LEVEL PLAYING FIELD

OMWOYO: Media should provide equal coverage to candidates

The mismatch seen in allotment of space and airtime should not be ignored at face value.

In Summary

• In the April-June MCK media monitoring report, Azimio's Raila Odinga was ahead of Kenya Kwanza'sWilliam Ruto, at 61.2 per cent and 38.2 per cent respectively.

• Roots Party candidate George Wajackoyah and his running mate got 0.54 per cent, whereas the Agano party's David Mwaure had 0.02 per cent.

Kenyans no longer see journalists as passive players in politics but high-profile information sources and potent public opinion shapers. Journalists are the first point of call when people are looking for information, especially on elections.

Since the turn of the millennium, the media sector has been under focus as debate rages over what it directly or indirectly contributes to democracy. This is why retrospection on the role of the industry ahead of the election is on point.

The run up to the polls is already radiating a lot of heat, particularly on the presidential seat. With parties and coalitions having been cemented, the top seat remains the most hotly contested.

Elections come with several dynamics that threaten integrity of the information landscape in Kenya. The 2017 election brought to the fore major challenges that the viral spread of misinformation poses to journalism, public trust of media and the right of access to information.

The spread of fake news became a major factor and alternative source of information on election related matters during the elections. This calls for journalists to acquire the right skills to expose fake news, including political propaganda, and to aid in stopping the cycle of misinformation and disinformation on their platforms, social media and face-to face communication.

Recent reports on the coverage of the ongoing campaigns ahead of the August polls by the Media Council of Kenya have shown marked improvement in the coverage of the 2022 campaigns compared to the situation in 2017.

In the April-June MCK media monitoring report, Azimio presidential candidate Raila Odinga was ahead of Kenya Kwanza flagbearer William Ruto, at 61.2 per cent and 38.2 per cent respectively. The content analysis showed Roots Party candidate George Wajackoyah and his running mate got 0.54 per cent, whereas the Agano party's David Mwaure had 0.02 per cent.

This has changed according to our latest figures where Ruto’s publicity volumes stand at 46 per cent against Raila’s 45 per cent. Wajackoyah is third at six per cent, while Mwaure received three per cent publicity.

While improved adherence to journalistic ethics was reported in the first survey, the mismatch seen in allotment of space and airtime should not be ignored at face value.

While Raila is historically a major newsmaker, he should not be seen to be the media’s presumptive preferred candidate. The media should ensure a level playing field by remaining an impartial platform rather than an active player that slants stories.

Even though the disproportionate coverage could be a result of various related and non-related factors, surveys on media behaviour during elections have seemed to read from one script. There is some degree of what some scholars have called information distress among media houses.

The fear, however, is about perceptions media creates — sometimes without knowing — in their audience. Some resultant perceptions do not bode well for an industry that already faces the challenge of fake news and unprecedented trust deficit. The media should not influence elections through partial coverage.

Despite the enormous interference of media ownership on framing and coverage of political stories, journalists should stay true to their calling — objective, fair and balanced reporting.

Politicians have in the past singled out certain media houses for biased reporting. Let the media not allow room for any forms of speculation by the political elite.

Some candidates win elections because of name-recognition arising from media exposure, while in some cases, voters shun good candidates due to lack of information around them due to media blackout, potentially leading to disinformation and misinformation.

More than before, the media should interrogate campaign issues and raise awareness around parties, manifestos and poll preparations. The candidates should also package their issues competitively as opposed to the noise being experienced in rallies to make it easy for the media to cover them.

It is critical that balance be achieved on all news content and journalism must embrace fact-checking as a primary value. Let everyone be given a chance to be heard.

Omwoyo is the CEO of the Media Council of Kenya.

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