one by ANC party leader and flag bearer, Musalia Mudavadi, stood out.

“We are not about to shut the door on them. It appears that some have forgotten that in the history of Kenya’s coalition formation, coalitions usually come to maturity very near to the elections date. In OKA, we are making deliberate steps and at our own pace towards a strong alliance, but keeping an eye on IEBC time frames,’ he explained.”

Sixty-one words. The trouble with such long quotes, with perfect diction and syntax, is that they are suspect. They smell manufactured. More importantly, they lose the lustre of a worthy quote.

Then came Business Daily. “US tech giants to profit from Kenya data in trade deal,” said the heading of a story by Constant Munda.

The story had one quote, in the sixth paragraph, attributed to a report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.

“Given the different degrees of digital development in the United States and Kenya, data flows between the two economies are most likely to enable global digital platforms in the United States to access Kenyan data and harness them, while Kenyan companies may have more limited abilities to collect and monetize data generated in the United States,’ UNCTAD analysts wrote in the Digital Economy Report 2021.”

Now business news is often dry. But Business Daily made it dryer with only one quote — and from a report. That’s just lazy. Not a single, breathing human could be found to explain something, anything?

On the same day Business Daily doubled down with the same error. “KRA says refunding minimum tax cash a major challenge,” said the heading of the story by Edwin Mutai, which implied KRA is struggling with a recent court order to refund a minimum 1% gross turnover tax collected even from companies projecting losses.

The author wrote until the fifth paragraph before providing the first quote: “‘That I am aware that as a precaution of the anticipated outcome of the judgement, some taxpayers despite the institution of the petition subject to this application had been paying taxes in compliance of section 12D of the Income Tax Act,’ KRA said in court papers.”

They had to pick an awkward excerpt of court papers. Not a single, breathing human at KRA or affected companies could speak?

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