WORLD PRESS FREEDM DAY

Anonymous sources fuel spread of fake news

In Summary

• In Kenya, it has become common for the powerful, in the political and corporate spheres, to advocate for made-up stories with an intention to deceive, and therefore shape a desired narrative.

• The chief driver of this new development appears to be the infiltration of the profession by “outsiders”.

"Concerns about “fake news” have dominated discussions about the relationship between the media and politics in the developed world in recent years."
"Concerns about “fake news” have dominated discussions about the relationship between the media and politics in the developed world in recent years."
Image: FILE

Today the world marks this year’s World Press Freedom Day in Addis Ababa. The event will provide a platform for different players to exchange on various issues.

Opportunities and threats to media will feature prominently with the proliferation of fake news taking centre-stage in the three-day deliberation.

There is no doubt technology has resulted in media content being relayed with no significant third-party filtering or editorial judgment. This has been worsened by the intensified market-oriented journalism, the first-in-the-market strategy, where fact-checking seems to be succeeding content dissemination to the public.

As a result of this, misleading news is now being relayed to the market. Spin doctors have exploited this opportunity by disseminating warped information with the aim of influencing public discourse.

Misinformation fed into Nigeria’s election campaigns, where news was circulated that President Muhammadu Buhari had died in London where he had sought better treatment. Russia, too, reportedly paid thousands of people to create and peddle fake anti-Hillary Clinton news targeting key swing states in the 2016 US Elections.

In Kenya, it has become common for the powerful, in the political and corporate spheres, to advocate for made-up stories with an intention to deceive, and therefore shape a desired narrative.

While for a long time the spread of misinformation had been confined to social media platforms, the mainstream media in Kenya is being sucked into this dangerous zone. It is a trend that may ultimately have a negative bearing on the country’s political conversation direction.

The chief driver of this new development appears to be the infiltration of the profession by “outsiders” who have ended up making enduring editorial decisions in newsrooms, thereby hurting the public interest call by reporters and editors.

The use of confidential news sources, commonly referred to as anonymous sources, has become the most abused way of fabricating media content. Questionable stories would, therefore, be dotted with tags like “unnamed sources” or “sources familiar with” or even “sources close to...”

We all agree that news credibility comes with transparency. However, sometimes sources insist on providing information off the record. When that is the case, reporters are required to follow specific pathway before publishing claims from anonymous sources.

In independent media houses, material that comes from an anonymous source qualify to be used only when the source is reliable and has been vetted, the source is in a position to have access to the information he or she claims to have and the information the source claims to possess is not speculation or opinion.

Moreover, the AP Stylebook says the content to be shared in confidence has to be an imperative part of the news report and the information is only available under anonymity conditions. Following the historic dishonesty of the New York Times’ rogue reporter Jayson Blair, the paper asked its reporters to use anonymous sources sparingly. In fact, in its stylebook, the New York Times says the use of anonymity is the last resort.

Yet, this yardstick is not habitually being put into thought in most Kenyan newsrooms. On April 25, 2019, for instance, the Daily Nation flagged an article on its top page saying, “Ruto denied access to Moi Kabarak home”. The online version of the same piece said, “Ruto avoids Kabarak as claims of a snub by Moi family linger”.

The article, written jointly by Eric Matara and Kennedy Kimanthi, claimed through “sources close to the former President’s family”, that the “DP was allegedly prevented from visiting retired President Moi at his Kabarak home to mourn his son Jonathan Moi’s demise”. It is a claim Ruto’s spokesman David Mugonyi dismissed, saying his boss had had no intention of visiting Kabarak but Kabimoi to mourn Jonathan’s death.

It is a fact that Kenya is in a unique era, with a lot of political factions that seek to outcompete the other, often fighting with one another. With this in mind, consumers of the media content read, listen or watch vaguely sourced stories with skepticism. 

Media, therefore, needs to appreciate that it is time the whole ecosystem of anonymous sources was treated as a flaw.