Journalists should avoid dangers of a single story

Friday, December 6th, 2019 00:00 |
West Pokot residents mill around Ortum area, which was adversely affected by the landslide. Photo/PD/JIMMY GITAKA

Nigerian wordsmith Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warned us a while ago against the dangers of a single story. It is a warning that many quote liberally then go ahead to violate by telling a single story.

And few are more guilty than the other wordsmiths in the trade—the journalists. It is the danger of being exposed to an aspect of an event and assuming the aspect is its totality.

Local journalists are certainly some of the more skilled scribes in Africa. Entry into the field in Kenya is competitive and requires a lot of training.

But, of course, once journalists get into the newsroom they are reprogrammed to reflect the philosophy of the newsroom.

This comes with certain practices that later emerge as the way to operate in the field. That the media is a fast-paced sector with deadlines has not helped.

And so a scribe chancing upon a story quickly examines it for its news value and as soon as a few boxes check out then they go to craft the intro.

It is this approach to the trade that turns out stories framed in absolutes. For instance, this season has provided the country with amazing amounts of rain that have caused havoc across the country.

Pokot area has been particularly badly hit. But from looking at the media reports, it is almost impossible to understand this story of the rain because it is not placed in context. 

Is this the worst case of rainfall we have had? It is hard to tell unless we compare the information we have now with the information we have had in the past. 

How long has the country kept the records of rainfall? What is the data available to us with regard to the damage that has been caused in the past and the actions that have been taken?

It is the era of big data where this information is available in databases across a range of platforms some more trustworthy than others.

Be it as it may, we have ways of comparing the databases to understand the ones that are more reliable than others and, therefore, provide us with more authentic sources.

For example, government sources are generally more authentic than the fly on the pan sources found everywhere. But we are also aware that the government, for obvious reasons, is often more conservative in terms of the information it provides.

But to what extent do scribes contact such sources and make comparisons to arrive at a more informed position?

This difficult task is what we need to do to ensure we avoid the dangers of a single story. Going into history is important.

During this rainy season, and for several seasons in the past, we have not had Budalang’i in the headlines as a consequence of River Nzoia breaking its banks.

Budalang’i was always on the headlines every rain season. Then the government moved in and conclusively dealt with the situation and we have not heard Budalang’i in the headlines again.

Can Budalang’i be repeated across the land as a means of mitigating the damages that floods are causing across the country?

There could be a lot of lessons in Budalang’i that are worth exploiting to help us understand how to deal with floods elsewhere. What was the technology and engineering involved?

What were the costs associated with it? Are there any side effects that have accrued out of the project? Are there sufficient maintenance going on of the dykes so that the past does not recur?

Journalism must focus on drawing the attention of the public to the solutions of social problem as part of restoring public interest in it.

It is the same approach that we need to use whether we are reporting Mau, the crimes of passion, the wanton murders across the land and even the exam results. What is the solution? But to get the solution we can’t tell just one side of the story!

— The writer is the Dean, School of Communication, Daystar University

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