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Good journalism must tell human story behind figures

In Literature, the word figure can mean a human being. In statistics, figures are mere numbers: 2, 20, 200 and so on. They denote a value that a statistician apportions them. They can be valuable in determining many things. For instance, the government can use statistics to implement policy. Health workers could know how many children or adults need a vaccine based on epidemiology statistics. The media depends on statistics to gauge the behaviour and nature of their audiences, which could determine the content they sell. But journalists should always be wary of figures thrown their way by anyone.

The rains came with little prior knowledge of their intensity. Not many people anticipated floods. Even the government was not prepared for the deluge. The floods did not choose which part of the country, what social class or community, the age or gender of their victims. They swept human beings, animals, crops, homes, schools, markets, literally everything in their way. The destruction and the deaths will take some time to account for and address. Yet, many media reports on the consequences of these rains have been in pictures and figures.

However, figures are not human beings. Whatever damage the rains have caused, in whatever part of the country, it is human beings who have suffered the most. It is people, old and young, women and men, poor and rich, who have had their livelihoods destroyed, and entire neighbourhoods submerged in floodwaters. Some victims are still unaccounted for. Millions of the living are counting their losses. These are not just statistics; these are people with tragic stories, some of them going back decades. For instance, for thousands of residents of Kano plains in Kisumu and Budalang’i in Busia, floods are more or less an annual ritual, always chasing them away from their homes.

So, yes, one may argue that what we have is data-driven reporting. But data in itself cannot retell the stories that citizens who had been marooned in their homes for days, seeing the floods carry away their crops and animals, can tell. The pain of a school child who lost all her belongings – books, uniform, and certificates – will never be captured in a statement such as: hundreds of schoolchildren will not report to flooded schools. What about the teachers and school administrators who lost all teaching materials and the learners’ data? Or how does a mere picture of a farm emptied of crops express the misfortune of the farmer and her family – the loss of a future income, indebtedness, hunger, or joblessness?

Granted, pictures can capture a situation so eloquently. But a critical analysis of a tragedy such as the one that these rains have caused can best be understood in the stories that the victims will tell. Journalists must chase the human stories of all. Millions of Kenyans experienced the rains and floods directly and suffered unimaginably. Thanks to the media, what was clearly a slow reaction to the tragedy by the national and county governments intensified as the floods caused havoc. Thanks to the media, several other institutions complemented the efforts by the government to mitigate the effects.

Still, government officials continued to dole out statistics to the media, which faithfully reported the numbers without asking more questions about what the figures meant. When a government official says that “several people are yet to be accounted for”, and repeats the statement a few days later, why can’t the media question her on who is meant to account for the unaccounted for? Why can’t the media ask: who are these ‘unaccounted for people’? How many of them were women, men, children, infants, schoolchildren, elders, businesspeople, civil servants etc? How did the government arrive at the statistics of the ‘unaccounted for?’

Reporting the stories of the survivors of the floods is about creating an archive that isn’t just about numbers but about the magnitude of the suffering. Such stories have the capacity to provoke emotion as well as practical interventions by concerned leaders. The stories are reference points for future interventions. Good journalism should always probe what lies behind figures.

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