In journalism school, you learn about responsible journalism: It’s important to think critically, be accurate and tell fair and balanced stories. And keeping the facts straight shows respect to sources who share news in good faith. But in my limited experience I have found those principles are only starting points for truly responsible journalism, writes Western University grad Jacob Kuehn.  

The outdoor market in Kisumu, Kenya in 2010. Kisumu was a flashpoint for clashes between police and protesters in Kenya’s post-Election violence of 2007 and 2008. Credit: Jacob Kuehn

By Jacob Kuehn

“Journalism is about people sharing consciousness by telling each other stories,”  

As a newbie reporter that idea by Carleton University journalism professor Stuart Adam in his book Notes Towards a Definition of Journalism stuck with me. Consciousness is fundamental to who we are. The idea that journalists deal in such a precious commodity really impressed on me the responsibilities inherent in the craft.

In journalism school, we learned a lot about responsibility. It’s important to think critically, be accurate and tell fair and balanced stories. Keeping the facts straight shows respect to sources who share news in good faith. But in my limited experience, I have found those principles are only starting points for truly responsible journalism.   

In January 2012, I interned with Reuters in Kenya where I was excited to help cover one of the country’s major political stories—a ruling by the International Criminal Court (ICC).


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Roughly four years earlier, Kenya erupted in violence along ethnic lines after a fiercely disputed election.  Mobs of youth took to the streets with machetes and other weapons, killing members of rival tribes and burning homes, leaving more than 1,200 dead and prompting several hundred thousand to flee their homes.

While I was in Kenya, the international court was to decide whether to try six suspects for masterminding the violence—including then-presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta. It was to be a milestone in a country whose citizens had seen no justice in the wake of rampant bloodshed. 

I spent several days where most of the violence had happened. My job was to meet victims, learn their stories and share their opinions regarding the international court.

Some people I met had seen their neighbours hacked to death with machetes. Many were chased from their homes only to return later to looted, smouldering shells. A few people I interviewed lived in small shacks on their original property, but many were too afraid to return and instead, lived in tent villages.

Mike Karanja never left. 

I met him on a Sunday morning, dressed in an ill-fitted, baggy suit. I had just been walking through a cemetery alongside the burned foundation of a church in the small village of Kiambaa where I had counted 36 weathered wooden crosses—all marked Jan. 1, 2008, as the date of death.

This was the site of one of the largest massacres during Kenya’s post-election violence. According to residents, the massacre happened on New Year’s Day. An angry mob barricaded more than 250 people seeking refuge in a church, and then set it on fire, killing about 30 people. More died later in hospital. Karanja was one of the survivors.  

He had been hiding outside the church when the building began burning. His aunt and two cousins—nine and two years old—were inside. His aunt tried to escape the death trap through a door with her baby wrapped in a shawl on her back, but the cloth melted and the baby dropped backward into the fiery building. Frantic, the woman reached back, flames searing her arms and face. Her child died.

As I listened to his story, I was struck by how he seemed to remember details as if it were yesterday: the smell, the smoke and the carnage. He wanted me to understand what it was like.

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“I feel very tortured,” he told me. 

As he continued, it was clear that he wanted to tell me all these tragic details.  He wanted people to understand what happened destroyed his family and continues to haunt him. He wanted people to understand how he still felt.

But when he finished speaking, all I could do was thank him for sharing his story with me, and I got into a car and left. 

When I returned to my hotel room that night, I wrote the story. I filed the best quotes about the international court, with background information about the people who delivered victim impact statements in order to give the story a human face. Altogether, the people only filled a few lines of space in the body of the story the next day.

From a journalistic perspective, there was nothing wrong with that. It was the right way to put together a well-rounded, accurate, fair and balanced piece of journalism about the court ruling. It was totally responsible.

But as I think about Karanja and the other Kenyans who shared their stories with me, hoping I would in turn share them, I can’t shake the feeling that I let them down. They spoke with me because they wanted people to know the cost they continued to pay for those tragedies years before.

In doing so, they trusted me with stories that were intimate and difficult to tell. They were stories that stayed with them and formed their consciousness. And I hadn’t told their stories fully.

And so, to me, this article is part of my responsible journalism. 

It’s me telling you about Karanja, his family and the other victims who shared their stories with me in good faith, hoping that someone would hear them.

It’s me doing my best to transfer consciousness.

The case at the ICC against the six accused inciters of Kenya’s election violence continues. Kenyatta, one of the accused, was elected president of Kenya and sworn into office on April 9, 2013. His trial is set to begin in February 2014 after several delays. William Ruto, also accused, is currently Kenya’s deputy president. His trial began in September.

Jacob Kuehn was awarded the The Haak Saan Responsible Journalism Scholarship for this essay during his graduate studies in journalism at Western University April 2011.  The scholarship was established at Western University to promote and enhance social justice, peace and harmony by encouraging highly responsible journalism. Kuehn is an associate producer with CBC News, The National and he graduated from Western in 2011.

 

 


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