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Sensational online platforms put top newspaper brands at risk

By George Nyabuga | March 5th 2017
Users browse the internet. Research demonstrates that younger people are increasingly turning to the online platform for news. (Photo: File/Standard)

Media houses in Kenya are grappling with multiple challenges, some of which have serious consequences on journalism and the values that underpin it.

The rise of popular online platforms, particularly The Standard Digital, including The Nairobian, The Star and Nation’s Nairobi News, point to the deteriorating standards of journalism and respect for the golden rules and values and ethical imperatives.

Take for example the story published on The Star. The story headlined ‘Top 8 celebrities dating stunning dark skin ladies’. Among those listed in the story are Oscar winning actress Lupita Nyong’o and her Nigerian boyfriend Mabolaji Dawodu, preachers Allan Kiuna and Kathy Kiuna, and Kenyan singer, songwriter, actress and entertainer Wendy Kimani and her Dutch (and white!) husband Marvin Onderwater.

This story seems to suggest that men prefer ‘lighter’ women, and that ‘lighter’ or ‘white’ are more beautiful and thus desired and coveted. It also suggests that the ‘dark skin’ women are lucky to ‘bag’ the men given their complexion.

In the Nairobi News, the ‘popularity’ of Nairobi Senator Mike Sonko means whoever is related to him is fair game and subject of media attention. Headlined ‘Did Sonko talk to daughter Saumu to dump father of her twins?’, the story claims that the first daughter of the Senator has left her boyfriend and father of her unborn twins.

Seeking better sales

The story is accompanied by pictures among them that of pregnant Saumu. On SDE website, a story with the headline ‘I ‘unlock’ cheating couples for Sh150,000 - Kisii witchdoctor’ claims that ‘Anneth Mutheu, the 40-year-old Kamba woman and mother of six uses kamuti to hunt unfaithful partners in Kisii and neighbouring countries’. Such stories, however interesting, show how low editors are willing to stoop in their efforts to sell papers.

Some of the stories published on the online platforms of mainstream newspapers border on the obscene, are mostly ‘meaningless’ trivia and reinforce the idea that yellow journalism (the kind of journalism based on sensationalism and crude exaggeration) is taking root in Kenya. Yet it is through these spaces that the newspapers interact with and sell themselves to numerous audiences, particularly those in the diaspora unable to access the hard copies of the newspapers.

What’s more, younger people are increasingly turning to online papers for their information and news needs because they do not have the disposable income to buy the hard copies, or because they want specific content that they can easily source from online platforms.

Further, the ubiquity and affordability of mobile devices, mostly mobile smartphones, make it easier to access content anywhere, any time.

Back to sensationalism. There is nothing wrong with sensationalism — given the need to attract and retain readership in an era of hyper commercialism and attendant competition — especially if they are based on truthful and accurate accounts of events being reported. In fact, as US journalism Professor Mitchell Stephens writes in his book ‘A History of News’, “sensationalism is unavoidable in news because we humans are wired, probably for reasons of natural selection, to be alert to sensations, particularly those involving sex and violence”.

Comic relief

Furthermore, it could be that the contents provide the comic relief in these difficult times, and thus should not be taken seriously.

However, it is clear that in a highly commercialised media environment, journalism has been forced to seek out titillating, sensational, superficial, and prurient and negative news and content with the potential generate more revenue due to higher audience interest even though there is no evidence that papers in Kenya have monetised their online content.

What’s more, proponents of such journalism may argue that the content is appropriate for certain audiences and choice is important in modern journalism, and that those who find the content offensive should find other platforms with ‘palatable’, appropriate and relevant material.

Only that this is not easy, particularly because some Kenyan readers, particularly those in the diaspora as indicated above, rely on the papers for their daily news and other media needs. Furthermore, the content is on the platforms of established and respectable ‘family’ papers.

Accordingly, however popular the new titles are, they tarnish the reputation of the newspapers given their online platforms are extensions of their offline papers.

This is often because the gateway to the papers and their stories are on the main websites of The Standard for the Nairobian and Nation for Nairobi News. Besides, the serious stories on the main websites sit side by side with the prurient and sensational content. Arguments abound that such content direct traffic to the main stories, and that the relationship is symbiotic.

In other words, the sensational content attracts attention and in the process leads readers to the more serious content. What the papers and their management may not know, or indeed acknowledge, is that such content may in the long run have deleterious effects on their brands.

Whatever the case, as the media continue to search for newer and perhaps younger audiences, we will have to do with, get used to and perhaps develop the taste for the unusual, satirical, ‘softer’ and ‘lighter’ stories. Of course in addition to what we call ‘real’, hard and serious news.

—The writer lectures at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Nairobi.

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