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Stella Nyanzi not ‘difficult to love’, but headline probably was

On June 5, the Daily Nation was forced to remove a photo of Ugandan activist Stella Nyanzi that had been used in an online article titled, Cheers to the women who are ‘difficult to love’.

Nyanzi, an ex-prisoner, published scholar and opposition politician, had said on X: “Trust my Kenyans to use my photo in @NationAfrica to showcase ‘Women who are difficult to love’. Ayiiii, who is difficult to love? All my lovers find me very easy to love. What keeps my love wells going or brings out my prickly porcupine needles is clear.”

The Nation replied saying: “Dear Stella, apologies for that. We have amended this by replacing your image with a stock photo.” But lawyer Miguna Miguna replied: “An excellent libel case unfolding, even with their “apology.”

Curious to note that the commentary was actually praising Nyanzi, alongside phenomenal women such as the late Nobel Laureate Prof Wangari Maathai, for “feminine individuality and authenticity”.

The writer quotes a Warsan Shire poem, ‘For Women Who Are Difficult To Love’, saying it “symbolises women’s unshackling from the demands and expectations of a deeply patriarchal society”.

For many years, Nyanzi, a fierce critic of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, was repeatedly harassed, arrested, and detained for speaking against the government. When she was arrested in 2019 and sentenced to 18 months in prison for ‘harassing’ Museveni, Amnesty International termed it “outrageous”. Nyanzi subsequently lost her job at Makerere University.

Similarly, the late Prof Maathai was beaten and detained by the President Moi administration. She fought against the construction of a skyscraper at Uhuru Park, mobilised women to fight for land rights, multi-party democracy and freedom from oppression. For this she was denounced as a “mad woman”.

Undoubtedly, Nyanzi and Maathai fit the bill of the Shire poem. “Stella Nyanzi’s brand of feminism is wild and free,” the Nation article says, adding that “if like the late Prof Wangari Maathai, you have ever been told you are too much of anything, then this poem is for you”.

The commentary aptly describes the character of these two women, so what was the problem? Was it the photo, the headline or that readers did not engage with the article beyond the headline?

There is the argument that the headline, which had the phrase ‘difficult to love’ in quotation marks, was enough to indicate referencing of a book, a quote, or in this instance, the poem cited within the article. There is also the argument that Nyanzi was not the main focus of the article as there are other women highlighted in the commentary. Which begs the question, if she was not the main focus, why was her photo used?

In the editorial process, writers will submit their articles to the newsroom, which will then be passed on to a sub editor or editor to come up with the headline and choose an appropriate photo. But headline writing seems to be the bane of sub-editors.

Pundits have written numerous articles about the importance of having headlines that reflect the most important element of the article. One of them, Dex Mumo, says journalism dictates that story headlines should match content. But did the ‘difficult to love’ headline match the content?

For some, yes, but for others like Nyanzi, not so much. “Girlfriend, your Kenyan people are tickling me in the wrong place. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry about it,” Nyanzi said on X. Others who commented on her post labelled the headline “character assassination”.

There are several headline options from statements in the article that the sub-editor could have chosen. For example, ‘Cheers to the women who unshackle from patriarchal demands’ or ‘Cheers to the women who speak boldly against societal injustices’, etcetera.

Ultimately, the rule of thumb is to get the headline right: it should be simple, accurate and fair, not leaving room for libel or confusion. When you get the headline right, you get the photo right; and you avoid the pitfall of the Nation.

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