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Peter Mwaura: Lessons from US media on how to cover false claims of poll victory
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|Peter Mwaura: Lessons from US media on how to cover false claims of poll victory by Kenyans247(1): Fri 06, November, 2020 01:51am|
Since Tuesday night, I’ve been watching live on American TV stations the coverage of the US presidential election results. Apart from the entertainment, there are many takeaways.
But the most important lesson is how the media ought to cover information that is false, misleading, or disputed.
This is particularly useful for Kenya which has since independence in 1963 held elections whose conduct and results were largely dictated by one-party rule dictators or the strong man syndrome and the media simply reported what they heard and saw without, in general, calling out electoral fraud.
The general elections of 2007, 2013 and 2017 in particular were dogged by disputes and false claims of victories. The 2007 election disputes plunged the country into bloodshed in which more than 1,000 people were killed and hundreds displaced.
And here is the takeaway from the US media. When President Trump held a press conference early on Wednesday around 2.30 am in which he claimed he had won the election, while vote counting was still going on, several major TV stations did what is rarely done: They cut him off and fact-checked him in real time.
NBC News anchor Savannah Guthrie interrupted the broadcast, saying: “We're listening to the president speaking at the White House, but we've got to dip in here because there have been several statements that are just frankly not true.”
President Trump had said “we won in states we didn’t expect to win,” and suggested without evidence that voter fraud threatened to steal away his victory, adding that he intended to take his complaints to the Supreme Court.
NBC followed the president’s remarks with analysis that detailed to viewers precisely how what Mr. Trump had said was not what had happened in the election.
MSNBC also cut into Mr Trump’s victory speech to fact-check his lies. ““We are reluctant to step in but duty-bound to point out when he says, ‘We did win this election, we’ve already won,’ that is not based in the facts at all,” said MSNBC chief anchor Brian Williams.
The “don’t let the president get away with lies” takeaway should, of course, be tempered by our culture and political realities. But it should inspire and embolden our journalists.
There is also a journalism maxim that is generally true, “What the president says is news.” The term president is extended here to mean not only the head of state but anyone who is a mover and shaker. In our current political environment BBI (Handshake) partner Raila Odinga is such a president.
What Mr Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta say is news and there is no way the media cannot report what they say. But what they say need not be reported without putting it in context or fact-checking it.
The media shouldn’t be “a mere messenger and a chronicler of any events,” as the Kenya Editors Guild suggested when it protested the ban on reporting the controversial January 30, 2018, swearing in of Raila Odinga as the people’s president, which Attorney General Githu Muigai said would amount to treason.
But journalistically—and here the Guild was right – there was no way the media could not have covered the swearing-in because the event was inherently newsworthy. The question was how to do it. TV stations could, for example, have skipped live transmission to allow for contexting or fact-checking.
The media should not be a mere vehicle for speech that attacks the truth, promotes confusion and chaos, hate and violence, or undermines our democracy. This is the key takeaway from the US media coverage of President Trump’s night claims of having won the elections before voting was concluded.
The Public Editor is an independent news ombudsman who handles readers’ complaints on editorial matters including accuracy and journalistic standards. Email: email@example.com. Call or text 0721989264.
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