Journalists from vernacular stations elevating standards of excellence

Journalists need to go beyond day-to-day news reporting. [File, Standard]

In the ever-evolving landscape of journalism, vernacular radio and television stations in Kenya emerged as formidable contenders in the 2024 Annual Journalism Excellence Awards (AJEA).

As chairperson of the AJEA nomination panel, I took some time to reflect on the quality of entries from journalists within these stations.

It's crucial to recognise that out of a total of 1,081 entries this year, only a handful were in vernacular languages, but a good number from this group displayed a remarkable surge in storytelling prowess.

From entries such as 'Muthondeki wa droni Murang’a' (Murang’a drone assembler), 'Biteetab Kalenjin' (education and culture of the Kalenjin), to 'Nyithindo rito aluora' (children protecting the environment), these unique story angles captivated judges, elevating standards of storytelling in vernacular languages.

Five key elements of excellence stood out from the annual fete and from which we can learn.

First, the unwavering commitment to represent diverse perspectives and tackle grassroots issues, all while maintaining language consistency, adhering to ethical standards, and infusing creativity into their narratives.

Second, the impressive dedication to in-depth story analysis, presenting context, background information, simplified data, and ultimately, highlighting why telling such stories is important – what is otherwise known in the newsroom as the 'so-what' factor.

Third, the seamless blend of natural sound with human voices evidenced a profound understanding of storytelling techniques that resonate with audiences. The clarity of sounds captured and videography from unique camera positioning added immense value to these stories, while the selection of immersive soundscapes further enriched the listening and viewing experience.

Further, the creativity displayed in translating vernacular subtitles to English, a requirement for the AJEA submissions, underscored the journalists' awareness of global audiences.

Finally, and most importantly, the entries from vernacular stations showed that journalists went beyond just highlighting problems and instead focused on potential solutions as well as constructive actions.

In his book Constructive News: How to Save the Media and Democracy with Journalism of Tomorrow, Ulrik Haagerup, an investigative journalist who spent two decades leading top newsrooms across Denmark, describes this as an essential paradigm shift and “a wake-up call for a media world that struggles for a future”. He delves into how negativity bias affects audiences, public discourse, the press itself and democracy.

While constructive journalism focuses on solutions, it does not ignore or downplay the existence of problems. Instead, it provides a more balanced and nuanced perspective by offering insights into both challenges and potential ways to address them.

It complements conventional journalism by providing a more holistic understanding of complex issues and encouraging constructive engagement from the audience. This is what a good number of journalists from vernacular stations did.

But amidst the achievements highlighted, we are supposed to acknowledge the challenges that these journalists face. Limited resources, linguistic barriers, and regulatory constraints continue to pose significant hurdles.

Furthermore, most of the entries from vernacular stations did not go beyond conventional journalism and were disqualified in the first stage of judging. Many journalists still need to learn to delve deeper into issues and go beyond day-to-day news reporting.

Nevertheless, these challenges should not discourage but serve as catalysts for innovation and collaboration. 

-Ms Ombaka is a seasoned journalist, media trainer and former vice chairperson of the board of the Association of Media Women in Kenya