I recently proposed a research project that would have used the Daily Nation’s coverage of terrorist events as a kind of proxy for Kenyan coverage of terrorist events – and was told that I assume too much. Do I?

Just how different is the coverage of the Daily Nation from the Standard and The Daily Star, NTV from KTN and Citizen? The evidence we have – which admittedly isn’t perfect – suggests that they are not as different as you probably think they are.

But first, a word on “bias.”  Rock star media scholar Robert Entman says “content bias” is essentially any consistent pattern in the news that is likely to favour one side of a political conflict over the other.[1] This could be a conflict between the government and the teacher’s union, or between advocates and opponents of the two-thirds gender principle; it need not necessarily be between two political figures – a point that is especially important to make in Kenya. To assess this, he argues, you also need to do more than evaluate the amount of time or space a given side is given; you have to look at how the news event gets framed, which is to say how the story gets told.

Unfortunately, almost all the research we have on Kenyan news bias focuses quite narrowly on space and time allocated to major political figures. I don’t think this is an accident; rather, the research itself seems to perpetuate some of the more troubling fixations of Kenyan political culture.

The prevailing view is that because of the political leanings of ownership, because of the dominant ethnicity in a newsroom, because of advertising pressure, because of corruption, or because of some confluence of these factors, certain news outlets favour certain political big men. Read Othieno Nyanjom’s report “Factually true, legally untrue: Political media ownership in Kenya” for good summary of how “bias” is commonly perceived to operate in Kenyan media.

But what evidence is there for this when you compare the content the press and broadcasters?  In the run-up to the 2007 and 2013 elections, several media monitoring projects were conducted. And a smattering of other projects in between have looked more or less systematically at differences in news coverage across different outlets.

I’ve looked at as many of these media monitoring reports as I can find over the past few days, and the conclusion I have reached is that the worst forms of bias are not against Odinga, or Kenyatta, or even Dida – and that they are found equally in every media house.

Overall, we can say with some certainty that across all the media outlets coverage of the top two political candidates was more balanced in 2013 than it was in 2007, but it wasn’t even exceptionally imbalanced in 2007. In both elections, the written press achieves great balance (measured narrowly in terms of space allocated to the biggest two parties/candidates), but the television broadcasters were often close to parity. Only KBC presents a truly consistent bias. Most of the time, when you look at all of the figures available, rather than a single convenient figure, you find a nuanced picture. For example, in 2007, KTN gave Odinga’s nomination more coverage than Kibaki’s, but the channel overall gave PNU slightly more coverage than ODM that same month, according to monitoring done for the UNDP by the firm Strategic Public Relations and Research.

Meanwhile, scholars who have looked at events and issues find that the Daily Nation and the Standard paint very similar pictures. Onyebadi and Oyedeji found that the Nation and Standard basically advocated equally for peace in the run-up and aftermath of the 2007 elections. Ogenga found very little difference in the coverage by the Nation and Standard of Linda Nchi. A rather poorly done content analysis of that operation by the African Woman and Child Feature came to the same conclusion.

Where the media monitoring reports demonstrate other similarities is in a consistent underrepresentation of female candidates, female journalists, female sources. Also, in the coverage preceding both elections, policy issues and grassroots stories were consistently subordinated to political conflicts. In the Media Council of Kenya’s media monitoring of the vernacular radio coverage of the ICC trials, there is this telling statistic: ICC related radio items were “perpetrator-centred” in 94.8% of cases, and only “victim-centred” in 2.2% of the sampled stories.

The dominant misconception that bias is measured in column inches and minutes for one big man or another is a red-herring; worse, it’s a ruse. The victims of news bias in Kenya are not politicians; the real victim is a public discourse that is held captive to the interests of a very few. No matter how you balance it, that’s not independence. It’s servitude.

[1] Entman, R. M. (2007). Framing Bias: Media in the Distribution of Power. Journal of Communication, 57(1), 163–173. do