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During the burial of the late Orwa Ojode, who was the Kenyan assistant minister for Internal security, his widow, Mary, made an emotional plea to journalists. Mary asked the newshounds to in future be sensitive to the plight of a deceased person’s immediate family when going public with such info.
According to Mrs Ojodeh, her only son Andrew, 21, who is studying in the UK received the news of his father’s death through the media which rushed and rushed to announce the names of the Sunday, June 10th helicopter crash victims.
Six people died in the mishap. Besides Ojode, others were internal security minister Prof. George Saitoti, two of their bodyguards and two crew members.
Mrs Ojode has a point. How shocking, cruel it must have been for Andrew to receive such devastating news through the media. This situation prompted a back-and-forth especially in the social media on how the mainstream media and journalists could have handled the situation.
Some were categorical that the mainstream media in Kenya was irresponsible. Those of this school of thought were of the view that in the rush to be the first with the info, the journalists and their media houses did not care (or forgot about) the plight of the immediate family members of the accident victims. Probably.
But there were some who saw no problem at all with how the media handled the situation. Firstly, those holding this view argued that elected public officials belong to the broader ‘public family’ that must promptly be informed in such an event.
It’s a persuasive argument, but I don’t buy it because even in the larger public family, there must be the ‘micro-family’, the one that feels the pain acutely, that has the first right to the information.
Secondly, there are those who felt given that it was the duty of the government to inform the immediate family members promptly. So it was the government to blame. This view, too, has some merit because the so-very public profile of the accident victims meant that the info was of immense public interest and was bound to be public anyway sooner rather than later.
As a journalist and editor who often makes decisions on when to go ‘on air’ and in print with such stories, I sympathise with Mrs Ojodeh and Andrew. That was doubly unfortunate- to lose a husband, father in such tragic circumstances and learn of it through the media.
But I ask myself; for how long could the media have waited before revealing the names? Who would have confirmed to the media that the family members had been informed? Who ‘tipped’ journalists about the names of the accident victims? Were they not the police and high ranking government officials?
And by the time most of the mainstream media houses felt confident enough to go to town with the names of the deceased (assuming the journalists had checked and cross checked the info and were not just ‘killing’ the victims prematurely as it has happened before), couldn’t someone in government have taken the trouble to inform immediate family members?
Secondly, could it have been (or is it) practically possible in the liberal and fractured and very competitive environment that media outlets in Kenya (or anywhere in the world for that matter) thrive in to withhold such info?
One person told me on my twitter account that journalists should have first called the immediate family members to confirm if they had received the news before ‘going to town’ with the story. This argument, in my opinion, is flawed because, as noted above, the media- unlike, say, the police- don’t have or do not answer to a central command that would have given the green-light to publish the story. Each media house has it’s own sources and means of confirming stories before deciding to publish.
But even more importantly, would it not have amounted to the same thing- hearing it first from a newshound?
Perhaps that’s something the media council should ponder and develop some guidelines, if they haven’t. Journalists and editors too should explore ways of how to ‘break’ such news with some sense of responsibility.
Yet, I want to submit that those accusing the mainstream media of being irresponsible should perhaps take time to appreciate how news is sourced, packaged and disseminated in this digital age. I think mainstream media can only fully shoulder the burden of blame if it had full control of the situation. The reality is they don’t.
The emergence of the so-called social media- blogs, twitter, Facebook, etc- has, for better or worse, shifted the landscape in the news business. I am totally convinced that if Andrew has a twitter or Facebook account, he would have received the information even before the mainstream media had worked on the breaking news montages.
I am certain that the graphic images of the accident scene were in the ‘twitter sphere’ well before some media houses- irresponsibly, I must acknowledge- broadcast them. My conclusion? For you to withhold certain info, you must be in full control of it. So was the mainstream media in full control of the news of the accident. NEVER EVER!
Simply put, the King has been toppled; the subjects have taken charge in every frontier of the territory- those the media was supposed to inform are the ones informing the media. Yes, in this digital age the citizen journalist will always have the scoop- and those of us paid to hunt for news will almost always play catch-up.
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