Kenyan journalists covered a tight election. Here's what colleagues can learn from them
Kenya has just gone through a tight presidential election that saw Dr. William Ruto declared the country’s fifth President. The election coverage drew both praise and criticism from various sources, including the President, who accused reporters and news outlets of bias. What can journalists learn from their coverage of this year’s election? Are there any lessons that might be useful for their colleagues around the world?
Elections have always posed both a challenge and a chance for Kenyan media to improve. In 2007 the media was partly blamed for stimulating and exacerbating the post-election violence which erupted in various parts of the country and culminated with the indictment of Joshua Sang, a radio journalist, at the International Criminal Court. In 2013 the media was accused of being wary of inciting violence and avoided anything that could stir up ethnic tensions. Four years later, in 2017, mainstream media was derisively referred to as ‘Githeri Media,’ a phrase coined in response to what many saw as the media's fixation on trivial issues and a tag that is still used to mock journalists today.
As the curtains came down on the elections, we spoke to seven journalists, academics and fact-checkers about how the Kenyan media performed and what it could do better in the future. Their advice might be useful for journalists in other countries with upcoming elections such as Brazil, Nigeria, Spain and Argentina.
The dual role of the media
For Corrie Mwende, a communication specialist, this year’s election coverage was a step up compared to the previous one. She noted that the media was more attentive to how different narratives would affect Kenyans. “Compared to 2007, there was a continued sober realisation that the media, through the news stories they share, could arouse, catalyse or neutralise any potential conflict,” she said.
Prof Levi Obonyo, Associate Professor and Dean School of Communication, Daystar University, said the media had played a dual role as both a player and a watchdog in election coverage. This was regarding tallying of election results and the presidential debate organised by the Media Owners Association, Kenya Editors Guild, and the Media Council of Kenya.This was the third consecutive presidential debate jointly organised by the group. “Is it the role of the media or the role of an independent agency to organise the debate given that the media has a responsibility to cover the same debate?” asked Prof Obonyo. He noted that the media could not criticise how the debate was handled because of its role.
The Presidential debate had been arranged in two tiers, the first one for the two candidates who had polled below 5% in a recent survey and the second one for the two candidates with more than 5%.
Two candidates from both tiers indicated they would not participate in the debate. Raila Odinga’s campaign secretariat claimed that sharing a stage with Dr. William Ruto would be a ‘a bad idea’, terming Ruto as a leader who ‘will do and say anything’ to seek power. On the other hand, George Wajackoyah raised concerns of separating the debates and said he’d only attend if all four debated at the same time. Even though they shared this days before, the debate still maintained the same tiers leaving Ruto, who eventually won the elections and Waihiga Mwaure each having a 90 minute solo candidate debate.
“We really didn't have a debate. What we had were long interviews,” said Prof Obonyo.
The debate has been dubbed a success by other stakeholders such as the Media Council of Kenya, who noted that even though some candidates snubbed it, the debate secretariat had prepared for such eventualities and those who participated received 90 minutes of broadcast time with professionally moderated sessions.
In a report on media performance and press freedom violations during the elections, the council noted that media preparedness and coverage of the elections were very professional. According to the report, over 3,500 journalists and media practitioners were trained in professional reporting of the polls. “Overarching in these trainings were ethical principles in reporting elections with an emphasis on independence and fairness among other values, digitalisation and new media laws such as content regulation, reporting on opinion polls and online reporting,”
Coverage was objective
For Marvin Gakunyi, a journalist at Kenyans, one of Kenya's leading digital media platforms, the election coverage was a testament to how well prepared journalists had been for the elections. He said that most stories were issue-based and objective analyses on policies as compared to previous elections, where coverage was mostly on controversies and on the personalities vying. “The growth of our democracy has in turn informed how journalists and the media operate, and we could clearly see there is growth,” he added.
Marvin has covered previous elections, and he praises how this time the mainstream media incorporated digital publishers in planning and executing various events such as the debate, ensuring Kenyans got quality election coverage. “Seeing that kind of relationship being formed by the media today was really great,” he said. By putting aside their competition and working together, he noted, the media proved that they not only value the freedom of expression and access to information granted by the constitution, but also the quality of information that Kenyans receive.
The spread of misinformation as always characterised elections in Kenya. This year was no different as there was a tremendous surge of misleading content spread across social platforms such as Twitter, TikTok and Facebook. However, there was a concerted effort by the media to fight against this kind of content.
According to Simon Muli and Doreen Wainanah from PesaCheck, a fact-checking initiative, various mainstream media were proactive with fact-checks on misinformation that was going viral. This resulted from the involvement of fact-checking organisations in empowering journalists and newsrooms with fact-checking techniques.
For instance, PesaCheck, through the African Fact-Checking Alliance initiative, built coalitions of newsrooms that collaborated to tackle specific misinformation and disinformation threats. “We acknowledge that misinformation and disinformation are too big of a problem to be left to any one organisation to solve on its own,” said Muli. Therefore, they worked directly with mainstream newsrooms at the forefront of election coverage, training them and offering mentorship and having their senior fact-checkers like Muli on call whenever the newsroom needed any assistance or guidance.
PesaCheck also trained journalists from over a dozen community radio newsrooms to tackle budget and election-related misinformation at the grassroots level and encouraged them to train their colleagues. “We brought all these community radio specialists to Nairobi, took them through intensive training on fact-checking tools, how you can fact check offline, how you fact check online, fact-checking for audio, video, etc. And then once we were sure they understood, we sent them to train their own journalist,” Wainanah explained.
Covering women candidates
The coverage of women candidates has always been criticised in previous elections. However, this year saw a different approach and an improvement by the mainstream media. This year’s election saw an increase in the number of women elected in various posts, from no female governors in 2013 to seven governors, three senators, and 29 members of parliament now.
Unlike in previous elections, coverage was fair and more focused on the issues rather than on the personalities and on private affairs such as marital status. Christine Sayo, a gender champion and expert, noted that the coverage was favourable, though not yet where we want it to be. “It was refreshing to see women as analysts and panellists at the different media houses. The onus is on champions of gender equality and equity to keep enhancing the capacity of media stakeholders on how to cover women aspirants,” she said.
Tallying of the results
On election day, the electoral body provided the media and the public with access to a website showing results coming from the over 46,000 polling stations. Several media houses started doing their own internal tallies based on the results transmitted on the portal. However, by the second day, each mainstream media house displayed different results, showing Ruto and Raila both leading with a big margin depending on the media. This was confusing to many Kenyans, so they stopped tallying and streamlining the results mid-way.
According to the Media Council, the decision to suspend the display of results was made by the Kenya Editors’ Guild and the council when they felt that the numbers displayed by various media houses were causing unnecessary anxiety. They say the decision was not prompted by external pressure, as some people claimed. They defended the media for the results displayed and said that they all relied on the data from the electoral body. The difference, they explained, was occasioned by various factors.
“All the results displayed by media houses were accurate and only sourced from the official portal. When they were different, it was because different media houses started counting at different times, others counted in descending order, others in alphabetical order, while some outlets employed more personnel than others and the results displayed at any one time were not the same,” the report noted.
They also added that there is a need for enhanced coordination among media houses in the future to enable better transmission of the results. Given how the media handled the election results and interpreted the tallying process, the Media Council proposed “a dire need for training on data journalism targeting all journalists in Kenya.”
Prof Obonyo doesn’t agree with the media's decision to tabulate the results. He said that even though the media in countries like the United States call elections, it is done by independent agencies using exit polls. “It is not the role of the media to tabulate results. If they get it wrong, who is the watchdog?” he questioned.
Attacks on journalists
The campaign saw increased incidences of profiling, physical attacks, threats to journalists and press freedom violations. As of May this year, the media council had documented 45 cases, most related to political campaigns. Furthermore, between election day and the results tallying period, at least 43 journalists from various media houses were affected by various forms of harassment. “Most of these (37) involved incidents that denied them an opportunity to access their polling and tallying centres while the others included arrest, threats and harassment,” said the report.
Media houses and journalists also faced online attacks, some of which were coordinated and seemed to discredit them or their work. Research by the Mozilla Foundation revealed that Kenyan influencers were paid to wage coordinated attacks on Twitter to harass and discredit journalists, judges and civil activists. According to this piece of research, the campaigns run like a well-oiled machine with anonymous organisers sending the influencers cash, content to use and detailed instructions. “One of the influencers we spoke to explained a complex system using WhatsApp groups to coordinate and synchronise tweets and messaging,” stated the report.
Some of the attacks and threats to journalists and media houses stemmed from allegations that some were biassed and favoured specific candidates more than others.
Anne Macharia, a TV journalist based in Nairobi, covered the elections and made the observation that some media covertly supported a particular candidate, which affected how they covered stories of the opposing candidate. “Sometimes media houses would not air one candidate's campaign rally,” she said.
In June, the Media Council of Kenya released a report that indicated that between April and early June Raila Odinga, one of the two leading candidates received 61% of media coverage while his main opponent Dr. William Ruto received 38%. Even though their subsequent report indicated that media coverage had improved as the country moved closer to the elections, various media stations and journalists faced attacks and criticisms offline and online because of the perception that they favor a particular candidate.
However, according to Prof Obonyo there is need to interrogate the information before any conclusion is reached that the media was biassed. He said that a qualitative analysis rather than just looking at how many times a certain candidate was mentioned or how many minutes of coverage they received should not be the determining factor. He also posed a question on whether the leanings of a media owner necessarily defines the direction the media houses take?
“My thinking is that the professionalism of the journalist should direct their work. The owner can have their own leanings but that does not necessarily reflect on the quality of journalism in terms of bias,” Obonyo said.
Has the Kenyan media learnt any lessons?
Unlike the past two elections, where the media put more focus on preaching peace and overlooked reporting issues they felt would fuel division, this year's coverage had more emphasis on reporting objectively on the issues arising from the polls. Journalists also put politicians and relevant authorities to task on any information they tried to pass around. “We did not play second fiddle to politicians, spreading the propaganda declarations from both sides without question,” said Macharia.
Prof Obonyo, believes that the media has learnt lessons from this year's coverage, but he doesn’t know whether we are better for it going forward because the media has acted differently in each election since 2007. “And so, the question would be, in 2027 would we act the same way that we acted this year? And I don't have an answer to that," he said.