Open Letter; Dear Media Owners The 40 Women Kenya Lost in 2019 …..

Open Letter; Dear Media Owners The 40 Women Kenya Lost in 2019 …..

Media carries serious ethical responsibility in view of its' role & power in today’s world,  AND an even GREATER RESPONSIBILITY as Media Owners.

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Media carries serious ethical responsibility in view of its’ role & power in today’s world,  AND an even GREATER RESPONSIBILITY as Media Owners.

 

Dear Ladies & Gentlemen [Media Owners],

The use of media carries with it a profound ethical responsibility considering its’ role, and power in today’s world. A role and power, placing an even greater responsibility on you – as the owners.

It’s against this weighty backdrop, that I draw your attention to the series of high-profile “violent [and fatal] attacks on women / girls” in Kenya increasingly, awash in media reports of gruesome killings of women.

The reports, in a subtle way, are progressively ripping apart the social fabric of how our country works. As social media platforms, many in their innocence, exacerbate the unfortunate trend.   This is not the country most of us, not even you ~ as media owners ~ I believe, will wish to live in.

As business owners, I therefore consciously and in the first instance, address this APPEAL to you as Media Owners, in the belief that as owners of this powerful tool, you shall feel the obligation to intervene in the media reports that are possibly causing more harm, than good, and subtly damaging the social fabric of this country in many ways irreparably.

I therefore attach the statement below.

Cordially,

Peter Ouma Muga

Statement:

APPEAL :  Media Owners Review Coverage of Violence Against Women – Voluntarily.

I write to you choosing my words carefully, as a trained psychologist, and public spirited resident of HomaBay County, Kenya and conscious of my responsibility to place my skills at the disposal of public good.

The tornado of media coverage of “violent [and fatal] attacks on women [and girls]” that swirls around each such killing is a serious concern.  The acute interest in the identity and characteristics of the perpetrator [and victim] – as well as the detailed and sensationalist reporting of the killer’s steps just before and during the incident – may be creating a vicious cycle of copycat effects.

Data from Counting Dead Women Kenya indicate that during the period between January 1, 2019, and 13th April, about 40 women were killed.  The majority of the femicide cases involved women being murdered by intimate partners: Spouses and boyfriends.

More worrying trends show that homicide cases have taken a sharp spike after increasing by 5% from 2648 in the year 2015 to 2774 in 2018.

While conscious of the media’s sacred responsibility to seek after truth, and inform the public, as enshrined in the Constitution under Articles 33, 34 and 35, freedom of expression and of the press.   I appeal to your voluntary (self-regulation and) and intervention, while reporting of this violence.

While this may not be readily evident, the current reports of this violence in the media is very likely, however unintended, fueling the violence.

The Problem

Media is no doubt a powerful tool for shaping how people comprehend the world, and we are constantly reminded of the truth of these words in the use of the media for education, cultural enrichment, commercial activity and political participation.  Yet this coin has another side. Media which can be used for the good of persons and communities, and yet, an uninformed usage can also exploit, manipulate, dominate, and mislead.

The recent increased reports of “violent [and fatal] attacks on women [and girls]” by the Kenyan media is a recent and evolving serious concern.  And sets the pace on how as a country we must engage the reporting of violence related incidences.

Allow me to explain.

Recent media coverage around this critical issue continues to reinforce dangerous cultural norms, and the media [and some “experts”] in their reports and commentaries continue to demonstrate a grave lack of understanding of the phenomena the media reports.

While a quick review reveals Media Council of Kenya (MCK), has published industry guidelines on  …”conflict sensitive reporting…”, and “..reporting of terrorism.” However and as demonstrated in recent media reports – whether it’s violence against women and/or the attack by extremists, the existence of the guidelines aren’t doing nearly as much, to ensure responsible reporting by the media – reporting that that protects the public.

…… So what do the experts say? ….

Many research findings worldwide have repeatedly demonstrated consensus that regular detailed and sensational reporting of such violence against women and even reporting of terrorism incidents in the media, may “glorify” and “normalize” these deviant behavior.  The studies also suggest, the violent behavior is contagious, and can inspire imitators – resulting in “copycat” deviant behaviour.

“Copycat” tendencies are notable when those who intend to commit such violent acts, often replicate (imitate] elements of the prior reported incidence.  Many of us unwittingly fall into the trap of victim-blaming and “othering,” yet, it’s really important to identify what’s going on, and then to consider the ways that we can subvert this tendency.

A tendency also explained as “Othering.”  A process of casting an individual, a group, or an object into the role of the ‘other’ and establishing ones’ own identity through opposition to and, frequently, malign this ‘Other’.  The “Other”, is then stripped of humanity through the mechanism of projection, and becomes a container for negative qualities.

Sensitivity to this rich body of knowledge, and using it to inform policy AND ACTION is not reflected in the local media reports of violence – unfortunately.

While we do not suggest, the said media coverage as the ‘trigger’ of the deviant behavior. The media however needs to do more considering the current incessant [and detailed] reporting; its way out of line and lacking in  empathy, trivalising the violence against women, the gallow humour by media presentors , the sharing of “intimate details” of the acts with the public and so on.  All which may very well have an unintended knock-on effect on the increment in incidences recently observed in the gruesome acts of violence against women.

In less violent forms however we have seen and online progression in “chats” “gallows humour jokes” and even comments by politicians, no less than the deputy president bordering on “normalizing” this deadly violent behaviour

The recent reports although unintended, may be aiding the contagious trend and inspiring “copy-cat tendencies” witnessed in the increased incidences of violence.  A similar trend we suggest may have fueled other similar incidences namely; “unrest in schools,” “fires in schools,” and “suicides among the youth” reported with almost predictable frequency annually.  Episodes which display telltale signs of “copycat” tendencies.

These stories [“unrest in schools,” “fires in schools,” and “suicides among the youth”] which have an almost annual cycle have been reported are contagious, they are a morbidly attractive ideas that offers an establish path of action for a troubled / vulnerable youngster.  And we know from research in many fields, that establishing a path of action – a complete narrative in which you can visualize your steps and their effects – is important in enabling follow-through. Hence the imitative behavior.

In the foregoing, I trust that you will appreciate that the ongoing reporting of these “stories of violence” and even whenever we have an attack by extremists have deep-seated repercussions on the values and social fabric of the country.  And more pointedly, its impact particularly, on the young and vulnerable, may be leading them to engage in imitative behaviors.

What you can do

I therefore suggest you pause and consider the following pathways which have seen remarkable desirable effects in intervening in similar violence reporting situations in other parts of the world;

  • My aim here is not to blame the media: while such events have undeniable news value, and there is intense public interest in uncovering their details. However, it’s important to recognize that such incidents are not mono-causal, and the sensational news coverage is, increasingly, part of the mix of events that could contribute to the current violent rampage.
  • We need to figure out how to balance the public interest in learning about the violent incidences and reducing “copycat” behaviour. The guidelines worldwide on reporting on teen suicides as established –  provide specific recommendations which we could learn from: Don’t refer to the word suicide in the headline. Don’t report the method of the suicide. Don’t present it as an inexplicable act of an otherwise healthy person.
  • We should not release details of the methods and manner of the killings, and those who learn those details should not share them. In other words, there should be no immediate stories about which weapons were used. In particular, there should be no reporting of the killer’s words, or actions before or during the incident.
  • Yes, as  a scholar of social media and I understand that these things will leak. But there is a big difference between information that can only be found if one really look for it, and news stories that are blasted by every    media house in the country. At a minimum, we can, and should, greatly delay the release of these details by weeks, if not months.
  • If and when social media accounts of the killers are located, law enforcement should work with the platforms to immediately pull them. Yes, there will be screenshots, and again, I am not proposing that such information can be entirely silenced out. But by making it harder to locate, we can dampen the impact of the spectacle.
  • The name of the killer should not be revealed immediately. If possible, law enforcement and media sources should agree to a “policy of disregard”; considering that among many things perpetrators seek in their acts of violence, is fame and notoriety. All public reporting should deny them this – they should remain nameless. The identity can be released later during trial [if there is one] or during the release of the investigative report. Once again, merely delaying the release of information may greatly reduce the “spectacle effect.” The name may “leak,” but that is very different from the full blast of attention that currently surrounds the perpetrators immediately after each incident.
  • The intense jostling to interview survivors and loved ones of victims in their most vulnerable moments should be stopped. This, too, may support and reduce the sense of spectacle and trauma.  Similarly, the killer[s} should not be profiled extensively, at least not at first. The media should avoid the current almost news hungry intense search for clues or reasoning beyond “troubled person commits unspeakable act; wish he had gotten help earlier,” reported.  Reports offering the perpetrators’ explanation for his crime in blaring headings are inappropriate.  Reports ought to be in as flat a reporting style as possible.
  • The Live coverage of violent attacks by Extremists is unacceptable – While clear guidelines exist, the adherence to this by local media has HAS NOT been apparent in recent episodes.  Yet numerous studies and troubling episodes worldwide repeatedly demonstrate the serious cosequences of not doing so.  For the prime reason not to endanger lives, the media should refrain from live coverage of attacks by extremists recently observed.  This is especially true when attempts are underway to free hostages. Live media coverage showing special security forces preparing to enter building where such events are happening might risk the entire operation and put potential hostages in jeopardy. In addition, the perpetrators might be attentive to media coverage, and hear and even see the rescue operation while in progress. Displaying what exits and/or entries remain open [or are closed]. Their reaction might be deadly! Furthermore, hostages might hear about the plans, become alarmed and confused, and subsequently act in a way that would jeopardize the operation. What is suggested is not a complete shutting off of the media. Instead, I am suggesting delayed coverage so as not to risk human lives. Really – this is fair and achievable!

I don’t claim that these as the only and best ways to deal with the issue of the violence being reported. But I offer them as fodder for a conversation, perhaps it is a call for reflection, that I trust will be taken up by Media Owners, Law Enforcement, Mental Health experts and the general public.

Educate the public too, that they have now joined you as Media Owners, and even as they use their individual social media handles and/or profile, they too to a great extent share in lifting the weighty load of responsibility.

I challenge those drawn to invest in the story telling and society enhancing opportunity provided by the media, [even in social media pages / profiles] as Media Owners to take-up the responsibility to weed out the violence where it exists, and make sure that we never create an environment where it can flourish.

Peter Ouma Muga

Advisor –  Bunge La Wenye Nchi (HomaBay)

We want to hear what you think about this article. 

Recommended reading

1. Review of some concrete examples how reporting terrorisn has hurt

2. Against Stupidity in the Media

Corrections

  1. 29.4.2019 – replaced “terrorists” with “extremists” –  “terrorist” is a powerful rhetorical tool of “Othering”; stating there exists an “Us” and the “Other,” and is a frequent response to attacks with detrimental consequences for minority communities, who then face further law enforcement and criminalization framed as anti-terrorism.  An attack  is the “act of terrorism.”

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