Danger of journalists being too close to sources
The meeting in Mombasa this past week between journalists on the one hand and critical players in Kenya’s election system on the other, was significant in many ways.
One of those ways is in defining the role of the media in the Kenyan society.
Journalism students recite with ease the role that media play in society. One of those roles is being a watchdog which simply put, is to hold government and the institutions that media cover to account based on the promises that they made to the people.
Journalists interrogate those elected and those holding public offices, if they are not providing services to the people as set out in the Constitution and in other instruments of governance.
It is for the purposes of doing this effectively that media seek to be independent and is supposed to create sufficient space between those who govern and the watchdog.
This is because there is fear of the danger posed by journalists being too close to subjects that they later have to report on.
How can journalists be objective when they are very close to their subjects – for example come from the same village, drink in the same pub among others.
This challenge has been dramatically demonstrated by the experience of Chris Cuomo, a journalist with CNN but whose famous politician brother, Andrew, has been the governor of the state of New York.
Governor Cuomo is a progeny of a famous New York political family, has had his own sterling political career, culminating at his handling of the Corona virus spread in the US which, contrasted with the Donald Trump’s approach, made the governor be praised as a pragmatic and presidential material.
Then things happened and the governor coming under attack for having acted inappropriately around some 11 women.
His political career started to unravel. This past week Governor Cuomo gave notice of his intention to leave office in a fortnight’s time.
The challenge facing Chris was how to objectively report his famous political brother in the programme that the journalist hosts.
CNN gave him the option to take leave while the matter played out. Eventually they settled on his continuing with his responsibilities but not discussing his brother.
It was a difficult compromise. While Chris agreed not to discuss his brother in the programme, it also meant that his brother’s story, whether negative or otherwise, was missing on air during his influential programme and thus put CNN in an awkward position.
It is a challenge journalists face all the time – how to keep a safe distance between themselves and their sources.
Which raises the critical question with regard to how Kenyan media is preparing to cover next year’s elections. Can the media be trusted to be objective?
The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) is the body charged with the responsibility of delivering free and fair elections in just slightly under 12 months.
If any organ needs to be watched to ensure that they deliver on their mandate, then it is the IEBC.
What then is the implication of the IEBC cozying to the media, closeting with journalists for an entire weekend, and essentially seeking to win the sympathy of the media?
In the coming days, IEBC will be one of the leading organisations in buying media space on radio, on TV and on newspapers among other platforms. Will this symbiotic relationship allow the media to remain objective?
This question can be extended further to other areas. Can the media objectively cover an organisation that occasionally rewards the Fourth Estate, hosts annual recognition awards, provides periodic and seasonal gifts, issues complementary tickets to journalists, accords journalists preferential treatment including public acknowledgement in functions?
But did IEBC need to meet the media in the first place, or simply let their work speak for itself? Media must never allow itself to appear to be compromised. —The writer is dean, School of Communication, Daystar University