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Hire ombudsman to give public say in journalism, improve quality and accountability

Veteran journalist and trainer Peter Mwaura did something generally rare in the Kenyan media. He sharply critiqued a major news story in the newspaper he works for. And the paper published his critical review.

Kuna watu hii town you can tell to the face they did a shoddy job and they listen? In Kenya if you point out someone’s failure, he or she typically becomes angrily defensive, accuses you of being bitter or a hater. Fourth Estate is no exception.

Mwaura called the Nation’s lead story on August 25 “scaremongering”, “sensationalist and misleading”. It was headlined, “How state officials fed you bogus rice”.

The issue was a fight over copyright violation between two companies selling rice.

“But did we eat bad rice? Could the rice have harmed us?” Mwaura demanded. “Although the story correctly describes the rice as ‘counterfeit’ it also uses the words ‘fake’ and ‘sinister’, besides ‘bogus.’ This gives the impression the rice may not have been wholesome.”

Nation provided no evidence that there was anything wrong with the rice. “The alarmist page one headline sends readers wondering whether they ate bad rice and something harmful happened or could happen to them,” Mwaura wrote.

He is the public editor at Nation Media Group. Or the ombudsman.

The newspaper read by “smart people” pioneered that editorial role in East African journalism. Veteran American journalist and former University of Nairobi lecturer Karen Rothmyer was the first public editor at The Star from March 2011 to January 2013.

Her successor was Kodi Barth who, as a great Nairobi scribe might write, is “associated with” The Media Observer. Kodi handed the baton to Francis Openda.

In April last year, Lion Place announced it was reviving the ombudsman role under Openda. “He will write a regular column in which he will respond to readers’ issues raised, after investigating and speaking to the individuals concerned,” RAG head of content Paul Ilado stated.

But over a year later, the Lion Place public editor hasn’t written. That leaves Kimathi Street as the only media house in Kenya with a functional ombudsman.

Globally, the public editor is considered an endangered species in journalism. The US-based international Organization of News Ombudsmen and Standards Editors (ONO) has only 87 members, with America having the highest number (19). Africa has only two from South Africa.

ONO explains that the ombudsman cures the disease of “groupthink” found in every institution. This is the defensive notion that everything that happens in the newsroom is for a good reason. And that anyone who thinks otherwise is mistaken, has ill motives or doesn’t understand how journalism works.

“The public editor is an independent news ombudsman who handles readers’ complaints on editorial matters including accuracy and journalistic standards,” NMG says.

“The position is crucial in making the paper more accountable to its readers. It is also important in improving the quality and depth of The Star paper in terms of content and reportage,” Lion Place states.

So, why don’t we have an ombudsman in every newsroom to boost the integrity, transparency, and accountability of journalism?

Money. Declining revenues due to tough economic times and disruptions of the Digital Revolution mean most media houses can’t afford an ombudsman. At best, nowadays media houses only replace journalists who leave, not hire more.

But the money issue is not insurmountable. You don’t have to break the bank to hire an ombudsman, with so many jobless people around. It can be gig. Labour is cheap in Kenya. Plus, higher editorial quality brings in money.

Yet even when many media houses weren’t as financially squeezed as now, there wasn’t much enthusiasm for a public editor. Because newsrooms are generally averse to criticism. Most news honchos would never dream of setting up an “independent court of appeal” for people to complain.

That is short-sighted, of course. News consumers will complain anyway. You are better off creating a mechanism to monitor and systematically address those complaints than to bury your head in the sand and hope the complainers would grow tired (or scared) and stop.

Media houses place their output in the public domain. They should care enough about quality, accountability, and audience engagement to create a mechanism for encouraging and dealing with feedback.

Like Peter Mwaura does so brilliantly and bravely at Kimathi Street.

See you next week!

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