Media needs self-censorship in reporting school arsons

Friday, November 12th, 2021 00:16 |

Reports in the media of school fires have been incessant. Today it is this school, tomorrow another and so on. The case of Buru Buru Girls was particularly graphic.

It started with bystanders looking across a thick wall to a storied building across the concrete fence. Then a young girl, still in uniform, emerges from a window of an upper floor and after a pause plunges below. The wall covers the landing now left to imagination.

Poor girl! You imagine the parents of that girl! Your heart jumps off your chest wondering what happens to her next – whether she is alive or not, and whether her bones are still intact. Will she be disabled for life? 

The other cases are not any less graphic. The smoke billowing out of the Sigalame Boys’ School dorms engulf the entire building and you wonder how anybody escapes the inferno.  Somewhere in the 7pm or 9pm news, these images headline the bulletin. But should this be so?

Most countries subscribe to a social responsibility paradigm of the media. Kenyan media apologists take the same line – that Kenyan media is socially responsible. 

We feature many of the characteristics of a socially responsible media sector. Kenyan media is predominantly privately owned – one of the major characteristics of social responsibility. 

There may be debate whether KBC is dominantly owned by the government. But KBC does not dominate nor define the Kenyan media sector. It is just one of the players.

Kenyan media sector would shout from the rooftops that it abides by the Code of Ethics as enshrined in the second schedule of the Media Act. That is another of the characteristics of a socially responsible media.

Third, the Kenyan media subscribes to promoting the rule of law or in other words, faithful to the principles of democracy. Media that are socially responsible are supposed to promote democracy, discourage authoritarianism and the encroachment of communism into the apparatus of governance. Of course, that is a self-preservatory measure because a centrally controlled economy would inhibit free enterprise and unfettered profit drive.

By nature, then, social responsibility subscribes to advocacy journalism. I am not sure that they would use those words, but to the extent that they would promote democracy then they, assume advocacy role.

Yet another characteristic of socially responsible media would be that they would consider the overall needs of society in their journalistic practice. How their content affect society generally is at the core of their reporting?

An event may then fit into the parameters of what qualifies for a breaking story, but since it may not be in the self-interest of society, then media would let the event pass as a non-story. It is self-censorship at its best although I doubt that socially responsible media would frame it in those terms. 

Which bring us back to the question that should have been at the top of this story. Should the arsons in our schools be covered in the media? Or how should they be covered? What purpose do these stories serve? Human beings have an inherent need to be recognised. Could that fuel copycat practice in schools by students who may seek limelight?

Coverage of the arsons in schools has not been balanced. There is a bigger picture. Majority of schools are not going up in flames. The stories do not show that acts of arson have consequences and that those consequences are dire.

In the 2017 elections media demonstrated restrain by not covering many of the political hotspots for the fear of being accused of funning violence. The reasoning was that if it was not covered then it did not happen, and thus there would be no reason for copycat acts elsewhere in the country. 

Could such an approach to the arsons in schools help reduce their frequency?  Such social responsibility approach would serve society’s greater good and should be demanded of the media.

—The writer is dean, School of Communication, Daystar University

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