Ethical Reasoning of Kenya’s Electoral Coverage

Independent Electoral Boundary Commission officials address the press at the Bomas of Kenya regarding delayed election results. Credit: Demotix.com

Independent Electoral Boundary Commission officials address the press at the Bomas of Kenya regarding delayed election results. Credit: Demotix.com

...another cheat post from a recent school essay.

Introduction

This paper is an analysis or the ethical reasoning of a week’s worth of electoral coverage in the Nation Newspaper towards the March 4th Kenya General Elections. As was the case for all media during the three months running to this election, electoral progress made headlines in the newspaper on a daily basis. Similarly, the editorial reflected the focus of the press and the national interest on the anticipated outcome of the most closely watched election trail in Kenyan history. Subsequently, to provide a balanced level of attention to each individual newspaper in this analysis, a 5-day sample of one story (the Cover Story) and the Editorial comprise the text which will be assessed.

Ethical issues are crucially important in all aspects of the media, but more so when covering democratic elections in which different political parties and candidates compete for popular support in order to gain power and the right to govern the nation. The media has a responsibility to society at this time of ensuring voters are informed about the candidates’ and parties’ mandates, the exercise of power in the campaign, the voting process and analyses of events and issues which do or will affect them once the elections have been conducted.  It is the media’s function not only to carry the politicians’ voices (through advertisements as well as neutral processes such as organizing candidate debates) but also reporting any violations of the rights of candidates or voters such as prohibition of free speech, political misdemeanours or mismanagement of the election process. Finally, the media serve as the voice of the voters by providing a public sphere from the grassroots up to link the needs of the people with the promises of the running candidates. It is worthy of note that even opinions expressed in editorial and op-ed page articles need to be backed up by facts and accurate analyses if they are to be ‘ethically’ acceptable.

The ethical reasoning of the media should reflect an adherence to journalistic professional ethics, but there is also a degree of liberty for individual morality where the moral reasoning behind an act (in this case, the story or the editorial) is in line with one of many schools of ethics and philosophy which determine the structure and content of news coverage and reflect different approaches in the practical judgments of possible outcomes of this coverage. This is the concept of ethical standing, in which “someone or something is a subject of ethical consideration in their own right, regardless of their usefulness as a means to another end” (Mepham, 2008). In electoral coverage this bodes the question, can a story about a candidate or party be told for journalistic purposes (e.g. providing neutral information), without reinforcing or altering voters’ perceptions of that candidate?

Thus, whilst the ethical acceptability of a course of action depends largely on the professional guidelines (whose judgments and conventions are arrived at through intellectual reflection, conceptual analysis and clarification thereof) there is room for the common morality (referred to here as the sense of right or wrong according to individual or group conventions – such as the newspaper’s morality). This analysis will therefore determine not only the ethos of the newspaper, i.e. the dominant patterns of ethical thought applied during a practical (moral) judgment of public interest as reflected by its election coverage, but how well this coverage adheres to professional ethical practice.  In establishing the ethical rationale behind the writing assessed in this article, it is useful to draw a framework to assess which ethical and professional principles are met by the newspaper. There are several ways of understanding what media ethics is, which, according to Chiyamwaka, can be classified into four main definitions as follows:

1. The study of what we ought to do. It has to do with duty. Duty to self and duty to others.

2. Critical reflection on and self-confrontation with the moral choices that arise daily.

3. Rules of conduct or principles of morality that point us towards the right or best way to act in a situation.

4. Ethics are concerned with making rational judgments as well as sound moral decisions in daily journalistic performance (Chiyamwaka, 2008).

The ethical duty of the press should therefore reflect accuracy, truth, balance and fairness and objectivity. As illustrated by the proverbial scales of justice which symbolize a balance between truth and fairness or opposition and support, ethical media coverage is a balancing act. Sometimes there are both good and bad effects of a story, and the journalist should ensure that the positive outcomes significantly outweigh the negative outcome. This principle falls in line with John Rawls’ conception of justice as fairness which (1) advocates for equal liberties for all (each person should have as much liberty as is consistent with others); and (2) acknowledging that there are inequalities in every society, require that inequalities are arranged so that those who would benefit the least receive the highest advantage (Nagel, 1973). In the case of the media, press coverage should thrive to bring justice to all the parties and interests involved. For the sake of this review the interested parties are: the readers, the voters, the candidates and their parties, democracy, peace and even the sales of the newspaper.

Theoretical Approaches  

The ethos, or moral standing of the press can also be a representation of the newspaper’s concept of justice from three dominant theoretical approaches: Jeremy Bentham’s Utilitarianism, Immanuel Kant’s Deontologism and Joseph Fletcher’s Situationalism.

Utilitarianism can be summed up as a philosophy advocating the greatest claim to happiness for the greatest number of people. This principle assumes that everybody has an equal claim to pleasure and pain, and the means to achieving said happiness or pain (Brink, 2008). The principle focuses on the consequences of pleasure or pain as determinants of our actions, in which positive actions can be considered as those which contribute to social good or happiness, whilst negative actions are socially hurtful and should be avoided. One weakness of this principle is that it assumes that society is intrinsically good, and intrinsically happy as a result of “good” or socially beneficial actions. A case in point is that although deforestation is harmful to the planet and will create future problems for mankind, it is a source of livelihood for many people. Should it therefore be allowed to continue since it generally results in short-term happiness?

Credit: Mooki

Credit: Mooki

Stuart Mill emphasized the quality rather than the quantity of happiness, arguing that “happiness” needs to be both an intellectual as well as sensual pleasure. Mill also perceives Justice as a fundamental basis for If Justice is the punishment of wrongs (such as violation of one’s human rights to happiness) then punishment results from “a combination of revenge and social sympathy” and as “rights are claims that one has on society to protect us” then social utility is the only reason that we have claims to justice in the first place (Brink, 2008). With regards to the issue of electoral coverage, a Utilitarian approach would be one whose actions seek to bring about absolute results that satisfy and maximize the common good.

Immanuel Kant’s ethics is classed as deontological, or duty-based, such that our actions should be based not on the outcome, but on the duty of the doer, where one’s duty is to obey the innate moral laws, satisfy formal conditions and good choices. He formulated Categorical Imperatives (CI), which hold the maxim that if an act is right, it is right regardless of whether someone gets hurt or not. Two examples of these imperatives are:

Always act in such a way that you can also will that the maxim of your action should become a universal law. Or Act so that you treat humanity, both in your own person and that of another, always as an end and never merely as a means (Shekhar, 2010)

The Categorical Imperative answers the question “What ought I to do” regardless of the consequences, but with regard to one’s moral (and mortal) philosophies. It is a reductionist view of the definition of good, termed as a priori – without drawing on observations of human beings and their behavior and therefore has little room for empirical generalizations, as compared to Utilitarianism. Wherein a utilitarian denounces murder because it does not maximize social good, but it should be allowed when seeking to corporally punish an individual that is harmful to society (a serial rapist, for example), deontological moral system will denounce murder on all accounts, regardless of the popular demand.

In terms of media ethics, the deontological perspective is that

…virtue, pleasure and knowledge are intrinsically good. Promises, contracts, agreements. Relationships with those affected by one’s actions are the criteria that determine one’s actions. Personal happiness and consequences are irrelevant… (Pratt, 1998).

This is the philosophy by which the ethical person will follow the identified set of rules / duties (in this case, professional journalistic ethics) to the letter, regardless of potentially negative consequences in a given situation, as this is just. By contrast, Sir William David Ross, a British deontologist introduced the concept of multiple duties existing in a given situation which one must choose between when deciding on their actions. He added to the prima facie duties such as “tell the truth” other duties such as “do no harm” and “reparation” to make up for the injuries one has done to others (Singer, 2006).

Ross’ multiple duties principle should not be mistaken as a situational ethics principle. Situational ethics compromise moral principles and set formalities in given situations to yield to the desires of human nature. Joseph Fletcher was a proponent of Situation ethics in which the established moral laws might need to be overlooked in order to achieve greater happiness. Whilst situation ethics apply ethical principles, they do not abide strictly by rules or laws and they are applied to each individual situation or community that will be directly affected by the situation at hand. Whilst situational ethics seek to address the greater good,

We are only ‘obliged’ to tell the truth, for example, if the situation calls for it; if a murderer asks us his victims whereabouts, our duty might be to lie [to protect the victim]… Situation ethics aims at a contextual appropriateness – not the ‘good’ or the ‘right’ but the fitting. (Fletcher, 1966).

Even the fundamental law of journalism, to always tell the truth, is not set in stone from a situational perspective. An example where this rule applies is when a witness’ identity is hidden in a story to protect them from exposure which would lead them to danger. He also adds, “… rules are part of the player’s know-how, and distinguish him from the novice. But they are not unbreakable. The best players are those who know when to ignore them”. In journalism situation ethics calls for superior skills of discernment, or the opposite, a heightened recklessness and lack of fear of, or opposition to, the unavoidable legal ramifications of breaking certain rules. However, by enabling the rules to be open for discussion, this approach supports Habermas’ discourse ethics which states that the diversification of views and values requires the search of a universal justification of ethical norms, valid if all affected would agree on them in a rational discussion forum in which participants may not have knowledge of ethical theory (Bohman & Rehg, 2011). Discourse ethics and open discussion reflect the democratic ideal, which I will attempt to rationalize as follows: After the 2007/08 post-election violence (P.E.V.), all Kenyans want peace to prevail after the March 4th elections of 2013. The media is said to have played a role in the P.E.V. by, among other things, transmitting hate speech. It was after the disputed results were aired that political conflict turned violent, and during this year’s elections there have been several measures on all fronts to prevent another outcome. The outcome of 2013’s polls are again being disputed, but there has been no outbreak of violence. Evidently the media showed restraint in reporting on the voting process; there were instances of vote-tampering and conflicting numbers, but only verified, factual information was reported at all times to avoid inflaming passions. This, however, has resulted in a less emphasized watch-dog role as is required by media ethics laws. Nonetheless, there are legal procedures to address the doubts of the integrity of the ballots, and the Kenyan people got what they wanted the most; Peace.

Ed: As much as I feel the press played their role to avoid inflammatory coverage, it is THE PEOPLE who chose to keep the peace, and the press has no ability to directly inflict or deflect physical harm. I do understand some people’s criticism of the press’s perceived self-censorship in this regard, but let us not kid ourselves. When lives are at stake, a little self-restraint goes a long way. Just a little. It should not be overused. Ever. Again.

The Ethical Framework

The ethical framework by which the media shall be assessed will establish to which extent the media gave justice to, or showed respect for, the interested parties, the professional code and ethical principles according to Kant, Mill or Fletcher.  The table below illustrates the means by which each article will be analyzed:

Ethos –> 

Deontological

Utilitarian

Situational

Interest ↓

Readers / Voters are well informed

Yes

Optional

Optional

Candidates and Parties are receiving equal coverage and portrayed in neutral light

Optional

Yes

Optional

“Value” of information emphasized to optimize newspaper Sales

No

Yes

Optional

Professional Ethics are adhered to over perceived consequences

Yes

No

Optional

Article contributes to greatest ‘common good’ over harm done to a few individuals

No

Yes

Optional

Journalistic preferences (e.g. freedom of speech) emphasized over moral obligation to professional ethics

No

Yes

Optional

Table 1 Ethical Framework for Ethical Reasoning Analysis.

The closest match to the three ethical principles in the table above shall be ascribed to each article, and the results will be tallied to determine the “dominant” ethical reasoning of the Nation Newspaper during the week dated 22nd to 26th of February.

Thematic Analysis

Below is a compilation of summary points from each day’s coverage.

Table 2 Summary of Daily Nation Newspaper Cover Page and Editorial Articles

22nd February:Cover Story (Obara, Leftie, Opiyo, Wafula, & Mutinda, 2013)

  • Cord presidential candidate and running mate demand resignation of head of civil service Francis Kimemia.
  • Political candidates, heads of constitutional commissions and civil society leaders organized marches to condemn the threats to  Chief Justice Willy Mutunga.
  • The PM says death threats to Mutunga are part of a wider scheme to bring Uhuru to power, through Kimemia.
  • Ruto denied the accusation and demanded evidence.
  • Positions and pictures of other presidential candidates: Karua, Keneth, Mudavadi and Uhuru/Ruto as well as Raila are shown.

Editorial (Maithu, 2013)

  • The opening sentence of the editorial is “Welcome to the ten most difficult and anxious days in your life in 5 years”.
  • Referring to the cover story; editor says he wouldn’t have taken the Mungiki letter as authentic if Mutunga (a man of high credibility) hadn’t believed it and referred to it in his press statement.
  • Editor called for all measures to be taken to ensure the safety of the CJ and to find the people responsible for the threats in order to defuse the tensions which affect the election’s fairness.
  • “We owe it to our children and their children to behave decently and exercise restraint to conduct fair and peaceful elections.”

23rd February:

Cover Story (Opiyo, 2013)

  • Uhuru Catches up with Ruto on poll and passes by 0.4%.
  • Raila was consistently ahead until the last poll.
  • Said poll will also be the final one due to Opinion Poll Act which states that poll results shouldn’t be published 5 days to elections.
  • Article mentions poll rankings of all candidates.

Editorial (Kegoro, 2013)

  • The writer refers to the CORD party’s claims that the civil service is being used by TNA to influence elections.
  • He states that the party has done little to prove its claims
  • Notes that the civil service’s record during previous elections (with examples) provides little confidence that the service understands the value of political neutrality.
  • Calls for robust national discussion on political neutrality in the Civil service, including the “representativeness of the top echelons of the security sector”.
24th February:Cover Story (Munene, 2013)

  • Covers factors that could break the tie between Uhuru and Raila.
  • Detailed explanation of the reions to look out for and guidance in interpreting outcome to expectations.
  • Explanation of stronghold provinces / counties, swing counties and battleground counties as the candidate’s strategic target points.
  • Full double=page coverage of “counties to watch for epic battles”.
  • Mention of “unprecedented media blitz and… advertizements in the newspaper, TV, radio… worth millions of shillings”.

Editorial (Mutiga, 2013)

  • Call for objectivity in defining whom was the better candidate between Raila and Uhuru
  • Claims that “there are no objective sources of information on Kenya written by Kenyans because most of it is judged on the basis of the ethnicity of the author”.
  • Refers to wiki leaks about both Odinga and Kenyatta which show them in equally flawed light
  • “They are not worth the loss of a Kenyan life”.

25th February:

Cover Story (Opiyo D. , 2013)

  • Presidential candidates (except Muite and Mudavadi) reported to have gathered before thousands at Uhuru Park to ensure tranquility and unity.
  • There are quotes of “vows” of peace made by each candidate.
  • Absent candidates’ whereabouts were explained.
  • A photo of Uhuru and Raila laughing together on the day.

Editorial (Wara, 2013)

  • The author revisits the definition of integrity and points out that “most of our presidential candidates… lack the integrity required of a person seeking the highest political office” – according to her definition.
  • Uhuru and Ruto should not have ran for presidency as an attempt to defy the ICC but ised the trials to vindicate themselves.
  • Author also states that members of the Grand coalition should all have disqualified themselves.

26th February:

Cover Story (Shiundu & Wanga, 2013)

  • Coverage of the 2nd Presidential Debate at Brookhouse.
  • Detailed the relevant talking points from all major speakers.
  • Did not cover each speaker proportionately to the time spent talking but to the quality of the content.
  • Focused on issues-based topics.
Editorial (Gaitho, 2013)

  • Author calls for a “break from lies, insults, threats and propaganda”, pointing out that despite the peace rally held the previous day, candidates were already back on the election trail hurling regular insults and vitrol at each other
  • Referring also to the letter threatening the judges and Mutunga which seemed designated to ‘nail’ the Jubilee party, in the hope that an example will be made of all the miscreants involved before the elections are over.

According to the ethical framework above, the following results were tallied:

Day

Cover Story

Editorial

22-2-13 Utilitarian Deontological
23-2-13 Deontological Utilitarian
24-2-13 Deontological Deontological
25-2-13 Deontological Situational
26-2-13 Utilitarian Deontological

Table 3 Outcome of Ethical Framework Analyses

Conclusion     

The results in Table 3 show that the dominant ethical reasoning of the Nation Newspaper during the period that it was assessed was deontological in nature (60%). Situational ethical reasoning only appeared once in the ten articles analyzed. It is worthy of note that, whereas situational ethics are usually considered to mean that deception played as a factor, this particular article applied situational ethics by disregarding professional ethics in the area of bias. Overall it is evident that the journalists in this study do apply moral judgments in their work and stringently adhere to the professional code of journalistic ethics, regardless of individual gain, whether personal or otherwise.

*** 

REFERENCES

  1. Bohman, J., & Rehg, W. (2011, December 21). Jurgen Habermas. Retrieved from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy : http://plato.stanford.edu/cgi-bin/encyclopedia/archinfo.cgi?entry=habermas
  2. Brink, D. (2008, 21 September). Mill’s Moral and Political Philosophy. Retrieved from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/mill-moral-political/
  3. Chiyamwaka, B. (2008). Media Ethics: A call to Responsible Journalism. Lilongwe: Chiyamwaka.
  4. Fletcher, J. (1966). Morality, Situation Ethics: The New. Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox Press.
  5. Gaitho, M. (2013, February 26). Kenyans could do with a break from lies, insults, threats and propaganda. Daily Nation, p. 12.
  6. Kegoro, G. (2013, February 23). It baffles that the Civil Service would want to meddle in politics. Saturday Nation, p. 12.
  7. Maithu, M. (2013, February 23). Melodrama or Truth? Daily Nation, p. 12.
  8. Mepham, B. (2008). A framework for ethical analysis. In B. Mepham, The Theoretical Background to Bioethics (pp. 45-66). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  9. Munene, M. (2013, February 24). What could break the Raila-Uhuru poll tie. p. 1.
  10. Mutiga, M. (2013, February 24). Raila and Uhuru are ordinary mortals, not messiahs anybody should die for. The Daily Nation, p. 12.
  11. Nagel, T. (1973). Rawls on Justice. The Philosophical Review, 220-234.
  12. Obara, V., Leftie, P., Opiyo, D., Wafula, C., & Mutinda, L. (2013, February 22). Cord tells Kimemia to resign in CJ saga. Daily Nation, p. 1.
  13. Opiyo, D. (2013, February 25). Joining hands for peace. p. 1.
  14. Opiyo, D. (2013, February 23). Uhuru catches up with Raila on Poll. Saturday Nation, p. 1.
  15. Pratt, C. B. (1998). Responsibility and Ethical Reasoning in the Nigerian Press. Africa Media Review, 46-64.
  16. Shekhar. (2010, June 18). Media Ethics: A Comparative Study of Eastern and Western Principles. Retrieved from Social Sciences and Humanity Studies Academic Blog: http://visitskc.wordpress.com/2010/06/18/media-ethics-a-comparative-study-of-eastern-and-western-principles/
  17. Shiundu, A., & Wanga, J. (2013, February 26). Fireworks at poll debate. Daily Nation, p. 1.
  18. Singer, J. B. (2006, March 21). Deontology of Teleology: Ethics Based on Duty or Consequences. Retrieved from Journalism Ethics: http://www.uiowa.edu/~c019168/168s6online3.html
  19. Wara, R. (2013, February 25). Integrity is about payong the price for what is right, not what is legal. Daily Nation, p. 12.
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