‘Horse-race’ reporting dominates Kenyan media coverage of 2022 elections

Newspapers in Kenya have primarily focused on the two top contenders, William Ruto and Raila Odinga, paid less attention to key policy issues and hardly interrogated the claims made by candidates, an ongoing study monitoring the country’s media coverage of the 2022 elections has shown.

The study by the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME) analysed articles published in Kenyan newspapers in May and June, with a view of identifying good practices or pointing out gaps so that they are addressed in real time. The next monitoring report will include a sample of newspaper, television and radio coverage.

The study was conducted through a quantitative content analysis of four newspapers: Daily Nation, The Standard, The Star andTaifa Leo.

While the study noted that the press had given the elections significant attention, publishing a total of 1,932 election-related stories in May and June, only 12% of these focused on policy issues.

Volume of stories on presidential candidates

Instead, horse-race issues got most attention, with the Kenya Kwanza Coalition flag bearer Ruto Kenya Kwanza Coalition flag bearer Ruto receiving the highest share of coverage, closely followed by his Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya Alliance counterpart Odinga. Other candidates, George Wajackoyah and David Waihiga Mwaure, received negligible coverage in both months.

A closer look at the issues covered indicates that politics, power play, competition and gamesmanship dominated newspaper coverage in May and June, accounting for 54.1% and 38.3%, respectively.

More so, the study found that in a large majority of stories there was no attempt to interrogate the claims and promises made by presidential candidates.

Interrogation of claims made by presidential candidates

For decades, the media has been criticised for framing elections as a horse-race. However, academic research has found that horse-race reporting was linked to distrust in politicians, distrust of news outlets, an uninformed electorate and inaccurate reporting of opinion poll data.

Horse-race reporting has also been found to hurt female political candidates, who tend to focus on policy issues to build credibility, give an advantage to novel and unusual candidates while shortchanging third-party candidates. These are often overlooked or ignored because their chances of winning are slim when compared to the leading contenders.

What do Kenyans think of the way the media has continued to frame elections in their country as a two-horse race?

ACME held a webinar and a Twitter Space discussion to contextualise the findings. Below is a sample of the panellists’ thoughts:

On framing of the election as a horse-race

Rachel Ombaka

Rachael Ombaka, Vice Chairperson, Association of Media Women in Kenya (AMWIK)

The way the media frames issues is the crux of the problem. We have five candidates including Reuben Kigame. But the election has been framed as a two horse race. This framing has led to the apathy being experienced among a section of voters. For example there are 21 senate candidates, but the media has framed it as just a few senate candidates running. John Allan Namu has an app that provides information on all candidates running for various offices, but only a small portion of Kenyans has access to this app. However, the media reaches millions of people, so how they frame the election becomes the dominant public view.

Even people who want to view the future will be dissuaded because the media only focuses on two top candidates; potential candidates would wonder why bother while the media will just ignore you unless you can afford to buy airtime in terms of advertisements. .

Ferdinand Mwongela

Ferdinand Mwongela, Quality Assurance Editor, Standard Group

It is not a matter of framing and fair coverage. The media does not determine the coverage, a candidate’s news value in the newschain does. For example,  Wajackoyah had negligible coverage in June, but it increased in June. Why? He became a person of interest. Concerning David Mwaure; is he doing events that the media are not covering? If he invites the media to cover his events, the media will go and cover them. The coverage has been fair depending on the proactivity of the campaigns. Media houses devote a lot of resources to campaign coverage. It is just a matter of newsworthiness.

 

Shikoh Kihika

Shikoh Kihika, Executive Director, Tribeless Youth

There are so many other candidates running for various offices at different levels, who are not known. The role of the media is to inform the public on the status and actual number of people who are vying for the seats. Kenyans need to have the full picture so they can interrogate issues. This would guide decision making. The Kenya kwanza and azimio candidates have had the largest share of coverage. The question becomes, why would two candidates appear to be curtain raising for two other candidates running for the same office, as the case was during the gubernatorial debate.  This speaks to the issues of fairness and equality when it comes to giving access to the platforms for the candidates to speak to the public. Deputy president debates, the first candre of people; Justina and Ruth,  had a lot to say, and they focused on issues as opposed to personalities. Some polls showed that the two had less than 5% popularity. How genuine are these polls? Do they represent the actual face of what Kenyans want? The polls are misinformed in the way they are prepared. Is it that media owners dictate what happens?  Or does the media frame the picture they want Kenyans to buy?

On failure to scrutinise candidates’ claims and promises

Abdallahi Boru

Abdullahi Boru, media critic and commentator

It depends on which media we are speaking of between community radio stations and mainstream national media. The scope of issues covered by community media is slightly different from the national media. The other issue is the consideration of the place of media criticism; media criticism is called for. The other issue is the question of media coverage being a zero sum game, a spectacle, a theatre. This type of news that has excitement around it is given prominence of coverage, and once for example debates are finished, instead of systematic analysis of any policy issues raised, the media goes directly to announcing the perceived ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ of the debate.

This election has seen parties put out their agenda and manifestos on many platforms, but there hasn’t been much examination of these documents. Instead, Kenyan politics are organised along other identities that we do not want, whereby around elections there are conversations around peace and security. One realised that issues like international relations occupy the thinnest space; in the two major manifestos.The manifestos read like a laundry list; an opportunity was lost in examining them. The media has not done a good job in terms of interrogating the veracity and  applicability of these documents. It would have been great if the mainstream media had taken this up not only on a national level but also through the community media. In conclusion, these are marketing documents, not policy documents. It behooves us to examine them.

Ferdinand Mwongela Quality Assurance Editor, Standard Group

This ties in with the practice of journalists and the training. The reporter in the field has a whole team backing them, editors with years of experience, who brief young reporters in the field. They also edit the stories before they are released into the public. We may have young inexperienced reporters, but there are more experienced editors who refine the stories before they are published.

For example, there have been perceptions that Kenya Kwanza are being sidelined in reporting, yet the report indicates they have prominence of coverage. There seems to be little analysis

Robert Wanjala

Robert Wanjala, Programme Officer, Article19

Most journalists that have attended Article19 training are covering elections for the first time. This can be attributed to te Covid19 pandemic which led to massive layoffs and hiring temporary staff to cover the elections. But these journalists have a team of backup editors. The content looks like it lacks context because of the inexperience of the field reporters. On the question of analysis and investigation, in most cases the reports are hard news, reports on live events. One can only record what is said then report. Journalists are now putting effort in verification of politician’s utterances. Politicians are sometimes not given the right of reply because this is hard news, being reported in real time. We need to train more journalists in data journalism.

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The study was funded by the National Endowment of Democracy (NED).

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