June’s biggest news story was, of course, the police helicopter crash in Ngong’ in which all six passengers; Internal Security Minister Prof. George Saitoti, his assistant Orwa Ojode, two bodyguards and the two pilots, died.
Media coverage of the tragedy has raised plenty of interesting issues, even becoming a national discussion.
The two weeks following the tragedy witnessed perhaps the largest number of apologies offered in recent years by media houses for mistakes made in reporting just one story.
Remarkably as well, the Media Council of Kenya produced a monitoring report about coverage of the Ngong’ deaths and went on to organise a forum for journalists to discuss the subject.
All this was not just because six people were killed in Ngong’. In contrast, the story about a building that had collapsed at Mlolongo town the day before, also killing six people, was overshadowed by the Ngong’ tragedy. In the latter case, prominent figures were involved – that is why.
Immediately word got out about the accident, the media jumped on the story, with television stations interrupting their regular transmissions to bring the breaking news.
The same day, the story quickly moved from the crash scene to the homes of the two ministers, from where reporters relayed live the reaction of kith and kin to the tragic news.
Joe Kadhi, the veteran journalist and lecturer at the United States International University (USIU), gave the electronic media high points on the news value of timeliness. He was presenting a paper on June 26 on “Media coverage and presentation of disasters and conflict-sensitive issues.”
The disaster, he said, fell in the category of spot news, as differentiated from beat stories and exposés. Such stories require quick thinking, mastery of writing and other production skills and adherence to ethical principles.
Four principles are key: intrusion into grief; use of photos and names; fair and accurate reporting; and obscenity, taste and tone.
“When people are grieving and in shock, they should be left alone,” stated Kadhi.
In its monitoring report, MCK raises this issue as well with regard to TV coverage. “The mourning of families and friends was also extensively covered, with some of the images (e.g. Ojode’s weeping widow and mother) massively intruding into the grief of the relatives.”
Kadhi praised the print media for judicious use of pictures, except the infamous goof by the Star which Kadhi on June 11 published a close-up short of a burning helicopter on the front-page and purporting it to be the ill-fated Kenya Police chopper.
The picture caused a sharp reaction from the government and the members of the public. The government asked MCK to investigate. The Star apologised, saying they had been duped.
Kadhi cautioned that: “The most dramatic and newsworthy pictures may be unethical and pictures from unknown sources can be dangerous.”
On the day of the tragedy, KTN aired apparently unedited “exclusive” footage showing people at the site of the crash with burning bodies. The station later apologised for this.
Its print sister The Standard published a front-page photograph of President Kibaki with a running nose at the funeral of Ojode. The next day the paper apologised, explaining that the intention was to show a nation in mourning.
Whereas Kadhi commended the electronic media for timeliness, Mary Ojode complained that his son learned about the death of
his father on TV. Apparently the family had not been informed. She criticised the media for this.
But was it really the media’s fault? The Information Secretary at the Ministry of Information, Ezekiel Mutua, came to the defense of the media, saying that, while
she understood Mrs Ojode’s concern, the media could not be realistically expected to find out whether the next of kin had been informed before publishing such an important story.
What Mutua did not point out for obvious reasons, though, is that in such instances it is the government’s responsibility to inform the family as quickly as possible.
Fair and accurate reporting proved to be a real challenge. At first it was not clear whether the number of people aboard the chopper were six or seven. KTN even reported that Internal Security PS Mutea Iringo was among the victims.
According to the MCK report, K24 TV misquoted National Heritage Minister William ole Ntimama as caliming that crash was caused by sabotage, whereas the minister had, in fact, stated that all possible causes, including sabotage, should be investigated.
Citizen TV on the other hand reported that police were yet to hand over the crashed helicopter’s black box when, in fact, the chopper was not fitted with one.
Overall, the media did a “splendid job”, according to Kadhi. He was also satisfied that the media showed a sense of professional responsibility by apologising for mistakes.