Does the Star newsroom reflect the face of Kenya?

The April 6 release of an ethnic audit of Kenya’s civil service prompted me to do my own informal audit of the Star. I looked at three groups: editors, political writers and columnists who comment frequently or exclusively on Kenyan politics. My rationale was that the first two groups are chiefly responsible for determining what the Star covers politically and how it covers it, and the regular political columnists are the ones most often identified as providing the paper’s “voice.”

While the catalyst for the Star audit was the one carried out by the National Cohesion and Integration Commission, I also had another reason to look at the numbers, which was the small but regular stream of complaints I receive from readers about perceived bias. For example, reader Moses Wasamu noted on March 7 that the ‘New Voices’ column’s question that day was on ODM, but “If you look keenly, all these people who were interviewed come from Bomet, an area that is currently anti-ODM.” On April 13, Boit Barsitei wrote to complain about what he regarded as incendiary writing by several Star columnists and to question whether the paper might be attempting “to prop [up] a certain senior politician.”

Experience tells me that readers often see institutional bias while they are in fact reacting to a few (or even just one) story or individual. But that is not to say no bias exists. My own observations also suggest that newsroom diversity is the best way to guard against such bias, and that diversity also brings other benefits-some so subtle that it’s often hard to recognise them. As one example, within the US, as women have risen in the editing ranks, so, too, have the number of front page stories on health, education and lifestyle-an unprovable but I believe real correlation.

Thus, I thought it would be useful to take a look at the Star newsroom to see just how representative it is of Kenya. What I found in terms of tribal background was what could have been expected: big tribes dominate. But I was surprised by just how much diversity there is. Among the top 12 editors there are four Kikuyus, two Kalenjins, two Luos, and four ‘others’. The nine political writers include three Luhyas, three Kikuyus and three others. Among the nine regular columnists, there are three Luos, two Kikuyus, two Asian-Kenyans, and two others.

If there was any one thing that was strikingly negative when I looked at the breakdowns it wasn’t anything to do with tribe but rather with gender: there are only two women out of more than 30 people in the newspaper’s elite ranks, editor Catherine Gicheru and columnist Caroline Mutoko. Among the political writers, there is not a single woman. And it was disappointing to see so little representation from the non-African Kenyan communities: two Asian-Kenyans, both of them columnists, and one European editor, William Pike, who could reasonably be considered to represent the European-Kenyan community since he was born in Tanzania and has lived for over 20 years in East Africa. (In addition to being the paper’s CEO, Pike has a major hand in news operations and writes most of the editorials.)

Editor Catherine Gicheru says that she thinks the Star’s tribal diversity has been a major asset, particularly in times of tribal conflicts. In the morning news meetings, she says, if someone starts invoking stereotypes about a particular community, someone else always speaks up. “Otherwise, stereotypes can go unchallenged,” she notes.

But, she says, when it comes to hiring she tries to go for the best qualified person, with tribe or gender as only secondary considerations. The big problem is that the paper doesn’t get many applications from women or from people from other than the big tribes, she says. “I have never received a single application from a woman wanting to do political writing.”

Gicheru recalls that in her earlier career at the Nation, she and other editors made major efforts to recruit and train promising young people from under-represented groups. But time after time, she says, she saw the most talented recruits picked off by NGOs, foreign embassies, and UN agencies that could offer better salaries and other benefits. “It was so frustrating,” she says.

Nonetheless, she says she remains convinced of the importance of getting more people from a variety of backgrounds in the newsroom. “Unless people see other people like themselves doing certain jobs, they will never try,” she says.

Prof Levi Obonyo, the chairman of the Media Council as well as head of the Communications Department at Daystar University, shares Gicheru’s opinion that ethnic balance in the newsroom matters-and for many of the same reasons. Journalists, he says, like other Kenyans, tend to socialise with people from their own ethnic groups, and within those groups people form shared outlooks. “Somehow that seeps through and affects the journalists’ reporting,” he says. Obonyo adds that even if there were no objective evidence that journalists’ ethnic background affects coverage, there is another consideration: public perception. Obonyo believes better training and higher professional standards in newsrooms would mitigate many problems including tribalism. He’d also like to see more willingness on the part of editors to assign journalists to stories or regions with no regard for tribal background. (Gicheru disagrees on this point, arguing that sometimes for reasons of security as well as clarity it’s important to assign a reporter of the same tribe, and who therefore speaks the same mother tongue, as those involved in an event. “We want to make sure everything speakers say comes out in public,” she says.)

Above all, Obonyo says, Kenya needs to develop national values that shun tribalism. “We can’t expect journalists to develop national values when they don’t exist in the broader society,” he says.

Obonyo’s comment made me recall a remark several years ago by Shaka Ssali, the Ugandan-born presenter of “Straight Talk Africa,” a popular radio programme. Speaking at a media conference here in Kenya, he described himself as belonging to the “tribe of journalists.” Maybe one day that’s how all Kenyan journalists will define themselves, and their “tribal values” will be ones that move beyond tribe and ethnicity. For now, I think it’s important to keep track of the numbers in the newsroom, and to keep working to improve on them.

This column was originally published in The Nairobi Star on April 22, 2011.

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