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Alas, single-source screaming headlines will be the death of our journalism

Controller of Budget Dr Margaret Nyakang’o unleashed a bombshell on March 7.

She tabled before MPs a WhatsApp conversation she said showed former Treasury Cabinet Secretary Ukur Yatani, apparently at the behest of his boss President Uhuru Kenyatta, piling pressure on her to irregularly approve the release of Sh15.5 billion days to the last election.

The story instantly went up on news websites. Radio stations blared it at the top of the hour. It led the prime-time TV news bulletins that night.

K24 TV: “Controller of budget confesses approving Ksh15B under pressure before election”

KTN: “Nyakang’o spills the beans”

Citizen TV: “Shock of KSH15bn withdrawal: Former CS Ukur Yatani on spot over missing billions”

NTV: “KES 15B paid ‘under duress’: Controller of Budget was pressured to authorise payments”

Here’s what the top newspaper headlines looked like the next day:

Star: “Yatani got Sh15bn nod in just 26 minutes”

Nation: “Uhuru pushed me to sign off Sh15bn”

Standard: “Budget boss: Yatani at heart of Sh15b riddle”

People Daily: “Yatani forced me to pay out Sh15bn”

Yatani hotly denied the claims, explained his request was lawful, and vowed to sue Nyakang’o for defamation.

And generated more screaming headlines.

What is the truth about these single-source claims? Who is telling Kenyans the truth of what happened, Nyakang’o or Yatani? No one knows. Tukae tu hiyo, basi.

We raised exactly this matter in last week’s issue of The Media Observer. We flagged the February 23 Saturday Nation headline, “Treasury ‘paid billions’ for Raila’s AU office”. The story was entirely based on claims by National Assembly Majority Leader Kimani Ichung’wah.

“No other source was cited to support this headline. In other words, a big, sensational headline was slapped on the newspaper based on a single, partisan source,” our article stated.

Same thing with Nyakang’o’s claim and Yatani’s denial. Where are we going with this kind of journalism?

More than six months after irregularities involving a “whooping” Sh15 billion allegedly occurred at the heart of government, the media never got wind of anything until Nyakang’o “spilled the beans”. What’s the health status of this public watchdog?

How is single-source reporting independent journalism? Why don’t journalists want to cross-check allegations and try to independently verify?

It is not just the Raila AU story or the Nyakang’o-Yatani claims. Happens every day. Another case sticking out like a sore thumb is the political dirty campaign waged months ago against a state decision to allow GMO crops.

A study by the Alliance for Science released last month found that levels of misinformation around GMOs in Kenyan media are among the highest in the world. The study found that 40 per cent of news reports published on GMOs by 14 of Kenya’s top media outlets contained unrebutted misinformation over three months from October 2022 to January 2023. The study reviewed 376 articles, 151 of which contained anti-GMO misinformation.

What if someone did a study on political stories, the mainstay of Kenyan news?

Journalism exists precisely to sift the wheat from the chaff in the public information ecosystem. People do not spend years studying journalism at university – or whatever course allows them entry into the profession – only to end up reproducing without question what other people say about matters of public interest.

In the face of competing claims about any matter of public interest, Kenyans should look to journalism to know the truth. News consumers assume journalists have the skills, time, and the means to establish the truth.

But what are news consumers served instead? Regurgitation of competing claims, placed under screaming headlines. So, what’s journalism worth? How does it justify its constitutional mandate? How are journalists different from bloggers, and those teeming crowds on social media?

One could go so far as to argue that the obvious failure of the media to authoritatively report on public affairs by independently establishing and publishing the truth, in fact, fuels fake news and disinformation. If the public watchdog cannot tell the truth of an issue, what would stop everyone from speculating on it?

And what would stop political partisans from weaving weird tales that are blindly and eagerly trumpeted by the media, to gain mileage and disparage their opponents or achieve other agendas?

Those single-source screaming headlines will be the death of our journalism.

See you next week!

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