The post-U.S. election and post-Brexit period has brought a moment of reckoning for media and inspired a wave of soul-searching among many journalists. From the perspective of developing countries, it looked like Western media had been duped by the type of propagandized, polarized, partisan media forces that is so familiar in so many places.
Something is broken about how Western media uses data to inform voters during elections, with much of mainstream media missing their moment to inform instead of provoke the public.
Imagine presidential election coverage without incessant polling, without blatant identity politics, without even a left and a right. That is the context in which Kenyans went to the polls on August 8, 2017. The fear of a repeat of the 2013 election violence that killed about 1,200 led to a near obsession with a message of peace or Kenya ni sisi (Kenya is us) and a prohibition against overtly tribal politicking. There were few violent clashes this time, but the election results were annulled by the Supreme Court on September 1 due to irregularities in vote counting and are now rescheduled for October 28.
The Nation Newsplex, the data team of the Daily Nation, the highest circulation daily newspaper in Kenya, watched and learned from the West’s example and took a different approach to election coverage. It produced data-driven fact-checking for the Kenyan public to help them vote on the issues facing the country. Dorothy Otieno, the editor of the Newsplex team, explained the unique opportunity for fact checking in Kenya. “If things like fact checking continue going forward, it will begin to help the voter focus more on issues than personalities,” she explained.
Nation Newsplex has a rare combination: a public interest data-driven mandate and an audience from a diverse background. It also distributes online, in print and through one of the largest television stations in Kenya, NTV.
Maybe the rest of us have something to learn as Western media struggle to tackle a few big questions.
1. How do we reach new, diverse audiences with information relevant to their lives?
Two conversation are happening almost in parallel: the need for more data-driven accountability reporting and the need to engage more ideologically and socio-economically diverse audiences. The name that the Newsplex team chose for its election fact-checking feature reveals where its loyalties lie: Before You Vote. The Newsplex team adopted the Daily Nation’s ten key election issues (economy, corruption, health, education, etc.) to determine the fact checking themes. Whether fact checking economic issues such assmall business growth, foreign direct investment and unemployment or public service delivery such as health, food security or compensation for internally displaced people, the focus was on the welfare of citizens, not on the politician. For example, they calculated the individual burden of public debt on each citizen to people a number they could relate to. De-politicizing the coverage, prioritizing policy over scandal, permits citizens to inform themselves on neutral ground.
2. How do we do a better job of fact checking to keep politicians honest and counteract fake news?
Much of the coverage of Kenyan media by international media focused on the undeniably pervasiveness of fake news. It is low hanging fruit, trendy and not especially useful for citizens. From Bloomberg and Quartz to Huffington Postand Turkey’s TRT World (they should talk), global media sounded the alarm bell on fake news going viral in social media and fake newspapers printed to look like the Daily Nation and Star. With money poured into the country to promote “peace journalism,” a type of coverage that emphasizes common ground and reducing tensions, it is even more notable that the Nation Newsplex has for months stuck to its guns in policy coverage of substance. Often, NTV, the television station owned by the Nation Media Group, would introduce politics programs with fact-checking highlights, such as on youth unemployment, and use the findings as a basis for their interviews. As the campaigns progressed, the Newsplex team noticed that often politicians would cite statistics fact checked the previous week and gradually, Otieno said, “[The politicians] tried to have their audiences rooted in reality even if they still exaggerated.”
3. How do we escape the echo chamber and burst the filter bubble?
I was among many who were dazzled and inspired by NPR’s live annotated fact checking of the debate speeches. And then I thought about whether a single person went to the site, planning to vote one way and then changed their minds based on the fact checking. The Newsplex team has been deliberate in presenting fact-checking evenly. In each addition of the Sunday paper, they dedicated one page to fact-checking: three about the incumbent and three about the main opposition party as well as ministers and gubernatorial candidates. Though they still fielded charges of bias, few question the substance of the fact checking.
One key to Nation Newsplex’s success is the focus on personalized data that makes people think beyond preconceptions. They returned again and again to topics such as prices of basic goods, yields of staple foods, issues affecting citizens every day beyond elections. By examining issues like factory jobs in dairy farms, lowering the cost of living and promises for free secondary education the journalists encouraged people to cut through the rhetoric and evaluate which candidates were promoting the best policies and achieving concrete results. Ideologically they may believe something but they are going to make decisions that are best for their families or communities. These types of stories are now popping up more and more in Western media: demonstrating that kicking out immigrants will not grow the economy, nor will bringing back coal or taking away people’s health coverage, but these stories were difficult to find pre-elections.
4. How can we have, and measure, impact?
There isn’t a very strong business model for public interest data-driven journalism and impact is notoriously difficult to measure in journalism. But there also isn’t a good business model for spending months coding the most compelling live election results map or creating the most sophisticated outcome predictor. With the resources it had, the Nation Newsplex emulated some parts of Western data journalism. The biggest project to date has beenDeadly Force, a database of police shootings modeled on the Guardian’s The Counted. By making police violence, equality in education, county governance and women in politics election issues, the Nation Newsplex turned the conversation serious, beyond politics as usual. Otieno said often a reader would comment that it was useful to be informed on that issue, even if it didn’t necessarily change the way they plan to vote.
The Newsplex team also prioritizes integration both into other newsroom desks and other Nation Media Group outlets partially to maximize resources. For Deadly Force, it worked with both the Nation crime reporter and the county bureaus to investigate certain anomalies, such as Nyanza, where large numbers of political demonstrators and bystanders had been killed by police. Sometimes they run fact checking alongside traditional stories to provide context and explanation. Otieno explained that in a country obsessed with politics, more people are engaging in informed debates after learning about policy through the newspaper, online, on TV or from a teacher or colleague.
5. Are nonprofit news sites just creating more content for elites who already read a lot of news?
A recent post from NiemanLab brought up that crucial question. Kenya is unique in both its media consumption habits and its passion for political participation. A study by the Kenyan Audience Research Foundation and reported by the Star found most people still prefer traditional media for news. It is not uncommon to see a single newspaper copy passed around an office from managers, to staff, to cleaning personnel to drivers. In the 2017 elections, voter turnout was 79 percent, compared to 58 percent for the last US presidential elections and 72 percent for the EU referendum. The Newsplex teams to continue its mission after the elections, whatever the outcome. They will take the winning party’s policy promises and begin to measure whether they are meeting those pledges all the while striving to stay on neutral ground and address issues relevant to a diverse country.
Outside Kenya, the continued fragmentation of audiences mirrored by growing global inequality do not bode well for a resurgence in trust of mass media. But running away from mass media in favor of specialized elite media may leave out the very audiences who have been alienated by the current system.