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Sunday, 20 December 2009


Accuracy and factual representation are cardinal pillars of journalism. But broadcast news reports sometimes make use of manipulated footage to convey a particular point across.

Stories abound about how during the days of the repressive Daniel arap Moi regime, the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation used to air clips of presidential functions with doctored massive turnouts.

The aim was to depict the public rallies addressed by the then Head of State as having been well attended. So clips of previous mammoth functions, teeming with humanity, would be used as cutaways and those watching would never get the idea that the President's address didn't have that many listeners.

Except for the discerning viewer, who occasionally would wonder why the clip showing the President's close- up, has rain showers and in the next clip showing crowds applauding, it is not raining and there is not a single umbrella in sight.

The make believe world of journalism

But at times, the very nature of television news production especially, necessitates the stage managing of clips. After taping an interview for example, the cameraperson might ask the interviewee to walk from one side to another or pretend they're talking on the telephone or typing something on the computer.

These particular images would come in handy as cutaways for the reporter to bridge between different  interview inserts in the news package.

This piece of magic can nevertheless be ruined by a careless reporter through use of disjointed sequencing. For example, a news subject can be seen making a statement inside a venue, then in the next shot, the person enters a car and it drives off.

And yet the reporter, in the following shot, inserts the same person making another statement in the venue. This sort of editing breaks the rule of natural expectations.

But some situations are a bit tricky, even for the most experienced television news journalist. Say, a Cabinet minister is supposed to attend a function but instead sends his assistant.

The assistant minister then proceeds to read a written speech that would have been delivered by the Minister. In the subsequent news story, the viewer cannot be expected to easily know that the person talking is just reading a speech on behalf of someone else.

In a newspaper article, this fact can be expressly stated and the reference to it made repeatedly by a reader. In an electronic medium, it becomes hard to convey because pictures speak for themselves and even the patient reporter would find it hard to keep reminding the viewer who the points being made should be attributed to.

Black magic of journalism

There are however instances when journalists do go overboard in their search of a desired effect. Take for example a photojournalist, who incites parties to a dispute to get rowdy, confrontational or even square out physically.

This is done in the knowledge that a sure way of getting great photos is by flaming tensions in a conflict and even inducing mayhem.

Apart from this being an unethical and dishonest approach to covering news, it might also endanger somebody's life or result in senseless destruction of property or public peace.

Another example is the infamous scandal of digitally altered photos that initially escaped to scrutiny test at Reuters. Lebanese photojournalist Adnan Hajj found it necessary to enhance the perceived damage caused by an Israel incursion and used Photoshop to literally plant billowing black smoke.

Just like in the 'real' world of magic, any illusion, though not excusable in the eyes of purist journalism school of thoughts, should have clearly defined and well-meaning purposes, with intrinsic value underpinning them.

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