News put on the quicksand of sound bites and quick-fixes

Maurice Mwenda in the streets, before he became world-famous, thanks to social media. [Photo: Joseph Mathenge/Standard]
Two events with striking differences dominated news these past two weeks. They illustrate the changing nature of journalism and the complex future ahead.

One, Maurice Mwenda, 15, the new kid on the social media bloc who morphed overnight from a street boy to a newsmaker – quoted on national media advising how to revive the Mumias Sugar and end the endemic corruption. His claim to fame: He can speak English.

The second were the noisy by-elections in Kericho and Malindi which dominated the news but revealed pretty little to deepen and extend our knowledge of the two locales.

Mwenda’s story first appeared on an obscure Facebook page in which he articulated his aspirations for a future abundant with opportunities.

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His use of the English language – impeccable by street measure – was elevated from local to a global phenomenon when it made its way to the online portal, AJ+, operated by Al-Jazeera.

By the end of this week, the two-minute clip had received nearly five million views. Mwenda also appeared on several local TV shows to elaborate on his story of pain.

Yet, Mwenda’s story said nothing – not in the expected yardsticks of 5Ws and H: We only knew his name and the duration he was in the streets.

Therein lies the great contradiction. Journalism’s lofty ideal of societal surveillance and shaping public policy was severely undermined because nobody cared to know more about Mwenda. Yet, his story availed an opportunity to review years of investment in projects to improve the lives and livelihoods of those on the margins of society, the most recent being the National Youth Service, which cannot account for nearly Sh2b.

Material was squeezed

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Around the same time, Citizen TV broadcast a story on the lad, thanks to an investigation by award-winning photographer, Joseph Mathenge. He had been on the beat for six weeks, following Mwenda’s journey from some hamlet in Chogoria, producing ten hours of footage.

The material was squeezed into a three-minute feature on Citizen’s English bulletin, and a Swahili translation broadcast in an earlier bulletin. It chronicled the discord in Mwenda’s dysfunctional family, and his unexplained flight from school – walking away from an opportunity he now so desperately craves.

What was remarkable about the unused footage was Mwenda’s participation in construction of a new family in the streets comprising youngsters similarly displaced – providing a powerful metaphor that those rejected by society still have the desire to belong.

A particularly poignant moment was when the street boys organise to forage for food for six of their cronies recovering after circumcision, demonstrating that they had lost none of their humanity, even after lengthy stints in the dehumanising city streets.

None of this material made the grade for TV; it wasn’t entertaining enough. At the last check, the two editions of the Citizen TV bulletins had garnered about 50,000 views – not particularly bad for a local news story, but only a fraction of the 5 million views on AJ+. Style had triumphed over substance.

Without exception

Mwenda’s story parallels the by-elections in Kericho and Malindi. Other than framing the narratives as a litmus test for key political personalities, preceded by news coverage where their portraits were designed in antagonistic poses, like pugilists about to come to blows, with the crack of lightning tearing down the middle for special effect. The local Press, without exception, ran reports that bore little value other than entertainment.

Let’s stay with Malindi for a moment and look at the potential story lines side-stepped for this boxing nonsense.

Consistently ranked as one of the poorest constituencies in the country, in a backdrop of tourists’ opulence, the Malindi by-election provided an opportunity to interrogate this paradox to illustrate the challenge ahead for the new MP, or to examine the legacy of the immediate former MP and predict what will be at stake in future contests.

Nobody even remembered Dan Kazungu was now the Minister for Mining, in a land blessed with natural resources but roiled by strife over community rights and international capital.

This news disjuncture was more than compensated by the nice spreads spotlighting the pell-mell of enraged mobs scrambling for bribes offered by chubby, rotund men. Once again, the spectre of entertainment won the day. This calls to mind a recent “high-profile” inmate who left Kamiti Maximum Security Prisons last December, after 40 years behind bars, serving time under all our four presidents since independence.

Journalists trailed him, pleading with him to share his vision of the past, as told through the city and its transformations over the years. The inmate, under the gaze of cameras, had miraculously turned into a city planner.

The story with real gravitas, in the prison, was forgotten. Nobody cared to ask what skills he had acquired through his long incarceration to assess prison rehabilitation, or even his attitude towards crime and punishment.

Still, from the morsels of information one could have been weaved a tapestry of prison reforms over the past 40 years: the dietary improvements that could account for the inmate’s remarkable health. Apparently, meals changed with regimes.

Instead, we were taken on a literal roller-coaster, the Thika Super Highway to marvel at the iconic transformations of our society – as seen through the lens of our celebrity inmate.

Journalism without context, or entertainment without limit, is not limited to Kenya. Al-Jazeera is pulling out of the US in a few weeks after failing to penetrate the cable TV market there.

The big boys remain CNN, MSNBC and the rabidly hysterical Fox TV. The high-minded Al-Jazeera USA could not attract more than 30,000 subscribers in a country of 320 million people. By comparison, one of the most-watched event in the US calendar, the Superbowl, attracted 112 million viewers last month.

These events tell an interesting story about the evolution of the news, and how the rock solid journalism of yore has been replaced by a quicksand of soundbites and quick-fixes. Will those quickies live to tell their own story?

? Dr Kimani, a former editor at ‘The Standard’, teaches journalism at the Aga Khan University’s Graduate School of Media and Communications

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