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Media goof sparks debate on responsible reporting

Posted by Administrator on February 8, 2012

A goof by one of Kenya’s leading media houses – the Nation Media Group (NMG) has sparked a mega debate on responsible reporting and how journalists are using social media to break news.
On the morning of Saturday, 4 February 2012, the media house through its Twitter and Facebook accounts erroneously reported the death of tycoon and former cabinet minister, Njenga Karuma. The “death” of the rags to riches tycoon went viral in a matter of minutes with another media house, Standard Group, also reporting the same. However, the information was confirmed as inaccurate after members of Karume’s family confirmed that he was not dead or critically ill as some reports had claimed.
The two media houses immediately removed the update with NMG apologising for the error and later in the evening news running television clips of the tycoon as he received friends who had gone to his home after they heard the news of his “death”.
In the last few years, media houses have adopted the use of social media as a way of breaking news in a competitive media environment. According to the latest media research by Ipsos Synovate, there is a growing usage of internet to access information and news in Kenya with about 63% of the population accessing the mobile internet. A Digital Life Study conducted in 60 countries and released in November 2011 by research company TNS, reported a growing use of social networks like Facebook or YouTube by businesses across the world.
With social networks like Twitter and Facebook being a leading source of information dissemination especially for media houses, the reporting goof raises basic concerns on how journalists can responsibly use new media to add value to their work. New media technologies are said to have “reshaped the material basis for society” enabling the globalisation process through their capacity to distribute information at a rapid pace and volume.
Fundamentals of news writing
Despite advancements in technology, the fundamentals of news writing remain. News describes the things journalists write about. Every day journalists take information and publish it to a wide audience, invoking professional decisions about public interest, veracity of sources and invasion of privacy. Journalists apply news values to their stories i.e. professional codes in the selection, construction and presentation of news. It is worth noting that the news values do not necessarily relate to individual journalists, who themselves are subject to personal values, beliefs and attitudes. Rather, the concept relates to the corporations that produce industrialised news.
By publishing inaccurate information of a public figure, the guideline on responsible reporting in Kenyan media houses is now in question and especially so with new media. It is worth appreciating many factors that influence how news is currently reported for example timeliness, prominence, the race to beat competition in breaking the news etc. While the story may have met all the required elements, the journalist failed to do one very important thing – to check and verify facts.
The Kenyan case is not the first, last year when the news of the shooting of US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona broke, it was erroneously reported that she had been killed in the mass shooting incident. This information was shared on social networks.
Last year, Fox News was at the centre of a controversy after several Tweets from its account claimed that US President Barack Obama had been assassinated. The media house said its Twitter account had been hacked. In January 2011 a Twitter user falsely reported that Neslon Mandela had died – although he user was not a media house or a journalist, the news caused  a global panic.
As recent as last month, CBS Sports prematurely announced the death of a former sports coach Penn State. The story started with a rumour about the death of the ailing coach and was picked up by mainstream media. In its apology, CBS admitted that it had failed “to verify the original report.”
Online reporting guidelines
In a guideline on reporting from the internet, Reuters has spelt out clear guidelines for its journalists when writing online news, blogging and using social media. The news agency cautions its reporters to be wary of “unusual” news discovered on a web site. “Do not treat this as “normal news” until the company or organisation confirms it or at least has a chance to respond to what you have found,” says the handbook.
Washington Post reporters, producers and editors are required to evaluate any story before posting it on its accounts. As a general rule, the newspaper does not cite information that is not sourced. “If we are confident in the sourcing of a third-party report, we may cite it on social networks while also attributing the information to the original source. If facts or sourcing are murky, it is preferable to buy time by telling readers we’re investigating a developing story, then consult with originating editors for advice,” says the Washington Post publishing guideline.
As media houses in Africa embrace new media technologies, we are certainly going to see more media convergence, content and competition. There will be therefore need to have new media policies in place to guide the practice of journalism in the coming years. Like all policy issues, one of the major concerns will be who will formulate the policies – government or the players.
The biggest burden falls on journalists who have to remember that we owe our audiences the truth al all times. We have to find a balance between the way we want to break a story, the medium to share the story to get the biggest audience, and the way to write the story while doing the least harm to the fewest number of people.
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