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Let’s admit it, we’re bad at citing how we get stories

By Kodi Barth

News writing format should be simple, really:  ABC happened; ​this is how we know. ​It’s called attribution, telling the audience where and how we got the story. Journalism demands it. Yet, we’re bad at it.

Here, sample the first three stories above the fold on March 28 at three major newspapers: the Daily Nation, ​the Standard, and the Star.

Daily Nation

  1. “Ruto: It is Raila who wanted to overthrow Uhuru, not me,” by Brian Ocharo and Maureen Ongala

The intro said simply that Deputy President William Ruto denied claims that he plotted to impeach the President. No attribution.

The second paragraph said how this serious claim originated: from the President’s meeting with Mt Kenya elders and elected leaders two days earlier at State House. Who at the meeting told the Nation? It’s not said.

Readers had to wait until the fourth paragraph to find the first attribution (too late): that Ruto’s vehement denial was at a Rally in Malindi, Kilifi County.

  1. “Horror as man ‘boiled to death’ at Thika steel plant,” by Simon Ciuri

After starting off that mystery surrounds the circumstances under which a man was boiled to death in a steel factory in Thika last week, the second paragraph said that the victim “reportedly fell into a metal boiler…”

The third paragraph said it was unclear how the victim ended up in the boiler.

So, how did the Nation get this story? The story quoted relatives and work colleagues. But until the end of the story, the simple question of how the Nation got the story remained unanswered.

  1. “No magic bullet yet: Gear up for yearly Covid jab,” by Angela Oketch

Scientists are considering an annual jab for sustained protection against Covid-19 because over time immunity wanes, the story started.

The ink dried on the second, third and fourth paragraphs with no attribution.

The fifth paragraph cited an innocuous statement by the World Health Organization: “There is evidence of insufficient protection against these disease outcomes over time.”

The first mention of the annual jab promised in the heading came in the eight paragraph: “Another aspect that has driven scientists to develop a yearly vaccine is […]”

Scientists are developing a yearly vaccine? Why is this only alluded to, if it is the heart of the story? More importantly, who said so? No attribution.

The Standard

  1. “Why Ukur Yatani’s budget is a make-or-break affair,” by Dominic Omondi

The first allusion to attribution came in the ninth paragraph. And it was something about mediation [between the two chambers of Parliament], not quite about the story.

If people have to read nine paragraphs before finding attribution, they’re not reading journalism.

  1. “ODM refunds millions of shillings to aspirants,” by Moses Nyamori

The first whiff of attribution came in the fourth paragraph: “the Standard yesterday learned…” It didn’t say how the Standard “learned”.

It is hard to justify an attribution in a news story coming later than the third paragraph.

  1. “Mystery of ‘unknown’ Kenyans being buried in mass graves,” by Jacinta Murura

First, this story was written as a chronology of events, not a news story that dives into the heart of the matter: what’s happening or any of those four other W’s they teach about news writing.

Then, the reporter got into a rhetorical question-and-answer monologue. And she forgot to tell how she got any of her theses.

The Star

  1. “Shocker as ODM refunds nominations fee, issues regret letters,” by Luke Awich and Shaban Omar

The first attribution came in the eight paragraph (again, too late): “ODM chairman John Mbadi said Saturday that the party will make refunds in all electoral seats it will be issuing direct certificates.”

Even then, the reporters didn’t say how they got the story: where did Mbadi say this? To whom?

  1. “Central MP’s fiery rhetoric sparks jitters in hustler camp,” by Political Desk

This was gossip, rumours with, obviously, no attribution. It had no business siting above the fold, much less ranking second.

  1. “Uhuru’s 7-pronged war against Ruto,” by James Mbaka.

The first attribution, citing the late President Daniel arap Moi’s State House Comptroller Franklin Bett, came in the fourth paragraph – and it was irrelevant to the story.

It said the war between the President and his deputy “can’t and won’t be a year or months’ affair, but I plead they spare us this negativity in national interest.”

The first of the seven-pronged war against Ruto didn’t appear until the seventh paragraph, when the story started to reveal its true nature: a collection of pundits’ utterances, not news.

Dear reporters, attribution gives any journalism story, but especially news, credibility and perspective. It tells readers how you know what you’re telling them. Ethics in this business actually requires it.

Without attribution, it’s you talking. And the news is never about you.

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