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Time we kept jokes out of serious news business

By Levi Obonyo
Saturday, September 26th, 2020
Media personnel at work. Photo/Courtesy
In summary
    • Besides laying facts, journalists are at liberty to be creative and be serious too.

Journalism may appear chaotic. What with cameramen trying to rise above each other to get the best vantage point to take a picture, reporters racing over each other for scoops, and the general madness in the newsroom as deadlines approach.

But within this madness, there is an order, a formula, and rules to be followed. Facts are, for example, sacred.

There is a formula to writing a story and you either follow it or the story will not see the light of day.

There are deadlines to be kept, a precise way to use language or to pronounce, and a myriad other protocols to be followed from the beginning of a story to the end of it.

Larry Madowo, now reporting for the global broadcaster BBC, has reported the station standardising how his surname is to be pronounced on air.

The standards do not mean that there is no creativity in the field, but such creativity operates within ground rules.

Which brings us to the new trend in Kenyan media where reporters are taking liberties with writing subtitles and the use of language on television screens.

It started as a play on words. There is nothing wrong with that if the play with words makes sense and, where possible, is consistent with the rules of grammar in the language.

It is the dream of every editorial floor to have a clever wordsmith. It is somewhat tolerable even if the play with words departs slightly from common sense. 

The point is that viewers are average people. They draw from their repertoire of stored vocabulary and language structures to make sense of the subtitles and other expressions.

The process of making sense is guided by rules that form part of the language structure. 

This is often evident when you translate from one language to another. Because the rules are different in different languages, you cannot apply them directly.

So, “a green snake in the green grass” makes perfect sense in mother tongue, but not in English.  

The play with words that started in the media soon escalated. Consider this: it was “Solitaire Confinement” when Kirinyaga governor was spotted in the house chambers playing solitaire.

But then they began to take it a notch higher. It was “Ni How China” that mixed Kiswahili and English while playing on the sound of greetings in the Chinese language.

But trust Kenyans, journalists included, to play a good thing once too many. Before long floodgates were opened: “Port rot, Oh-obado … Aisha! You too?”. In this case one has no idea what the journalist is trying to communicate except that “Oh-obado” reminds one of the governor from Migori county.

In doing a subtitle for a story on the Nairobi county the writer went for: “Work together for every Badi’s sake”. 

There are other subtitles for those interested in following it up: “Home a Bay of Flood Waters” “Long Time No Sea” and on they go. Now it seems there is a competition as to who would beat the other.

The function of journalism goes beyond simply informing society. It includes protecting language by ensuring that the rules of grammar are maintained and showing society how it is done.

Part of the process of transmitting the story is also seeking to demonstrate the seriousness of the issue being covered.

It is hard to maintain that seriousness when the process of doing so breaks the rules and borders on the trite, the funny and on comedy. 

A television stations has an entire run of programmes that provides the station with an opportunity to provide a range of content to its viewers, including the funny and comical ones.

The NewsHour is one of the few hallowed moments in journalism when the public turns to the institution of media for serious content.

It is not for nothing that it has a signature tune that separates it from other content and Kenyan media will do well to keep the tradition.

Let the newshour remain a break for serious information and leave the jokes aside. — The writer is dean , School of Communication, Daystar University

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