Ethics: Did the media spare a thought for Sen. Boniface Kabaka’s family?

Sen. Boniface Kabaka: Did the media err in their coverage of his misfortune and subsequent death?

There are instances when media coverage of an event leads to the question of whether journalism should be called a profession after all. The reportage of the death of the Machakos Governor Boniface Kabaka this past week was one such instance.

The substance of the coverage was near similar across all media platforms. The emphasis was on the fact that the Machakos politician had passed on following a 21-hour date with a female friend of his.

Further reportage emphasised not the illness of the Senator, or progress on his condition as he lay in the hospital, but the attention of the media was on the woman, a high school teacher from his neighbouring county.

The same line of reporting continued on immediately after his death was announced. From the aggregate of the reporting, it could be concluded that the only achievement of the lawmaker in life was having had a 21-hour long date.

It would wait until the following day for the full story of the man to start emerging from the cacophony. The Standard on Saturday story was the first in the media to start mourning him in the conventional way.

The message of condolence issued by the governor of Machakos pointed to other achievements and character of the man. He was a lawyer, he had served in several other previous positions, he had a family but all that did not seem to matter earlier.

Traditionally, journalists prepared obituaries of prominent citizens long in advance and fell back on it with little adjustments here and there to save time once the eventuality of death set in.

In the case of the Senator, either the media did not care to prepare such an obit ahead of time, does not carry on with this tradition, or did not think that the Senator for Machakos warranted appropriate media coverage. Whatever it is, it was journalistic negligence of duty.  

The angle the media took following the announcement of ill health of the Senator is usually reserved for tabloids obsessed with prurient matter. Is it possible that all our media are essentially tabloid in the waiting, only pretending to be mainstream for convenience?

The reporting of the Senator should have been focussed on what mainstream society would be interested in. What were the achievements of the Senator? What was his history? Did he have a family and what does that family look like?

But from the reporting, you could not answer the most basic question that a reader would be interested in knowing? How old was the Senator? How has he performed in the Senate since his election? (Some of these were later answered only in the Standard story)

Has he sponsored any noteworthy bills? Are there any quotable quotes attributable to him? What legacy does he leave behind? It can’t be that throughout this man’s life his only achievement the media projects in the mind of the public is a 21-hour date.

But even more critical in the case of reporting death is the care and concern for the family. The dead are dead and gone. The coverage, whatever it is, does not affect the emotions of the dead.

The deceased leave behind a family, friends and people who genuinely cared about them. They hurt as a result of losing a loved one and the media do well to consider the emotional state of the living.

Think of the children left behind and how they are likely to be affected by the gleeful malice dished to their deceased. How are they likely to be treated in School by their colleagues; how is the wife likely to be treated in the marketplace by the milling crowd?

The victim eventually is not just the deceased, but the media as well. Would the people, so spitefully treated, ever again have faith in the media? The salacious content may be attractive for a moment. There is no evidence that it attracts to the media any long-term readers of viewers. However, the number of people who will lose faith permanently in the media as a consequence is not negligible.

Journalists hold parleys to debate the falling numbers of media content consumers. The answers may lie more in the media’s preferred form of framing events rather than the lofty theoretical constructs.

In covering the passing on of the Senator of Machakos the media did not do itself any favours. Their readers and viewers are the poorer for it. In the process, some revenue generators for the media are lost probably for good. Journalists as professionals must behave as professionals do.

-The writer is an Associate Professor of Media and Communication at Daystar University