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Public deserves accurate, timely and sensitive reporting of tragic news

An unusual situation unfolded across Kenya’s newsrooms on Thursday, April 18, 2024. Shortly after 2pm, unconfirmed reports began circulating on social media of a military plane crash in Elgeyo Marakwet County.

Thereafter some TV stations splashed the breaking news, but with no specifics. Bloggers provided the updates as mainstream media waited for official confirmation. While some claimed Chief of Defence Forces Gen Francis Ogolla was among KDF officers killed, others said the country’s top soldier was fine at a military facility in Eldoret.

The wave of unverified reports, photos and video clips left the entire nation on tenterhooks and confused.

About three long hours after the unconfirmed accident, Government Spokesperson Isaac Mwaura issued a terse statement that, “An official communication concerning the military aircraft crash shall be issued soon. Let’s stay calm and avoid any speculation whatsoever at this critical juncture.” Critical juncture? What was going on?

Mwaura’s counterpart at State House, Hussein Mohammed, stated just before 6pm that, “President William Ruto has convened an urgent meeting of the National Security Council at State House Nairobi this evening following a Kenya Defence Forces’ helicopter crash this afternoon in Elgeyo-Marakwet County.”

Clearly, government communicators didn’t want to speak about the confirmed accident. Didn’t they owe the public timely and accurate information about such a huge matter of public interest, amid swirling fake news and disinformation?

The Star decided to break the news around 6.30pm. CDF Ogolla and senior military officers had been killed in a plane crash in Elgeyo Marakwet, Lion Place reported, citing unnamed witnesses and officers.

By the time major TV stations went on air with their first evening news bulletins at 7pm, they didn’t have details of the crash.

CDF Ogolla’s daughter Lorna confirmed her father’s death in a post on LinkedIn. But most media houses were still waiting for official confirmation. It came in President William Ruto’s live TV address to the nation at 8pm – some six hours after the accident was first reported.

In a world of real time news, this was strange. The country’s top soldier is killed in a plane crash together with nine senior colleagues, but the leading newsrooms have nothing to report for six hours.

The military has its protocols for public communications. But the media is independent in discharging its professional obligations to the nation. Both the Constitution and the Code of Conduct for the Practice of Journalism in Kenya prohibit any external interference in newsgathering, packaging and dissemination. News is what journalists decide it is, and not anybody else.

It is unlikely newsrooms did not have this tragic story all that time. Their false dilemma seems to have been between respecting the military’s procedures and adhering to journalism’s professional duty to report such news accurately, sensitively and in a timely manner.

It could be assumed from Lorna Ogolla’s post that families of the fallen soldiers were informed long before official confirmation of the crash by the Commander-In-Chief.

While journalists must verify information, this ethical tenet should not be misconstrued narrowly as tying the media to official sources only. The best practice globally is for scribes to go out and look for stories, be skeptical of all but especially official sources and countercheck with independent sources to avoid being misled by forces that have vested interests in the news.

If the public is left to wallow in confusion and to rely on bloggers for important news while newsrooms wait for official confirmation, then the media is squandering its own credibility as a reliable and independent source of information when the big story breaks.

Moreover, we have lessons from the past where the media broke stories of high-profile plane crashes without waiting for hours for official announcements.

Within minutes of the air crash that killed Internal Security Minister Prof George Saitoti, Assistant Minister Orwa Ojode, two bodyguards and two pilots in Ngong on June 12, 2012, the news was on TV and websites.

Similar coverage was also witnessed on the morning of April 10, 2006, when a military chopper carrying a government peace delegation to Marsabit crashed, killing 14 out of 17 on board, including six MPs.

Earlier on January 26, 2003, Kenyans didn’t wait for hours to know that a chopper had crashed in Busia, killing Labour Minister Ahmed Khalif in the new government of President Mwai Kibaki, two pilots and leaving three other ministers and MPs seriously injured.

The media must be particularly cautious about reporting tragic events, but professional caution does not mean sitting around for six hours waiting for official announcements. That’s not independent journalism.

See you next week!

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