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How Star broke the news of Gen Ogolla’s death

Insider’s take.

Rumours of a plane crash first filtered into the newsroom at around 3pm. They were followed by whispers of death. And then the Chief of Defence Forces Gen Francis Ogolla’s name started circulating like some bad joke, that he was possibly dead or seriously wounded. Reason for the plane coming down? Cold-blood political assassination. When a prominent person dies, a cabal of conspiracy theorists emerges from the shadows of public confusion to “explain” the tragic event.

Now, 3pm onwards is an intensely busy moment in any traditional newsroom. The deadline pressures reach fever pitch. Phones ring non-stop. Senior editors are on the knife-edge. Sub-editors, on the other hand, are lost in a maze of page deadlines.

And while last-minute changes to stories allocated on a page are often acceptable and tolerated, especially in the event of breaking news, this decision is often taken sparingly. Considerations are often made to meet the printing deadlines.

This means the breaking news has to meet a certain in-house threshold in terms of prominence, impact and timeliness. If it checks all the boxes, then everything changes. Editors are permitted to shuffle stories like cards; reporters who have already left the newsroom are recalled, and sub-editors have to abandon pages subbed halfway.

This is what happened on the day Gen Ogolla and nine other Kenya Defence Forces personnel were reportedly killed in a military helicopter accident on the border between West Pokot and Elgeyo Marakwet counties.

The brief sketch of typical newspaper production is to explain how, first, The Star online gambled and broke the news of the general’s death (at around 6.30pm) and, second, how on the newspaper side, the editors crafted a headline of an unconfirmed death (President William Ruto released a long-awaited statement and confirmation of the fatal crash that had only one survivor past 8pm).

Every serious journalist acknowledges the significance of cultivating his or her sources. It is these people who confide in them secrets that would otherwise not see the light of day. Therefore, when the rumours started flying around about a plane that had fallen from the sky, everyone instantly activated their sources.

A flurry of calls filled the newsroom. I remember a senior business journalist telling me, “I have insiders in State House, let me make a call.” Another colleague, a sales manager, said he had contacts deep in the military establishment and the National Intelligence Service. After their short calls, they all came back with a response: “Ogolla is dead.”

Meanwhile, the Digital Desk that handles breaking news and everything that goes into the website was abuzz with intense activity. The digital editor was pacing around the reporters and digital sub-editors to ensure there were real-time updates of the accident.

When a prominent person is feared dead, speed and accuracy determine whether the publication gains a new audience or loses them forever by making a simple mistake, like rushing to say someone is dead when, indeed, that is not true.

The Star overcame this grave dilemma by falling back on the journalistic principles of verification and scepticism. Even if you are sure, verify again. Contact more voices. A dying journalistic rule, lack of verification has increasingly led to legacy media outlets becoming conveyor belts of misinformation and disinformation, much to the detriment of their readers and viewers.

The speed of breaking news is also no longer a preserve of the traditional media. This became more evident during the reporting of the crash. Bloggers, who thrive on sensation and outrage, had a field day providing real-time updates in what appeared to be an indirect competition with the mainstream media. Who is faster at reporting that the general is dead? Who has the live images of the crash site? Who has actually spoken to witnesses on the ground?

Some of the questions have raised serious ethical concerns about sensitivity, especially on the part of the legacy media, when reporting stories about grief and loss. It’s vital for the media to know when to draw a line between speed (giving real-time updates) and empathy (refraining from hurting grieving families in the process of delivering the news).

So, did The Star adhere to those ethics? My answer is an emphatic yes.

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