Where’s the proof? When reporter casts doubt on what politician says
You may have noticed that Nation reporters these days qualify controversial political statements with the phrase “without providing evidence” or its variants.
The qualifier casts doubt on the truthfulness of the statement. Recent stories by Justus Ochieng’ and Moses Nyamori, in particular, are peppered with such qualifiers.
The widespread use of the qualifiers points to an awakening of guarded reporting of political discourse and swordplay. It has become like “alleged” and “claimed”, the words reporters traditionally use to distance themselves from doubtful statements.
The trend is manifested clearly in the reportage of the controversy triggered by the Azimio protests. Thus Justus Ochieng’, arguably the most frequent user of the qualifier, on Wednesday reported that Raila Odinga, “who is expected to lead his third anti-government demonstration tomorrow, accused President Ruto and his deputy Rigathi Gachagua of sponsoring the invasion of ‘people’s lands and businesses’, but he did not provide evidence of his claims” (‘Raila says protests still on, condemns ‘state’ violence’, Nation.Africa, March 29, 2023).
In another story on the same day, Ochieng’ told readers: “[Azimio la Umoja Leader Raila Odinga] reckons that the torching of a PCEA Church in Kibra was a plot to incite violence between communities living in Kibra. However, he did not share proof to back the allegations” (‘Raila takes on Ruto and Gachagua over Monday chaos’, Nation.Africa, March 29, 2023).
The Nation reporters have taken to using the qualifiers apparently to protect readers from propaganda or misinformation by politicians or to avoid being accused of taking sides by articulating the political messages of one political side.
Reporters Moses Nyamori & Ndubi Moturi were probably trying to do just that when they reported Deputy President Gachagua and some Mt Kenya politicians accused former President Uhuru Kenyatta of bankrolling the Azimio protests.
The reporters added: “They have, however, not provided any evidence to back up the allegations. Mr Kenyatta has also not participated in the demonstrations” (‘Uhuru name to feature in DP-Mt Kenya leaders meet’, Nation.Africa, March 26, 2023).
Reporters, or their editors, append qualifiers to controversial statements to modify their truthfulness, authenticity or meaning. Qualifiers create doubt. They give clues about how the reporter feels about the accuracy of the information he is presenting.
Qualifiers, however, need to be used wisely. Otherwise, they can become a reporting bias in themselves.
A reporting bias is defined as occurring “when an article is written with a particular tone or ‘spin’ so that readers will perceive it in a certain way”. A reporting bias gives weight against or in favour of a particular person or statement.
Reporting bias becomes particularly obvious when the reporter does not use the same qualifiers for other politicians who make equally unproven claims. For example, in a story he described as “a bare-knuckle attack on President Uhuru Kenyatta’s government”, Nation reporter George Munene reported then-Deputy President William Ruto said: “They have realised that Odinga is not popular in any part of the country and they want to make him rule this country by force.
They are busy scheming rigging in hotels and other places.” The reporter added to the story: “However, he did not substantiate the claim or provide evidence that there were meetings held to plot rigging” (‘Ruto to State: You cannot rig me out’, Nation.Africa, February 18, 2022).
In the same story, Ford-Kenya leader Moses Wetang’ula was reported to have lashed out at President Kenyatta’s government, saying it doesn’t have the interests of farmers at heart. “[Wetang’ula] observed that coffee and tea farmers were earning peanuts despite working so hard in their farms, and blamed it on the inability of the government to look for good markets for produce.”
But the reporter did not add that Wetang’ula did not substantiate the claim or provide evidence of the inability of the government to look for good markets for coffee and tea.
Used unwisely, discriminatively, or just as a habit, the qualifiers can make a reporter appear like he is the story, i.e. he wants to influence how the story is perceived by the reader. In some cases, it would be more useful to the reader for the reporter to fact-check a statement by a politician than to append the words “he did not substantiate the claim or provide evidence”.
The Public Editor is an independent news ombudsman who handles readers’ complaints on editorial matters including accuracy and journalistic standards. Email: [email protected] Call or text 0721989264