This election cycle has seen reporters spend more or less equal time at campaign rallies and at the courts. Never has an election played out in the court corridors than this year’s election.
The court battles surrounding the 2017 election started long before Kenyans went to the polls.
The climax was the petition filed by National Super Alliance (NASA) candidate Raila Odinga at the Supreme Court against Jubilee’s Uhuru Kenyatta.
The court proceedings were dramatic and action-packed; kept viewers glued to their television sets.
Ultimately, the court did the unimaginable - annulled the outcome of the presidential election providing one of the most reported cases in recent history.
And with the number of petitions for various electoral positions standing at more than 300, there will be many stories to be told from the courts in the next several months.
For reporters covering the elections, the focus for the longest time has been on getting a candidate to say what they stand for or disagree with their opponents’ positions and then turn the microphone to their greatest challenger to have them respond to what has been said about them – and that cycle continues.
But when focus shifted to the courts, then there was need for a shift in determining news values and how to make the court proceedings and rulings not only relevant but understandable to the news consumer.
While there are lawyers-turned-journalists, a number of those reporting from courts have little knowledge or experience in covering courts, let alone a presidential petition.
SPEAKING TO THEMSELVES
I followed part of the proceedings during the petition hearing and even more on the day the full ruling was made.
I remember words, such as jurisprudence, petitioners, respondents, and others, just to name but a few of the terminology that have become part of everyday lingo in the past month.
And to confirm what has been viewed as a long-standing belief, lawyers spoke to themselves, for the most part of that process.
This is not unique to the legal fraternity.
Like many other professions, colleagues are fond of speaking to themselves as a way of identifying with each other and to block out those who cannot follow the professional jargon.
Media beamed from the Supreme Court the proceedings and the detailed ruling by the judges. This was broadcast live into our living rooms for days on end. Print media houses would then subsequently report in much more detail what was transpired.
In all this conversation, there was a lot of reference to various documents and statutes such as the Election Act, Elections Offences Act and the Constitution.
The biggest criticism of the media in this process has been its inability to break things down for their audiences so that they too can follow from a point of knowledge.
It reminds me of the period during the clamour for the new constitution.
At the time, the word referendum was on the lips of every reporter. It sounded sexy to use the word in a story, even if out of context.
WANT TO REMEMBER
This points to some responsibility on the part of the media houses to deconstruct various terminologies and processes for the sake of the news consumer.
The nature with which we consume media today is very leisurely.
One would therefore not want to crack their heads trying to figure out what’s being said. But beyond that simple way of every day communication, is the importance of having people recall what has been reported. Every election is historical, the world over.
Elections provide for regime changes, new leadership, new agendas and people want to remember what defined each election (period).
It then behooves media to make that a reality by communicating in a manner that makes audiences understand and be able to recall the events of that period.
A good place to start for any reporter seeking to cover courts or legal proceedings is to familiarise himself or herself with the Constitution.
No reporter can effectively report from the courts if he or she has no understanding of the Constitution and basic laws. In the context of the election, it is imperative that journalists covering elections and the courts be conversant with the Elections Act and the Elections Offenses Act.
Understanding court processes is also fundamental to being able to tell a good story. Some of these may require that one seek the assistance of lawyers who understand the processes, are familiar with the legalese and can help simplify the same for everyday consumption.
A reporter’s duty should extend beyond simply recording what those within the courtrooms speak. Besides being adept with the set up of the courts and their reporting equipment, reporters must seek to demystify legal proceedings so that citizens are better informed and to some extent become legally savvy, through their reporting.
Law is a complex subject, yet it is the foundation on which societies thrive. Thus, it is pertinent that legal issues are made clear to the citizens, a responsibility which squarely falls on the mass media.
The aim of the media in all this process should not be to impress by their mastery of legal jargon, as we have been treated to in the last couple of months but to communicate, succinctly, accurately and clearly, for all to understand. That is and should be the import of good journalism.