If you feel a news story does not measure up to expected journalistic standards, bring it to the Journalism Dry Cleaner. Through our collective wisdom, we will strip it of all offensive dirt.




Monday, 30 November 2009

ZHANG TONGFEI: Snapshot of overpopulation: China’s single-child policy

With a billion people to choose from, the experiences of one person can hardly mirror life in China. But Zhang Tongfei's reflections and experiences still give an accurate depiction of just how crowded the country is.

“During the October holiday, I had to wait for more than three hours to get into a rollercoaster ride. The queues were so long that at the end of the day, I only managed to gain entry into four facilities at an amusement park in Suzhou.”

            Copyright 2009 Gachiri

This is just one of the many reasons why 23-year-old Tongfei supports China’s one-child policy. Being an only child herself, she says it would really be difficult financially, for a family to raise more than one child.

“ Although it is a bit lonely to be an only child,” she says, “ it is extremely hard for a family to educate a child from kindergarten all the way to the university.”

Male vs Female Child

Tales abound about how Chinese families put a premium on a male child and how female ones often get aborted in order for a family to still retain the chance to have a child.

But Tongfei says that is an era long gone and girls now get equal acceptance within the community.

“ It is illegal for a family to seek to know the sex of an unborn child. And nowadays girls are even more treasured at times because they tend to look after the parents more,” she argues.

And she is also not oblivious to the fact that the high population in China also can negatively impact the rest of the world in terms of pollution or industries that require huge energy sources and raw materials.

Overcrowded Cities

Tongfei’s home city of Shanghai is the financial centre, but with a population of over 16 million people living there, getting by everyday, she says, is not a simple matter.

“During the rush hour, trains really get overcrowded and volunteers have to squeeze in people so that the doors can close. I cannot eat anything because there is no room to even move a hand. There is no need to support myself while standing, it is simply impossible for one to fall down.”

The aspiring professional journalist says she was surprised on coming to the UK for further studies. The sea of humanity she is used to seeing was nowhere to be seen.

Saturday, 28 November 2009


Is the messenger and the message one and the same thing? A journalist in Kenya has been physically accosted by a news source. The reason being advanced is that the said journalist, in the coverage of a certain story, overstepped a perceived boundary. So why isn't the anger being directed at the story and instead is focused on the journalist?

The answer might appear to be obvious but it might not be that simple to explain the whys and the wherefors. To the level-headed at least, if a news source strongly feels a story is overtly portraying them in negative light, then all they need to do is give their own side or version. And the good thing is that any worthy media channel is expected to respect everyone's right of reply.

The public is the presiding judge

However, it is perhaps not hard to see why a person will not want to grab at the opportunity to give their own side of the story. If they especially know they cannot put up a credible challenge to counter any accusations levelled against them, this might not work for them.

And because the public is very discerning, the easier option for them can take the form and shape of crude and rudimentary tactics, like physically assaulting the journalist. This serves to assuage their ill-conceived sense of justice and also moves the attention away from the core matter of the dispute and into the terrain of side-shows and drama.

Giving a Punch for the Public

But whereas the general public is supposed to draw its own conclusion, this is often not done from a neutral point of view. Before they even make their own judgment, some people will have already taken sides with regard to the story.

For example, there are those who feel that journalists are a pestering nuisance and any one of them that gets attacked had it coming. The argument is that reporters should learn to keep their distance and desist from what amounts to waging personal vendettas.

The dedicated search for the truth in a given story is thus mistaken to be a pointer to a personal interest on the part of the journalist.

In the Interest of the Public

Shocking as it may seem, it at times become easy to forget that journalists are usually detached from the stories that they do and it is even required of them that they try to put aside their personal feelings or interests, when pursuing a story.

The simple reasoning is that whatever the mass media covers should be in the public interest ideally. The primary allegiance is to the public. And for the truth to serve its intended purpose, the messenger should neither be seen as the message personified nor should the messenger massage the message.

Monday, 23 November 2009


Is there an unwritten law that says politicians should always have reserved spots in all the media outlets? Must anything and everything emanating from the sphere of politics, however non-sensical, be given prominence,(and credence),by the press?

Are there no lessons learnt from the waywardness of political rhetoric and the vanity of blindly following whatever elected or selected leaders say in the public rostrum?

No doubt these are tough questions but ones that portend even more danger if left unanswered.

Media Coverage of the Draft Constitution Debate

After waiting for two decades for a new Constitution, Kenyans once again have a draft proposal for their consideration. Unfortunately, it seems the norm might be to follow how the politicians interprete the document, despite them often infusing very parochial positions and outrightly selfish interests, in their support for or opposition to the new law. But the bigger tragedy is that many irresponsible standpoints will be prominently captured by the local media.

But why can't the media, instead of simply conveying what the politicians say, make an attempt to interrogate any statement first, before splashing it in newspapers and prime time news? As the public's watchdog, a free media, after all, ought to align its reportage with the needs and aspiration of the country and not just one influential clique.

Politics in Conservation

Even a seemingly straight-forward issue like protecting the Mau forest is allowed to be reduced to a matter of securing votes in a General Election. Granted that those being evicted need to be treated in a humane manner, that should in no way be at the expense of massive environmental degradation. And here, allowing disgruntled politicians to take charge of the public debate, whether they are ignorant or enlightened, is a sure formula for disaster.

Only in Kenya perhaps, can you find a former Minister, who is trained in sciences, seeking to convince his audience that rain does not come from trees but that it just comes from the sky and it is in fact the rain, which results in forests and not the other way round.

As a beginning, may be the media should set aside a politics-free day, every week, and then we see if the world will come to a stop.

Sunday, 15 November 2009


It is true that journalists must be knowledgeable. But that should not be equated to being experts. What's the difference you ask?

Take for example a reporter on the health beat. Through their own research and interviews, they can dispense information regarding the effectiveness of say a certain medicine but it would be pretentious to purport to prescribe the same medicine to those watching, listening or reading. That should be left to a qualified medical practitioner.

A dangerous trend has emerged, where journalists neglect to draw the line between expert opinion and their personal interpretations.

Journalists as Experts

Whereas interpretative and enterprise reporting is a very welcomed addition, as journalists move away from the drab 5Ws and an H maxim, care should be taken not to overtly seem to want to pass off as the master of every known subject.

More often than not, an intelligent audience,(it is always disastrous to assume otherwise), will see through the charade and that could easilly result to flashing the credibility of a journalist and their news channel down the drain.

Attribution is the key operative word here. Every statement of fact should ideally be qualified and it will be foolhardy to rely on one's own personal views or understanding.

Knowledge Limitations of Journalists

Once, when I was producing a TV bulletin and sub-editting a script for a story on a new variety of drought resistant food crop, I made the unilateral decision of changing the name of the crop from cowpeas to pigeon peas.

                                                              Pigeon peas, courtesy, www.seedman.com

And this was out of my so presupposed knowledge of the differences between the two plants. Immediately after the item aired, a food scientist called and said the story had mistakenly referred to cowpeas pigeon peas.     
In the same vein, don't you often get irritated by football match commentators for their Mister Know It All attitudes. The coach of team x should do this and that, player y needs to....I mean, are you suddenly this omnipresent being with the uncanny ability to actually give instructions to the coaches and players from the commentry box?

The Search for Knowledgeable Journalists

However, the above discussion notwithstanding, it is worth noting that many media organizations are shifting towards recruiting specialist journalists. A reporter on the health beat could thus be a doctor in their own right, a court reporter could likewise have a solid training in legal issues. Such reporters are thus sufficiently enabled to correctly interprete the subject matter with authority.

Emphasis is consequently placed in getting graduates in specialised fields and then imparting journalistic skills and ethics in them, which admittedly yields better results compared to getting people with general media training and then expecting them to grasp all the intricate details about every topic under the sky. That way, a business reporter with a background in economics, commerce or finance, is more ably equipped to give, say, an update of the movements in the stock exchange market.

The danger herein lies in the likely possibility of such journalists forgetting that their audience are not necessarilly interested in technical information and that in all instances, this should be broken down into every day language.

It is a tough balancing act but as long as the focus remains on the end user, most media organizations stand a good chance of getting it right.

Monday, 9 November 2009


It was Remembrance Sunday in the UK and I was delighted to have found out a parade had been organized not so far away from my location. The turnout in Edgware was impressive and both young and old paid their tribute to the fallen British soldiers in past and current wars.

War veterans, bedecked with medals depicting their heroic deeds, mingled with their contemporaries and shared niceties with the ordinary folks. As the tape rolled, I couldn't help but try to focus the camera on the veterans and the current army recruits, in an attempt to capture the transgenerational display of a patriotic duty.

But after the sombre ceremony, one incident completely disarmed me. I sought to interview a war veteran, who was confined to a wheelchair. On being asked about how he felt about the whole festivity, the very elderly man just burst into tears.

After composing himself, he then explained that whenever he talks about remembrance of soldiers killed in the war front, he becomes too emotional and weighed down by the sense of lost human life. That outpouring of very genuine personal grief made me wonder if, as a journalist, it was in my place to make such an elderly man shed tears.

Of course such images would really make the viewers empathise with the war veterans and solidly connect with the story. But what about the feelings of the old man? Are they supposed to be reduced to just an element of a news item? Is there such a thing as allowing such personal grief to be a private affair, kept away from an intrusive public eye? Couldn't the old man be accorded the right to mourn in dignity, away from a prying camera?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, that could as well signal the beginning of the end of journalistic engagements. However, it would not be too much to ask that, when confronted with such a situation, journalist should be a little bit more sensitive and alive to the existing possibility of aggravating the trauma of their interviewees..

Monday, 2 November 2009


Reality shows. Musical reality shows. Undoubtedly, a great concept of unveiling fresh talent. But then the shows are not designed to be immune from manipulation or are they?

The judges come with their own subjective views and you can't blame them, because that is what they are being paid for. And then comes the audience. The people behind the show would want it to appear as if this audience controls the outcome of the show by inviting them to vote for their favourite person.

These two scenarios lead to a possible clash between the two judging elements in the reality show or at times, even a strange collaboration bordering on a conspiracy.  The judges can give harsh criticism on a particular act and as a result, sway the public into voting for a particular person. Or the judges can even be under instruction from the producers of the show to eliminate certain acts only for them to encounter tough resistance from an unrelenting audience.

But at least most of the times, the judges make reference to certain qualities that they know would give credence to the objectives of the show, in identifying the best talent. It is not that simple however, when it comes to understanding, why the audience votes to retain or eliminate a certain act. Woe unto the performer, who has excellent talent but cannot find acceptance with the voting public.

This is what happened in a recent episode of ITV's X Factor. Even the judges were dumbfounded as to why one act, (which incidentally had an an African identity), ended up on the elimination segment. And after the deciding tie breaker performance, it was clear to everybody, it seems, that one act was far better than the other and yet the better act ended up being eliminated.

So what influenced the public's decision because by all intent and purpose, it was certainly not based on the performances.

Is there another factor at play other than the sought X-factor in this show?

A look at the past elimination pattern in this season's show offers valuable clues that can as well point to the audience's preference of deserving talent.

But like one judge summed it up, it is all about the audience and their taste and if they don't give you enough votes, that is worth noting about how you rate in their eyes, but certainly not why. For that, you need to read between the lines.

I rest my case.