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Why the media is reckoning with a trust-deficient Kenya

IEBC Chairman Wafula Chebukati (centre) with AU election observers at the Bomas of Kenya in Nairobi on August 14, 2022. [David Gichuru, Standard]

“Media is failing the country,” screamed online pundits and the Chattering Classes. “Leave Githeri Media alone,” they said.

Why media couldn’t continue tallying the presidential results from the IEBC portal and even call the election was puzzling and frustrating to many (and understandable for media people). The image out there is that media started on a journey not knowing where it would end, a grave indictment of a noble profession.

Now when media is seemingly engaged in what many considered a cover up, inevitably it invites criticism and ridicule on itself. Journalism is a laborious craft. Reporting news is really a serious, sacred business.

It takes grit and determination, training, years of painstaking, dare-devil courage, a nose (and an eye) for the news to get good journalism on newspaper pages and on the airwaves. That is even taxing on an exercise such as tallying election results where an error could tip the country over the abyss.

So, I take it not as a failure, but as part of the hazards of the job. It is better to err on the side of caution for the rest of humanity. For media, caution is seemingly thrown to the wind.

So why didn’t media come together to tally the results? Because news is perishable, media as an industry is geared toward scoops. That is even more marked in the age of social media. It would have taken longer to build confidence and trust than the time it takes to tally the results. Trust is at the centre of the conundrum the Kenyan media faces.

It is true that media captures and transmits a society’s culture. From the media menu served to the audiences, Kenya is a heavily political society. And as it goes, politics is dirty as it comes.

The Brits with their tabloids – kept afloat by a sludge of sex and sleaze project the Brits as not so serious with life - no wonder voter turn-out in their elections are below 25 per cent. Though the Americans are prudish and measured, there media bubbles with free speech and free expression. They are also shrill, patronising and partisan.

French are less prudish and somewhat apolitical as seen in the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn former MD of the IMF who was pulled out of a Paris-bound flight in New York over claims of sexual harassment in 2013. There was not much besides a shrug in the French press. The Americans and the British had a ball with it.

Now, the public couldn’t resist a touch of schadenfreude when IEBC chairman Wafula Chebukati had a dig at media houses for the delayed tallying and relay of election results. The all-mighty media looked timid, unsure.

Yet rather than suffer the wrath of a judgmental public, most media pulled down their tallied results.

In a heavily political society, rumours and heresy pass off as truths and facts. People are also quick to find fault, rebuke, judge and condemn others for having a different opinion. Trust is hard to cultivate in such an environment.

Kenya, by all means, is a trust-deficit society. That low trust is manifest in many ways including how we speak about and treat those who don’t look or speak like us or eat what we eat. Most Kenyans are loathe to speak of the other person as “brother” or as “my countryman” like you hear with Nigerians and generally, all West Africans.

Trust is the glue that holds civilisations together; it shapes the workings of the world. Behavioural economists like Benjamin Ho have researched extensively on trust and their findings offer fresh insights.

In his book, Why Trust Matters, Mr Ho observes that the absence of trust curtails business and makes it unnecessarily expensive (rings a bell?). Modern day challenges like climate change and cybercrime need so much trust to fight. Even elections are a function of trust. We don’t trust each other (and the IEBC) hence the avalanche of false results on social media.

Trust is lost when media ceases to speak for the voiceless and the vulnerable. Kenyan media has suffered most from “State Capture” in the Jubilee and handshake years.

It is a terrible indictment when rather than enlighten the masses and thereby improve the politics, media has been seen to engage more in naval-gazing. When politicians know they can get away with anything (because media will look away), society suffers.

Because of diminishing trust, the loss of accountability journalism, which held the powerful to account has been a big blow to society. And because nature abhors a vacuum, social media has taken up that space. Only that social media is now influencing the voters’ judgment by amplifying prejudices and fostering alternative truths.

Mr Kipkemboi is Partnerships and Special Projects Editor, Standard Group

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