Nation Television’s The Trend was the first talk show in Kenya to incorporate social media. Inspired by Al Jazeera’s The Stream, we wanted to go beyond the call-in format.
The idea of the show was to include a more diverse array of voices and questions in the national conversation. Talk shows in Kenya too often end up being an affair between the anchor and the guest, with people’s voices excluded. I wanted this show to be different – to be participatory. So we began to take questions and comments hash-tagged on Twitter with #thetrend. And we even asked Kenyans online who they wanted to question.
Though it was a simple conceit – and some saw it purely as a gimmick – the show actually pushed the envelope, and the interview with the managing director of Kenya Power (KPLC) was a good example of that. At the time, heavy rains were wreaking havoc on the electrical grid. Blackouts were common and frustrations were high. I knew the on-line conversation that evening was going to be heated.
My interest that evening was to understand how this huge company – with all its resources and the benefit of being a monopoly – could just fail. And we had the opportunity to get that from the person controlling the institution.
When I went to the tweets, after giving him a chance to explain what was happening, there was nothing but angry, negative comments.
“So, I ask engineer how it feels to be the most hated company right now and what you’re doing about it.”
By sharing these, I think we presented a pretty stark view of just how angry people felt. But we were also worried that the comments coming in might just be a bit too angry and too negative, and that is when we went to the phones, where you would expect to get older, more diplomatic members of the audience. The first caller in had been waiting for an electrical connection for ten years!
All in all, it was a bad experience for the KPLC director, and he let us know. He demanded an apology after the show and even threatened to pull adverts – which the company later did, though only temporarily.
In Kenya, if a journalist asks tough questions, he is not viewed as an objective representative of public opinion, as a defender of public interest, but as someone with a political agenda or personal vendetta. Social media has helped me to deflect these kinds of attacks. After the interview with the KPLC director, we sent him all the tweets directed at him – hundreds of them – with legitimate grievances.
But there is a limit to the claims that we can make about being representative. Many politicians dismiss Twitter as a small community of young, urban hipsters, and they have a point. Social media is a huge assets to journalists in Kenya but we have to create broader, more inclusive platforms.
Only a third of Kenyans have access to the Internet. We cannot pretend that the entire nation is on-line. So the future of journalism, in my opinion, is going to have to harness the power of the mobile. More than 80 percent of Kenyans have access to a mobile phone. If we can include them in the conversation, then we can really have a hand in making sure that the powerful answer the nation.