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Evidence-based journalism will win public trust, not tales from unnamed sources

Nairobi’s news editors raised their eyebrows, pulled a face, stared blankly ahead and chewed at their biros absently. What does one make of this story, they pondered?

The UK-based international news agency Reuters on Wednesday, May 24, unleashed an exclusive that Chinese spies combed through the ICT systems of key state offices in Kenya, including the presidency.

It was a spirited, well-choreographed hacking campaign running for three years in search of data on debt.

Reuters is a big name in news. But Nairobi’s editors weren’t sure about this story. Unlike past exclusives on Kenya by international media, most newsrooms gave the report “a wide berth”. Only The Standard splashed the exposé under the headline, “How China hacked NIS, the Presidency.” The furthest some newsrooms went was to post the story on their websites.

“Exclusive: Chinese hackers attacked Kenyan government as debt strains grew”, the Reuters headline stated. The news agency attributed its report to three sources, cybersecurity research reports and Reuters’ own analysis of technical data related to the hackings.

“The hacks constitute a three-year campaign that targeted eight of Kenya’s ministries and government departments, including the presidential office, according to an intelligence analyst in the region,” Reuters reported.

“The analyst also shared with Reuters research documents that included the timeline of attacks, the targets, and provided some technical data relating to the compromise of a server used exclusively by Kenya’s main spy agency [NIS]”.

Unsurprisingly, China and Kenya dismissed the Reuters story with some choice epithets. The Asian giant said the report was “false and groundless” as it lacked “solid evidence”.

“The relevant media should adopt a professional and responsible attitude and underscore the importance to have enough evidence when conducting reports, rather than make groundless assumptions and accusations,” a statement from the embassy in Nairobi said.

Interior PS Raymond Omollo termed the story as “propaganda” lacking “authoritative proof.”

So, where does that leave the Reuters exclusive?

In limbo. If an international media house publishes a story that makes earth-shaking claims based on unnamed sources, and the two governments at the centre of the saga deny the claims, the wisest thing you do as a news consumer is to call the waiter for a second mug of steaming dawa, or whatever excites your throat, and move of on swiftly with your life.

News must be credible. Your facts must be persuasive. If people struggle with your report because it lacks solid evidence, your journalism fails. It doesn’t necessarily mean the story is not true, by the way. The report is unconvincing.

Let’s pick two other examples to better dress up this pregnant point.

On May 17, the Daily Nation splashed the headline, “Kemsa paid firms Sh870m in a rush”. The report by Brian Wasuna said days to the August 2022 General Election “it was raining money for a handful of contractors hired by Kemsa to import personal protective equipment (PPE) at the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic two years earlier.”

The state drugs supplier paid four companies millions of shillings despite ongoing investigations by the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission into the PPEs tender.

Kimathi Street got hold of crucial Kemsa documents detailing the companies and the money they were paid. Nation published the names of the firms, their owners and the amounts they got.

The same day, The Star had its own exclusive. “Prominent politician behind Kemsa tender,” Lion Place yelled.

“A well-known politician may have been behind the bungled mosquito nets tender at Kemsa,” the report said.

“The leading politician, according to multiple sources, hatched the plot to grab the tender a few months after Kenya Kwanza took power.”

What solid evidence did the unnamed “multiple sources” provide to back their claims? None. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Naught.

You see the difference? Anonymous sources have their place. But since journalism is about verified information, you don’t win public confidence with tales sourced from unnamed individuals who can’t provide anything tangible to back up their “revelations”.

Anyone can say anything, especially when protection of their identity is guaranteed. Or in a country where allegations of corruption are such a big political weapon against opponents.

By offering sources the cover of anonymity, you are basically asking your audience to trust that you undertook every precaution to verify the information. But your audience must be convinced you actually did so.

Otherwise, people would just raise their eyebrows in disbelief and order another mug of dawa.

See you next week!

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