Triumph of the stringer in the Nairobi massacre coverage

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African reporters are coming into their own with the stories coming out of Kenya this weekend. If you step back from the reports on the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi — now entering its third day as of the writing of this post — and look not at the content of the news, but how it is being presented, you can see examples the changes taking place in journalism. Advances in technology, newspaper and network business models, and the worldviews brought to the reporting by journalists have resulted in different stories today than would have been written 10 years ago.

Religion is part of the story. In the last week Boko Haram has killed over 150 Nigerians, the Taliban has killed 70 plus churchgoers and the Mall death total is expected to rise.  All of the attacks were undertaken by Muslim terrorist groups, and the initial reports suggest they were targeting non-Muslims.

Twitter and the internet have changed the game. The police, the president of Kenya and the terrorists (if the tweets from the Somali Islamist group al-Shabaab which claim responsibility are to be trusted) have taken to Twitter or posted statements on the internet to release information that in the past would have come from press conferences or interviews. This story written by AFP and printed in The Australian as “More hostages freed as explosions rock mall complex” draws on on-the-scene reporting from local stringers and staff, statements posted on the web, Twitter tweets and press conferences.

The quantity of information has increased, but has the quality? By this I do not mean discrepancies such as the Red Cross reports 69 dead and the police report 59, as noted in this Reuters report. Twitter provides immediacy, but no context. The Shabelle Media Network in Mogadishu reports that al-Shabaab has identified the names and nationalities of the killers.  Three are listed as Americans (two from Minnesota and one from Kansas City), one Briton and one Finn amongst the Somali and Kenyan terrorists.  Major news — “Twin City killers in Nairobi Mall Massacre” — but can we trust it? I have no idea who the Shabelle Media Network is, and their report is drawn from a Twitter post.


There appears to be no way to confirm or verify this information. Are they immigrants, refugees, converts? The appearance of intimacy offered by the immediacy of the internet does not mean what is being said is true. When reporters trekked into the mountains to meet guerrilla groups — think of Mao in Yunnan or Castro in the Sierra Maestra Mountains — the stories they brought home were conditioned by what they were allowed to see and hear. Yet they offered a more complete story — depth, context and analysis. It is too soon in the news cycle from Nairobi to hear these things — but will we ever? Will the next big story (the Pakistani church bombing perhaps) overshadow Nairobi?

In comparing the American to Australian or English press reports, most papers have relied on the wire services, adding local color to the base story. The Australian story adds the name of the Australian national killed in the attack, while the British papers list their countrymen killed. Few newspapers or networks have bureaus in East Africa anymore — and those who do such as the New York Times — do not appear to have an advantage in their reporting over their competitors.

The value added found in these stories comes from local stringers. (I am making an assumption that the on the scene interviews with Kenyans have been conducted by Kenyans.)

This passage from The Australian is compelling.

Mall worker Zipporah Wanjiru, who emerged from the ordeal alive but in a state of shock, said she hid under a table with five other colleagues. “They were shooting indiscriminately, it was like a movie seeing people sprayed with bullets like that,” she said, bursting into tears. “I have never witnessed this in my life.”

Cafe waiter Titus Alede, who risked his life and leapt from the first floor of the mall, said it was a “miracle from God” that he managed to escape the approaching gunmen. “I remember them saying ‘you killed our people in Somalia, it is our time to pay you back’,” he said.

One teenage survivor told how he played dead to avoid being killed. “I heard screams and gunshots all over the place. I got scared… (and) hid behind one of the cars,” 18-year-old Umar Ahmed told AFP.

Two Christians and a Muslim (based upon their names) speak and Africans, based upon my experiences, really do speak this way. But so do Americans. Yet we are not as likely to hear God-talk in reports about natural disasters and traumatic incidents in the American press. Is this a function of the worldview of the African stringers?

The Nairobi story is not done. It will be fascinating to see how the story is told based upon these new variables: Twitter and African reporters telling the story. But I do believe this story signals the end of the good old days of the ex-pat reporter. From what has been published so far, those newspapers that have invested in bureaus in Nairobi have not seen a return on their investment in terms of the quality or quantity of their coverage.

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  • Ira Rifkin

    “From what has been published so far, those newspapers that have invested in bureaus in Nairobi have not seen a return on their investment in terms of the quality or quantity of their coverage.”

    The value of having foreign bureaus simply cannot be measured by one fast-breaking and confusing story alone. Over time bureau staffers provide follow-ups that explain important context and fall out. I fully understand the costs involved and that few media companies are still able to afford foreign bureaus.

    But beat reporters – whether covering city hall, a huge slice of East Africa, or for that matter, religion news – are over time likely to outperform patchwork breaking news reports cobbled together from a myriad of media sources, some of which simply cannot be trusted until checked further.

    Besides, foreign bureaus have always relied upon local stringers for street-level reporting. The difference is that today their invaluable contributions are acknowledged, as it should be, rather than the ex-pat correspondent hogging the byline and getting all the glory.

  • Holly Williams

    I am confused. What is a stringer?


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