Star Correspondents: The Paper’s Foot Soldiers
Several queries and criticisms about stories in the Star’s regional pages have led me to think readers might appreciate a bit of insight into the role of the paper’s correspondents.
Currently, the Star has about 60 such correspondents, twice as many as the number of reporters in the Nairobi newsroom. They are the paper’s foot soldiers: the ones who cover the accidents, arrests and local scandals (along with an occasional major story) that make up life outside the capital. They range from young graduates hoping to hit the big time to veterans who’ve learned on the job and worked for a variety of publications along the way.
The primary reason that all news organisations employ correspondents is cost. “No newsroom can afford to have that many people on its payroll,” says Editor Catherine Gicheru. About half of the Star’s correspondents are on monthly retainers; the others get paid only for the stories that are used.
What makes anyone sign up for such a seemingly thankless job? “Because it’s not about money, journalism is a calling,” says Njenga Gicheha, 29, who has been writing in one form or another since primary school and who started working as a Star correspondent soon after the paper was launched. Recently, he produced a front-page story on deadline about the cancellation of the 'Limuru B' meeting and then went out the next day to take what ended up being front-page photos of the chaos that followed.
Gicheha’s tales of being beaten up twice in one day during the post-election violence illustrate just how tough a correspondent’s life can be. After the first beating, which included being stripped of his money and ID, he went out again, only to be mistaken for a member of another community by a roving gang of youths and nearly killed by a policeman who mistook him for a gang leader. “I thought, ‘I’m going to die,’” Gicheha recalls.
Matthews Ndanyi, 40, also had his share of difficult post-election moments. His reports on the violence in Eldoret, including the burning of the church in Kiambaa, were the most important of his career, he says, but the events left him traumatised. More recently, he’s received death threats because of his stories on victims of the violence and on witnesses in the cases before the ICC.
Ndanyi regards such threats, along with physical and verbal abuse, as more or less part of doing business. But, like Gicheha, he’d like to see correspondents receive better pay and more job security. He believes poor pay is the reason that many correspondents are susceptible to bribes. He recalls one instance when he was offered Sh500,000 to stop writing about a certain politician. “I refused,” he hastens to add.
Still, there are rewards for being a correspondent. When Ndanyi’s young daughter hears him on the radio (he also freelances radio reports), he says, she “gets excited”. And when he’s walking down the streets of Eldoret, “people I don’t know call me by name”.
Of course not all correspondents are as committed as Gicheha and Ndanyi. Subeditors routinely complain about many correspondents’ weak grasp of story structure and grammar, and, as Ndanyi notes, some get too close to local politicians. Gicheru says one way she keeps tabs on correspondents’ work is by noting the number of complaints she receives. “If I get more than one complaint [about a particular story] I start asking questions,” she says.
All in all, it’s a pretty lonely life out there. So next time you think about what’s lacking in a regional story, stop to also consider what the correspondent might have had to go through to get it.
On April 3, the Star led with as a story headlined 'Four judges fail vetting'. The next day the paper carried an ad from the Judges and Magistrates Vetting Board vigorously criticising the story and noting that it is “yet to finalize its determinations”.
The ad prompted me to go back and look at the story more closely. In fact, the piece began: “Four senior judges are likely to fail their vetting…” (emphasis mine), suggesting that the headline went considerably farther than the piece itself.
Just a few days later, on April 12, the paper carried a front-page headline “Uhuru, Ruto must not run—Justice PS” which evoked a similar reaction, with the PS denying that he had said such a thing. Again, the headline went beyond the story, which described the PS as having “revived debate” on whether Kenyatta and Ruto can run.
Gicheru and Star CEO William Pike maintain that both headlines were justified; I disagree. As I’ve argued in several similar cases in the past, exaggerated headlines risk not just angry rebuttals but also disappointed readers. And, there’s always the risk that they may prove to be wrong.
Complaints of bias among Star columnists are fairly common. A typical one, from reader Boit Barsitei, read: “Almost all of the columnists in this newspaper are pro-ODM or [a] certain politician and I don't think that's good for business considering that your consumers hold very divergent political ideals and opinions too.”
Barsitei’s remarks prompted me to begin a daily log of the Star’s opinion pieces, as well as cartoons and editorials. To my surprise, over a period of nearly a month I found that if anything, there were more overtly pro-PNU or anti-ODM commentaries than there were overtly pro-ODM ones—but there were very few of either. This is deliberate, according to Gicheru. With the upcoming elections in mind, she says, she has been making a conscious effort to avoid strongly partisan commentaries. Instead, she looks for “an interesting argument for or against an issue”.
According to Pike, the Star has been steadily shedding earlier perceptions of bias. He says that polls commissioned by the Star in 2008 showed that the paper was regarded as pro-ODM, but in more recent ones it was perceived as independent by a majority of those queried.
Two things, however, stood out as I looked over my log entries. One is that commentaries, cartoons and editorials in the Star—as in newspapers the world over—routinely castigate 'the government' for its shortcomings: for example, an April 10 cartoon showed a figure termed “govt” tripping over his own tongue in trying to explain a Kenya Airports Authority strike. And since “govt” in this case is headed by PNU standard-bearer Mwai Kibaki, perceptions of bias can easily follow.
My other observation is that the voices of critics of the established order often seem 'louder' than those of supporters. One example is an April 14/15 opinion piece by musician Eric Wainaina headlined 'Gema does not represent me'. It elicited howls of protest from supporters of Uhuru Kenyatta and an online shouting match between the dozens of readers who posted comments on the Star website.
My conclusions: the Star has no noticeable bias these days, whether or not it did earlier. But perceptions are hard to shake, especially when the paper rarely minces words and welcomes others with sharp tongues to its pages. (All to the good as I see it.) I plan, however, to continue to monitor the opinion pages closely in the run-up to the election, and I welcome your help in this effort.
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