• It is important that editors, producers and reporters handling terror stories apply what is referred to as a dozen rules of thumb for journalists.
• They must engage constructively while reporting on terrorism and know they contribute directly to fighting the global evil without distorting the facts.
Journalists cannot always guarantee the truth but getting the facts right is the cardinal rule of journalism.
An alarmist release was sent to the various newsrooms on Tuesday evening that heavy gunfire was reported at the Baragoni area in Lamu county where suspected al Shabaab insurgents supposedly engaged the Kenya Defence Forces.
Renown senior editors and journalists took to Twitter with the same information without verification: An attack had happened and they needed to break the news.
It thus happened that it was a hoax and minutes after the release circulated, sources at the Department of Defence confirmed that it was a military drill, hence the heavy gunfire.
A good journalist must have a nose for news, the ability to recognise the news possibilities of a tip or an item of information, following up to the point of verification from various sources to filing a story or breaking it.
Over the years, the media in Kenya has ranked among the most trusted. That darling status is, however, fading away. A section of our audience no longer trusts and confidently believes what the mainstream media reports due to various factors. And with the emergence of new media, many newsrooms are struggling to maintain the pace with citizen journalists and bloggers. The media is in competition!
BREAKING TERROR ATTACK STORIES
Breaking news means to broadcast or otherwise publish a story of an event for the first time, so important or relevant that it takes precedence over and interrupts other news.
The media is at will to break the news of any event it deems relevant and of public interest but journalists must always ensure accuracy.
There is no hurry in breaking news, especially terror attacks. It is important that editors, producers and reporters handling terror stories apply what is referred to as a dozen rules of thumb for journalists. They must engage constructively while reporting on terrorism and know they contribute directly to fighting the global evil without distorting the facts.
Accuracy, impartiality and the use of credible and multiple sources should always be the scribe’s main priority in reporting or breaking any story.
In this month alone, Kenya has experienced at least four attacks. A Lamu-bound Mombasa Raha bus was attacked by al Shabaab militia leaving three people dead. The terror group has also launched two other attacks in Garissa and another on Manda Bay military base in Lamu county, which hosts Kenyan and US troops.
Like in the past, the media did not take caution in reporting some of the aforementioned events. Rush and excitement took centre stage and many editors and journalists didn’t follow the rule of thumb. The verification of these events took a back seat and basic facts were omitted. Armchair journalism was applied as scribes sat down in the comfort of their offices, wrote stories based on hearsay, gossip and twisted facts, and minimal independent interviews were conducted.
In the Mombasa Raha bus case, basic facts on how, where, when and by who were correct. But the Manda Bay case had a lot of missed facts. For instance, journalists got it wrong by mistaking Lamu Island with Lamu county and Manda Bay airfield for Manda airstrip.
The media coverage of terror events has been problematic and irresponsible, evoking public criticism and antagonising the authorities.
Victor Bwire, the Programmes manager at Media Council of Kenya notes: "National security and access to information are not antagonistic principles, and where trust and professionalism exist, they work so well not to hide information as its ordinarily thought, but to share strategic information that allows the nation under attack to minimize the impact of the security breaches".
Matters that concern or threaten national security need keen individuals who will ensure due diligence at all times. Newsrooms should come up with a clear strategy and policy on how such information and its flow should be handled in case of a terror attack.
There is need for special desks to cover and report on terrorism to avoid leaving such a sensitive area to every Tom, Dick and Harry.
The Media Council of Kenya has developed a set of guidelines for responsible coverage of terror events, conducted vigorous training and also developed a handbook on the same. Journalists should take advantage of such training and materials for their own benefit.
Media is a platform that terror groups use to advance their cause and agenda. How should the media cover these horrific events effectively and ethically yet timely and sensitively?
When a society experiences dramatic and devastating developments such as terror attacks, people have an urgent need for information. They want to know what is happening and how it affects them.
Poor quality and lack of ethics in journalistic work end up supporting terrorism by giving prominence to the terrorists' acts, spreading fear and indirectly contributing to public legitimisation of terror.
MCK's handbook on reporting terrorism notes: "It is important to note that there is an inherent tension or contradiction between journalists and terrorists, journalists want the story and terror groups want publicity and to instill fear".
In most cases, in the process of reporting and covering these important stories, the journalist instills or aggravates fear and the terrorist achieves what they want — attention, publicity and intimidation.
In the words of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, publicity is the oxygen of terrorism. Without publicity, terrorism would be like the proverbial tree that falls in the forest and the press is not there to report. It would be as if the event never happened.
We must starve terrorists the ‘oxygen of publicity’.
Although the motives of terrorists vary greatly, every terror group has the desire to deliver their message to as many people as possible. It is thus upon journalists to ensure they control and even contain reports of unknown terror events not to scare the public.
Mwangi Maina comments on media matters