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How media is partly to blame for the rise of quacks

For weeks last month, Kenyans were once again treated to the spectacle of the now familiar news story of an alleged quack masquerading as a professional. The story of Brian Mwenda, who has been thrust into the spotlight for practicing as a lawyer without the requisite qualifications and documents, exposes not just the deepening moral rot of Kenyan society but also how various institutions, such as the media, have played a role in encouraging this trend.

We have consistently emphasised in this newsletter that the central roles of the media are to inform, educate and entertain. This essentially means the press is held in high regard in how it frames narratives and the voices that it selects as experts to add context and perspective to those particular narratives.

To give credit where it is due, the mainstream media continues to do incredible work in terms of diversity and range of expertise that are part of either TV bulletins or news stories. The experts often include women, youth, people with disabilities and the elderly. No one is left out. And many of these experts come with different levels of professional experience and legitimate academic qualifications that instil confidence in the media as a credible institution.

Unfortunately, this does not happen all the time. As media houses continue to struggle with generating revenue enough to sustain the business – hiring competent journalists, paying salaries on time, creating new positions necessitated by massive digital disruptions and paying other recurrent bills – a crisis of imagination that borders on laziness has also set in.

There’s an emerging trend, especially in the newspapers and their online outlets, where certain stories – always political stories – include only specific ‘experts’. These so-called political analysts and commentators have become a permanent feature in news bulletins and TV shows, where they are known to comment on every political issue under the sun.

Their analyses are often dubious, lack any expert depth, are full of guesswork and untrained speculation and the overall interest in analysis is almost always not guided by the need to inform and enrich the discussion at hand but to become part of the political establishment and join the gravy train of state positions and tenders.

Unlike in the Western press, where political analysts and commentators are affiliated with think tanks, universities, or research institutes and organisations, in the Kenyan media space, even a simple Google search of the names of these ‘experts’ yields nothing. Apart from a few articles published here and there that a first-year college student can write, there’s not a single trace of professional expertise in the fields they regularly comment on in the newspapers and TV bulletins.

Both the audience and general society lose considerably when non-professionals are given platforms that require the input of experts. However, the biggest loser of all is the media industry, which has to contend with a wave of misinformation and disinformation that is partly a consequence of quacks that they have permitted to infiltrate their newsrooms. More importantly, the media loses credibility.

Since these political analysts lack qualifications in the areas they are given vast opportunities to comment on, they are likely to mislead the public and arrive at false conclusions. This often results in a post-truth situation where people believe things that appeal to their base instincts and emotions rather than logic and reason.

The media, therefore, should not act surprised by the case of Mwenda because it has, through sheer laziness and lack of imagination, set a precedent for shady characters to become the face of its news analyses when there are dozens of experts and professionals out here.

Going forward, the Kenyan press must reclaim its place as an institution of the highest standards of professionalism to act as a role model to other vital sectors such as law, security, education, and medicine, which have borne the brunt of quacks and impersonators. This begins with serious vetting of those it gives the opportunity to shape public opinion. It must also come to terms with the rising expectations of its audience when it selects analysts and commentators, because this ultimately translates to revenues as well.

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