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In disaster reporting, never shout floods just to scare people

Shocking scenes straight from the time of Noah. Water everywhere. Submerged homes. Bedding and utensils floating. Child’s shoes and toys swept away. Flattened farmlands. Uprooted trees. Broken bridges. Stranded travellers staring at swollen, swirling waters…

Rescuers carrying away bodies in bags. Tears rolling down cheeks of bereaved families. Desolate villages reeking terrifying smell of death. Displaced persons huddled together shivering in the cold, mute, and unable to think of what to do next. Heaps of rubble of collapsed buildings piled up behind them. Floating vehicles.

The media has brought home to Kenyans and the world the devastations of the “deluge of death”, as The Standard editors aptly described the flooding disaster in our country.

Many themes to ponder. Vulnerability of human beings to vagaries of nature. State failure in disaster preparedness. Climate change and its impacts. Citizens not heeding dire weather forecasts.

The professionalism of journalists reporting this disaster is commendable. No gory images or descriptions of drowned bodies pulled out of floods. No videos of the terror of capsizing boats.

We report tragedy with empathy, always sensitive to the feelings of those affected and of the entire nation.

It is highly unlikely that media audiences would be fatigued by news that is accurate, fair, and timely; news that is delivered with sensitivity, that is uplifting and empowering even in desperate times, that shows there are things people can do to change bad situations for the better.

But a story published by Nation Media Group fell short of this noble ethical standard.

“West Pokot residents in panic as Turkwel Dam water levels rise”, the headline stated on May 1, just two days after the flooding disaster in Maai Mahiu.

“Residents living around Turkwel Dam in West Pokot County are in panic over its rising water levels amid the heavy rains being experienced across the country,” the report said.

But not a single resident expressing panic was interviewed for this story.

And then it turned out there was actually no reason for panic. “However, the Kerio Valley Development Authority (KVDA) which manages the dam has assured the residents that there is no cause for alarm.”

Shouldn’t this have been the better framing of this story? Despite rising water levels, KVDA assures residents around Turkwel Dam that there’s no danger.

Managing director Sammy Naporos said even though the water was rising “there was still headroom.”

KVDA water engineer Daniel Kimutai told the Nation: “It will take a month of continuous heavy rainfall for the dam water to spill over.” That means there is no imminent danger, ama namna gani?

“We expect the water level to rise, but it will take time for the dam to fill and reach its highest level. It can spill over in the next month if the rainfall volumes persist, but at this point it is highly unlikely to happen,” Kimutai said.

So, where did the Nation get the story of residents in panic due to rising water levels at Turkwel Dam? Was this accurate reporting? Is this spreading facts or fear?

And the bigger question is: what’s the responsibility of a journalist in a national crisis like the current flooding?

We provide accurate information that our people use to make important decisions and to understand the world around them. We are critical professionals who choose our words, images, and voices carefully. We are protected by our country’s supreme law. We are trained for our work and guided by the Code of Conduct. We speak to millions of people daily. Actually, we potentially have the entire world as our audience.

This is the power of journalism.

This power should rightly turn us giddy with excitement, but it should also fill us with utmost humility and a keen sense of purpose about our duty of care to the people we serve.

Having your story published and attracting plenty of readers, viewers or listeners is important. But this not the basic point of journalism. That’s the merchant mindset of media. You want to sell more.

But being a journalist means you deeply appreciate the place of accurate, fair, and timely information in the lives of fellow human beings. We provide an essential service to advance the well-being of everyone.

You may call this the philosophical foundation of journalism. A true professional must always reflect upon the purpose of his or her work beyond offering him or her regular employment and perhaps personal power and prestige.

Our country is struggling through a flooding disaster. Our job is to spread facts, not fear.

See you next week!

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