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Media in EAC: Reminder of the known for improved practice

Things aren’t looking up for most media houses operating within the eight East African Community member states.

Most of them closed the past year on the crest of hopelessness, caused by dwindling advertising revenues, restrictive government policies, and collapsed customer base.

To stay afloat, some media houses delayed paying staff salaries or resorted to painful staff retrenchments. Yet others closed shop altogether.

But all is not lost. Latest research findings in several EAC partner states indicate a firm – if not stronger – public trust in the formal media. So much so that publics consume so much information through social media but return to the formal alternatives to confirm things.

Where do we go from here? The weekly Media Observer has been keeping tabs on the state of journalism within the EAC, celebrating good practice while fingering flaws to ignite improvement. A reminder of the known, says the adage, is the antidote for forgetfulness.

There are a few things the formal media must do to attract more consumers, stay relevant and enhance public trust.

First, in this era of ungoverned social media and artificial intelligence (AI), the public is exposed to a lot of distorted information. Formal media must stay true to its traditional role of confirming, verifying, and fact-checking. Everything must not go. Reporters and editors must provide all available angles to stories, digging deeper to answer all germane questions: So what? Why now? What next? Why should consumers of this information care? Who are the winners and losers?

Second, it’s a settled argument that people are always keen on seeking information that directly affects them; that is proximate. Journalists must be able to scan their local operational environments to continuously cover events that concern the people. For example, what is the status of the EAC? How are member states implementing common agreements to, for instance, fast-track movement of people, goods, and services across borders? What are the sticking tariff and non-tariff barriers frustrating the common vision of the trading bloc? What is the level of trust and commitment among political leadership of the member states, and what do such ideological differences portend for the future of the community?

Third, the world is experiencing varying levels of the consequences of climate change and global warming: Droughts, floods, landslides, receding mountain snow, dwindling crop yields, wildfires, increased temperatures and heat-related illnesses. The media within the EAC must continuously cover such issues and provide relevant researched solutions or adaptation techniques. There must be special desks to deal with health and climate issues as a matter of daily duty.

Fourth, there’s a seeming ebbing of democracy and rising of dictatorship in a number of EAC member states. Governments are clawing back on civic space and are getting more miffed by watchful media. There have been reported cases where journalists deemed to be critical of the ruling class have mysteriously disappeared only to be found dead. And most of these cases have had no closures. The media must continuously expose state misdeeds, even as they creatively engage governments for improved operational environments and public safety. How? Make every story investigative, get all voices on board for balance and speak the truth to power.

Fifth, all journalists should be taken through a crash programme on Maths for Reporters to arm them with the skills necessary for crunching and explaining data. Governments churn out huge data in their daily array of promises to the public: “We allocated billions of monies (in this or that budget) to build roads, hospitals and schools … We are setting aside more funds next year for free (this and that public) services. In fact, after two years, our country is marching majestically towards the economic nirvana!” Then time goes. Nothing is done. The media must come in to analyse every authority-issued datum, place meaning to it, and expose the official lies. Competently. Consistently.

And finally, the good old newsroom practice where editors brainstormed with reporters in pre-assignment briefings and post-assignment debriefings seems to have been ditched. It’s unfortunate. Every reporter must set out to an assignment with a story idea(s) and should never come across as a hapless harvester of sound bites and cut-away pictures from news sources. A well-prepared reporter asks relevant questions to get a strong story.

Happy New Year, Ladies and Gentlemen of the media. We look forward to a more engaging and intellectually involving coverage.

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