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Citizen TV’s ‘Big Question’ pinnacle of great journalism

On November 29, Citizen TV disrupted its normal programming to deal with the elephant in the room: A wide-ranging discussion on the impact of cancer on the nation. Bringing together government officials, cancer survivors, caregivers, experts, and representatives of cancer institutions across its various channels, which include Ramogi FM, Inooro and Citizen Radio, the television station drew sharp attention to what has been described as a major public health concern.

Cancer statistics in Kenya are not anything to joke about and any bold journalism that attempts to confront this monster deserves tremendous praise. For instance, 60 per cent of people affected by the disease are said to be younger than 70 years old, which means a productive workforce is gravely endangered. Cancer is also the third highest cause of death in the country after cardiovascular and infectious diseases, meaning the level of awareness must remain high. Any sign of relenting will be catastrophic.

The Media Observer’s refrain has always been that the press must be at the forefront of educating and informing society through intentional agenda-setting. This essentially means taking a leading role in discussing and analysing the most pressing issues of the day.

In the 1960s, leaders identified poverty, disease, and ignorance as the central questions that needed urgent attention for the country to make socioeconomic progress. Various institutions were tasked with helping address the problems, with the media accorded a special role in highlighting the progress of these efforts.

Then Minister of Economic Planning Tom Mboya in his book, The Challenge of Nationhood: A Collection of Speeches and Writing, could not have emphasised this enough in these timeless remarks that continue to define how the media operates. He writes that “The African leaders realise fully well the advantage of having a free and professionally competent Press, carrying out an informative function, a critical function, often an educational function, and with some of its columns of features providing outlet for eccentricity or inventiveness or grief.”

The Big Question has most recently tackled Kenya Kwanza’s new education funding model and implications of the Finance Act, 2023 to ordinary wananchi and organisations alike. By framing these issues as a question – a clever rhetorical device – Citizen TV opens a debate for the nation to have a conversation with itself. This dialogue has several advantages in that it creates an outlet for the audience to learn more about themselves and their roles in answering the big questions plaguing society.

The topic of cancer is always bound to be emotive, and the last show was no different. The television station successfully managed to press the right buttons, which evoked profuse empathy for survivors and the need for action from government officials. However, the most refreshing part of the show was the testimonies of cancer experts who highlighted the gains made in dealing with the disease despite the existing challenges of non-insured costs to patients for complex tests.

The deliberate use of two languages – Kiswahili and English – was another stroke of genius by the show’s producers. Kiswahili, a national language, has a wider appeal among Kenyans, meaning the intended message of cancer awareness was significantly spread.

It’s time other television stations emulated Citizen TV in wrestling with the big issues of the day and thoroughly researching audience needs. However, this does not mean only audiences should dictate the agenda for media houses. Instead, the press as an institution must continue to play its role in being the voice of the unheard and forgotten as demonstrated by the Big Question show. This can only happen if the media is not singularly profit-driven.

Going forward, Citizen TV should take the Big Question to other counties outside Nairobi to broaden the perspective of the issues it wishes to address. The fixation with the city is likely to create a long-term bias that may distort the intended message and the much-needed response from responsible stakeholders. More importantly, a new setting for the show is likely to generate other exciting ideas that will continue to expand the frontiers of Kenyan journalism.

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