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What caused Maai Mahiu tragedy: Burst dam or gulley?

The newly released Media Council of Kenya’s State of the Media Report 2024 reveals that Kenyan audiences are most concerned with “the spread of misinformation and disinformation”, describing the problem as a “primary concern”. And in the age of social media, it is true that news consumers are more informed and can quickly differentiate between genuine and fake news.

In his book, The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now, former Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger argues that a modern newsroom must always work with the assumption that their audiences know better than the reporters and editors. From this premise, the media can overcome any shortcomings by ensuring there is accuracy in reporting.

Accurate reporting means verification of what would pass as obvious. As the Media Observer has repeatedly said, eternal vigilance through scepticism remains the secret to avoiding the pitfalls of spreading what has come to be known as mis/disinformation. However, this does not mean it is possible to completely eradicate the scourge of misinformation and disinformation in the news cycle. Whenever news is breaking, and without reporters on the ground, media houses are bound to make mistakes.

Let’s take the case of the Mai Mahiu flooding tragedy that happened in Nakuru county on April 29. More than 60 people lost their lives, with dozens injured and dozens more still missing. The government has directed the Kenya Defence Forces and National Youth Service to assist with search and rescue missions, efforts which are bearing fruit.

But let’s return to how the disaster was first reported. Initial reports said a burst dam caused the flooding. The press was following an old script: the 2018 Solai dam tragedy, which killed 48 people. In both stories, millions of gallons of water found their way downstream, sweeping away houses with sleeping families and their properties. Authorities blamed heavy rains for both tragedies.

According to the government, heavy rains have so far killed over 250 people, with more than 200,000 households thrown in the cold. Weather predictions remain grim and uncertain. Kenyans living in riparian lands, low-lying areas and urban centres have been warned to expect flooding. The weatherman says those living in areas with ravines, steep slopes and escarpments should expect mudslides and landslides.

The constant weather updates are to keep Kenyans safe and ensure there is timely and accurate reporting. It is, therefore, not surprising that mainstream media outlets initially got it all wrong about the Maahi Mahiu tragedy. It is an open secret that these media platforms source their news from social media, bloggers and citizen journalists, an approach that has advantages and disadvantages.

Sourcing news from these sources gives the media the advantage of finding fresh stories with surprising new angles that are likely to appeal to their audiences. The appeal is often driven by audience engagement through ‘likes’, ‘shares’ or ‘reposits’ and comments. These vital metrics also determine what resources are to be invested in a particular story.

However, there are also disadvantages. Chief among them is the risk of misrepresenting facts by either broadcasting or publishing misleading and unverified content. When such a lapse in editorial judgment happens (which is often bound to happen considering the breakneck speed of the information age), it is only sensible to rectify the error quickly.

To their immense credit, major news outlets such as the Daily Nation, The Star, The Standard and Citizen Digital duly informed their readers that the Mai Mahiu tragedy was caused by “a water-filled gulley” after receiving expert clarification from the Water Resources Management Authority.

The Business Daily went ahead and explained that “the waters originated from a gulley near a railway line that was blocked, thus forming a temporary water catchment over time.”

It added that “with the onset of the heavy rains, the gulley burst, leading to water collected flowing to lower-lying areas and leaving behind a trail of death and destruction.” Now, that’s journalism accountable to the public and is not afraid to correct itself.

Unfortunately, the correction came a little too late for some Kenyans on social media who trolled these media outlets for spreading misinformation. It is a painful lesson for breaking news without extra due diligence.

And is it Mai or Maai?

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