One of the most important functions of journalists and the media industry is to give direction to the society through provision of reliable verified information. Another important function, especially that which gives the media the nametag fourth estate, is its ability and mandate to act as a watchdog on behalf of the public; to pressure the ruling class to always remain accountable, practice good governance, and protect the public rights. The media also functions to shape public opinion on matters of national importance, and this is where the ultimate power of the media lies – although this power has been dwindling over the years due to the rise of new media (social media and blogging), a phenomena that has created what you will allow us to call Desktop Journalists.
We will define Desktop Journalists as Journalists who do not get out of the desks to go and get news in the field. They are those who use their desktop computers to browse over tweets, Facebook updates and quirky blog postings that have been alleged to be breaking news and republish them as news. Basically therefore, Desktop Journalists are those journalists who do not care to verify sources of information before they can pass them to the public as news.
For instance, earlier in the week during the CORD demonstrations against the IEBC, a video footage went viral showing three police officers brutalise one of the alleged demonstrators. Initial reports on social media provided the name of the demonstrator as Ngatia, and after a few hours, reports again emerged in social media that Ngatia had died. The media industry, without caring to verify whether these were true, tweeted and wrote that indeed a demonstrator known as Ngatia had actually died.
Then came along Dennis Itumbi who posted on his social media accounts that the demonstrator, whom he said is known as Boniface Manono, hadn’t died but was recuperating in his humble Kibera house after sustaining serious injuries. Many who had believed that the man was Ngatia, and even went ahead to start the Twitter hashtag #JusticeforNgatia, refuted the Itumbi’s version, which created an intense debate in regards to the identity of the brutalised demonstrator. At this point is when the mainstream media led by KTN, Capital FM and NTV cared to investigate the identity of the demonstrator and provide us with reliable information on the identity of the man, who later turned out to be indeed alive and bears the name Boniface Manono.
It is very surprising and appalling that the mainstream media killed a man and after two days again report that the dead man is actually alive, more so when the status of the life in question has serious political ramifications. These types of reporting that are continually becoming rampant in the mainstream media indicate how lazy the journalists have become, how journalists are continually abandoning the practice of traditional journalism and opting for the easy lazy route of desktop journalism – it is like all our journalists have decided to become desktop journalists.
It seems journalism in Kenya has gone to the ditch. Our media outlets seem to have forgotten that the traditional fact verification methodologies still apply in this age of Internet and Social Media technology. Although technology is here to make journalism easier, the content created and disseminated through the technology must still pass the validity tests, otherwise the journalism becomes unprofessional.
It is true that journalism in Kenya has fallen way below the minimum professional guidelines (read the article Mainstream Media in Kenya should stop fighting New Media but rather win back the trust of whistleblowers to see just how unprofessional our journalists have become). So, what is it that is ailing our journalists and the media outlets?
Competition for breaking news
Competition for breaking news is not something new. If you watch high end movies from Hollywood you’ll see how journalists, in the field, always want to be near the action – how they want to be the ones with the mic at the horse’s mouth, and how they would want to be the ones who break the news to the public, first. In the TV series Newsroom, we are treated to scenes where journalists would rather report falsehoods but be the first to break the news, then probably apologise later.
The desire to be the first to report news has been further complicated by the emergence of social media. Many news nowadays break, not from the mainstream media outlets, but from citizen journalists and social media influencers. The whistleblowers today prefer to speak to people like Cyprian Nyakundi, Robert Alai and their ilk. These social media personalities have taken both the juice of reporting breaking news and the audience away from the mainstream media – making the mainstream media play second fiddle in an industry the mainstream media has controlled for hundreds of years.
In order to catch up with the social media influencers and expert bloggers, the mainstream media has decided to employ as many a desktop journalists as possible, where these desktop journalists monitor the social media trends to generate news. These desktop journalists, without caring whether or not the sources of the social media breaking news are inaccurate or not, simply go ahead to report what the influencers and bloggers report. At the end of the day, the mainstream media still lose as their audience no longer believe that what they report is true, since somehow the same social media has means of finally arriving at the truth of the matter within the shortest time possible.
Influencers and bloggers like Robert Alai and Cyprian Nyakundi do not really care about the truthfulness of the content they share in their blogs and social media accounts since they are just but individuals. They can post gossip, rumours and innuendos and get away with it – but this luxury is not available to the mainstream media practitioners. The mainstream media have built their brands on credibility, validity and truthfulness of content they publish and share, and this is why they need to stop being lazy and do thorough research, up their editorial policies, and verify sources of news before publishing and sharing them. The mainstream media ought to know that they are technically not in competition with the social media influencers and bloggers, but are in competition with other mainstream media outlets. At the end of the day, the media outlet that will emerge the winner is that which the public will trust to churn out valid and reliable news at all times no matter the cost.
Lazy journalism is multifaceted. There is the laziness where desktop journalists plagiarizes works of other journalists, at times even without caring to rephrase the other journalists’ words; the laziness where journalists do not care to go over their works in order to verify quality of content, consistency, grammar, typos and spelling mistakes; and the laziness, already talked about in the Competition for breaking news sub-heading, where the desktop journalists do not care to verify authenticity of the news sources.
Then we have laziness on the part of the media houses, laziness not to deploy human resources to search for and authenticate news – laziness of not allocating resources for training journalists on how to obtain and report on authentic news, and laziness of not allocating resources to the journalists who need them in order to report news authentically.
The problem with the laziness that has cropped into our mainstream media is the watering down of the media outlets to become gossip outlets (read: Kenyans celebrate the launch of yet another gossip website – eDaily.co.ke). If this trend continues, we will end up with a situation where we no longer have media outlets that can provide us with the functions a media outlet ought to provide us with. We are likely going to have a scenario where the public is not properly informed, and where the public has no place to seek refuge when the government (or the opposition) decides to fight it with propaganda, rumours, and innuendos.
Already we are in the 2017 General Elections fever and as the election date draws nigh, both the government and the opposition will peddle rumours and propaganda online, and we expect the mainstream media to be the party that will be able to filter for us what is true and what is mere mud slinging. We expect the mainstream media to practice irrefutable journalism that can help those who care to make informed decision.
We hope that the proliferation of desktop journalists will not work to bring down the media industry – but to avert this eventuality, the media industry must take remedial measures, now.