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Making sense of audits: Will the real journalist stand up?

In the past two months, media has bombarded readers and viewers with distressing news of Auditor General Nancy Gathungu’s reports of unaccounted money at the national and county governments.

News bulletins and newspaper pages have covered in gripping detail damning revelations about the misappropriation of funds allocated for various projects such as water, food, stadiums, and roads. The reports have vividly covered how state agencies, such as the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, overpaid the lawyers who represented it in the 2022 presidential petition more than Sh500 million.

The staggering payments, according to the Auditor General, “had gaps, as a good amount was not supported by evidence.” The story in question, published in The Star as ‘Sh500m in 14 days: How IEBC paid lawyers in Ruto and Raila petition’ (Friday-Sunday, February 23-25, 2024), described how the electoral agency violated standard procedures in authorising the huge payments.

In yet another shocking audit report published as ‘Taxpayers hit with Sh3.4bn in Kenha, Kura blunders’ (The Star, Tuesday, February 13, 2024), the publication, drawing on the same pattern of reportage, highlighted how Kenyans were on the verge of paying more interest to projects initiated by the Jubilee government. Reason? According to the Lion Place-based paper, it was because of delayed payments to road contractors.

A keen follower of these reports is likely to notice a journalistic pattern that involves the dropping of huge figures and the obsessive use of official language that the Media Observer has consistently cautioned against. While there’s nothing wrong with quoting figures in a news story and using graphics to illustrate the magnitude of misuse of funds, what is inherently wrong is failing to draw the connection between the disturbing audit revelations and the overall impact they have on ordinary Kenyans. The failure of the press to humanise narratives about corrupt activities means nobody is listening to important state agencies, such as the Office of the Auditor General, Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission, or Controller of Budget, which are tasked with helping account for taxpayers’ money.

This brings us to possible angles journalists could consider when reporting on the audit revelations. For instance, if a story involves stalled road projects as a result of misappropriation, or even high interest rates on taxpayers’ part, how about reporting the crucial details while simultaneously interviewing actual people using the roads? How has their transport been affected? For farmers and businesspersons, how are they coping in terms of moving their goods from one area to another?

Grappling with the above questions is likely to lead to a well-rounded news story that gives the facts without sacrificing storytelling. More importantly, the human-interest perspective has a shock value that is likely to draw genuine outrage and calls for action rather than mere rehashing of the audit reports. Such reporting has the potential to counter news apathy among viewers who might feel overwhelmed or a sense of helplessness by depressing reports about the loss of huge sums of money.

The Gathungu reports are an important paper trail in tracking how taxpayers’ funds are used by state agencies and county governments. This means how the press reports these stories matters a great deal in fostering awareness among citizens about their roles and responsibilities in promoting good governance.

Going forward, the media should make deliberate efforts to change their coverage of the audit reports by putting people at the centre. The use of videos alongside texts, for example, has the potential to create a visual map for readers struggling to connect the dots when reading stories about gigantic sums of funds misappropriated or lost. Can real journalists now stand up?

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