Where There Is Smoke, There May Not Be Fire
Earlier this week, as I was trying to figure out how the Star came to run a page one photo of a helicopter trailing smoke that was not the one involved in the June 10 crash, I kept thinking about the fairy tale of Chicken Licken. The foolish Chicken Licken thought that the sky was falling, and reported that news to a friend. The friend told another friend, who told yet another friend, and the whole group rushed off to tell the king—but ended up instead being eaten by a fox.
The moral: Don’t believe everything you hear; check it out or you may be sorry. And the Star certainly had plenty of reason to regret its error in running the picture, which in fact came from a website that sells what are known as stock photos. The Internet was full of mocking comments, and, as one Star editor ruefully noted, the Star goof, rather than its excellent coverage of the accident, was what people were talking about. In addition, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Information lodged a complaint against the Star at the Media Council, claiming that the photo was misleading and undermined police investigations into the crash.
So how did it happen? Let’s go back to the beginning—or as far back as I have been able to track it. According to NTV journalist Ferdinand Omondi, he was alerted by another staffer to the presence of the photo, supposedly of the helicopter just before the crash, on a mutual friend’s Facebook page. The friend is a journalist at another media house. Omondi told me that he tweeted the photo on Twitter but then, feeling “not so sure” about its authenticity, called the friend. The friend explained he had got it from a cousin.
While he was on the phone, Omondi says, he got a query asking him to verify the source. At that point, he says, he removed it and apologised. I’m not clear who first identified the true source of the photo but Omondi included it in one of his tweets. “I pulled it down within 10 minutes,” he says. But by then it had been retweeted numerous times and was taking on a new life in cyberspace.
It was by now about 4pm.
Around the same time Star Political Editor Paul Ilado got an email from someone he describes as “a friend though he is not that close to me”, who sent him the same photo and claimed he had taken it on his mobile phone. I haven’t been able to ascertain where the “friend” got the photo, but a reasonable guess is that it was from Twitter.
Ilado forwarded the picture to Editor Catherine Gicheru and Photo Editor Joseph Kariuki, urging them to consider it for page one. “I trusted the source and never thought about it before forwarding,” he said. Kariuki said he, too, never thought to question the photo’s accuracy when he received it at about 4.45pm. Plus, he said, it was a “crazy day”.
There were, in fact, at least two people at the Star who knew the photo had nothing to do with the crash: Dickens Olewe, the Star’s website administrator, and me. Olewe and I had an email conversation shortly after 5pm in which he told me how it had been posted on Twitter and later removed. But neither of us knew that it was being considered for publication.
Olewe says he never posts any news item on the Star’s own Twitter handle(@TheStarKenya) unless he can verify it; the only exception is when it comes from a reputable source, in which case he may post it but make clear it’s not as yet a proven fact. It sounds to me as though the rest of the news team could learn a thing or two from Olewe. Instead, after a certain amount of playing the newsroom blame game, the Star ran a correction on June 12, claiming it had been duped about the photo.
I think the Star editors are letting themselves off too easily.
First, the paper should have learned from an incident in January in which it ran, without checking, what turned out to be a false photo and story tweeted by military spokesman Maj Emmanuel Chirchir. Then, too, the arguments were lack of time and an assumption that the person supplying the news wouldn’t lie.
And second, on matters of breaking news, the Star should closely monitor social media, especially Twitter, which can serve both to offer up fresh leads and information (not all of which is correct) and also to correct wrong information. Management consultant Sunny Bindra, an avid Twitter user, said in an email to me on the day that the helicopter photo ran that given the amount of attention paid to the photo, “the Star should have picked up that it was a hoax”.
The important thing to remember, as I wrote at the time of the Chirchir incident, is that no matter how well-regarded the source of a story or a photo, the rule is: check it out. Indeed, at that time Ilado told me that going forward, “I think we should never trust anyone.”
Bomb on Moi Avenue: What else is new?
When a bomb exploded on Moi Avenue on May 28, injuring more than 40 people and prompting renewed concerns about terrorism, it was big news around the world. Stories appeared on the BBC, on all the major wire services such as Reuters and the Associated Press, and in Asian, European and US newspapers.
In the Star, however, it got only a photo at the bottom of page one and a single story on page 3, while the lead spot went to a story about the (hardly earth-shaking) news that William Ruto wanted his ICC trial postponed. There was also a second story, about police at the Coast charged with murder.
I understand that the Star is trying to offer its readers news that is “fresh” and “different” as a way to make its mark. But to my mind not making the bomb blast the front-page lead story was carrying things too far, and raised questions about the paper’s news judgment. Sometimes, there is only one story, and the best a scrappy contender like the Star can do is to find a different angle.
I’m not the only one who felt that way. “At times you have no choice but to be the same,” one newsroom veteran told me. “There’s a feeling that if we have the same headline we lose out. But this could be an opportunity to show we can handle a story better” than anyone else. The public, too, had its say: the Star sold less well than usual on the day after the bombing.
In retrospect, Editor Catherine Gichru agrees. But, she says, at the regular afternoon news meeting attended by the senior editors, “Everybody was saying we need to be different.” Managing Director William Pike concurs. “I don’t think any particular person was driving [the decision], and no one dissented,” he says.
The way the Star handled the helicopter crash story—an informative front page plus four inside pages—suggests that some lessons were learned from the Moi Avenue bombing. But there is still reason to be concerned about how powerful the Star’s group-think may be. I wonder how the afternoon news meeting on the day of the bombing would have gone if, say, one or two outsiders had been invited to join that discussion, something that I know is being tried by at least a few newspapers elsewhere.
Newspapers traditionally are closed enterprises, and most journalists are convinced that the public neither understands what they do nor has the skills to evaluate it. The Star has gone some distance to counter this attitude by allowing its readers a peek inside the newsroom process via the public editor. Maybe in time it will actually invite them in.
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