• As Kenya heads to a General Election, media coverage is subject to perceptions
• Moses Odhiambo says while subjectivity is natural, it is best to remain impartial
Election year comes with politicians craving publicity more than ever. Journalists tag along to their campaigns and press conferences with an air of detachment.
But before you are a journalist, you are a citizen, and, therefore, you are a voter, Star political reporter Moses Odhiambo told Art of Storytelling.
One’s leaning can easily be detected on their Facebook posts, tweets or videos, if not subtly sneaked into their reports.
In the three elections he has covered, Odhiambo has seen where the danger lies when a media house gives the impression it is rooting for a particular candidate.
“In fact, there are papers that do not even make sense in some areas because of the perception,” Odhiambo said.
Such dilemmas are emerging in editorial meetings as media houses grapple with how to balance coverage.
Parallel events by the two leading presidential candidates spark attempts to split the front page so that each gets equal prominence; for instance, by matching photos from rallies side by side.
Occasionally the also-rans are accorded the splash or leading photo to mitigate the creation of a two-horse race.
Eyebrows are raised whenever a series of headlines appears to favour one side. A more critical perspective or pivot to the other side could succeed them.
But what about on an individual level? Odhiambo says there is no mistake in declaring your position.
“If you say, for instance, I am interested in supporting a particular party, I think that will help even your managers to deal with how to assign you or deal with you in terms of the work that you do.”
Newsrooms are short-staffed, though, and may not have the luxury of all journalists taking a side as it will lead to problems in diversity of coverage and credibility.
So above all, Odhiambo advocates rising above personal interests to be as impartial as possible.
“We have a responsibility to shape this conversation, and for us to play that role, we have to stay in the middle ground,” he says.
“Politics comes and goes.”
We have a responsibility to shape this conversation, and for us to play that role, we have to stay in the middle groundMoses Odhiambo
It is easy to miss that drift in a country that seems to be in constant campaign mode. Reportage of the back-and-forth between politicians leads to accusations of “he said, she said” journalism.
But Odhiambo is renowned for in-depth reporting, something he attributes to his focus on going behind the glare of the cameras. “That which they are not telling us could be the story,” he says. “So I go behind the scenes to look at what is going on that is creating that picture that they want us to see.”
Reporting to the office as early as 6.30am every day, he sifts through piles of documents and calls various sources. He otherwise spends a lot of his time in Parliament.
Occasionally, he contributes to the feature pages, with his submission last year making it to the top 10 features of the year. It was a story on how the vandalising of guardrails and road signs leads to accidents.
The story, titled, Why Kenyan roads are a death trap, drew from his findings in one of those auditor general reports a less experienced journalist would have missed the juice in.
What stood out about his story is how he used creative writing to capture the reader’s attention in the intro.
He said this came from a conversation he had with a man carrying a gunny bag as to what was inside, and observation of pieces of missing metals on the barrier on Waiyaki Way before the Expressway.
“You would find one is hanging today, tomorrow it is gone,” he said, glad to have played a role in President Uhuru Kenyatta’s eventual banning of scrap metal trade.
A voracious reader, Odhiambo began his journey into journalism in high school, where he started a press club to report his school’s unsung football success.
Revelling in the hobby, he ditched his teaching dream to pursue a career in the media, rising all the way to become Journalist of the Year at the Star in 2021.
“It feels great,” he said of the achievement. “Who does not want to be acknowledged? It’s only that it comes with a lot of responsibility. It’s a tougher task staying at the top than working to the top.”
Next week, Art of Storytelling will be talking to Star training editor Victoria Graham.
Art of Storytelling: Akello Odenyo
People want something that will inspire them, says Akello Odenyo
Art of Storytelling: John Muchangi
John Muchangi keeps the spotlight on health amid political headlines
Art of Storytelling: Alphonce Gari
Alphonce Gari inspires social action with touching stories