The BBC 2.0 on Kenya: “Headlines Can Be Misleading”

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Was the taxpayer-funded gazillion-jigawatt megaphone fair® and balanced®? “Balance and access” in KBC election coverage on the state-owned boob tube — a BBC 2.0 “content alliance.” From right to left: PNU (Kibaki), ODM (Odinga) … Source: EU EOM Kenya 2007.

“We hope that, along with our partners at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC), the BBC in Kiswahili and English will become part of the daily life of this huge and sophisticated audience.” –BBC press release, October 2002

A more complete headline might be: “Tribal differences in Kenya, normally accepted peacefully, are exploited by politicians hungry for power who can manipulate poverty-stricken population.”

1. International news agencies run information sourced anonymously to a single interested party who is not reliable … 2.  International news agencies publish news passed along by third parties without checking them with the original source of the news, especially during heated moments such as elections. Ricardo Kaufmann (Brazil)

See also BBC: Radical Impartiality and its Discontents.

BBC NEWS | Africa | Kenya stokes tribalism debate: Defending sensationalist headlines in the world press over what I am coming to think of as the “Kenya is Rwanda” meme.


I find the following superficial and lazy as an apology for the kind of coverage we are talking about.

“Tribal violence spirals in Kenya,” screams the front page banner in the International Herald Tribune. “Kenya plunges into interethnic violence,” says Le Monde.

But headlines can be misleading.

It is certainly true that the post-electoral violence in Kenya has taken on a tribal character.

Members of the incumbent (and controversially re-installed) President Mwai Kibaki’s Kikuyu tribe have been pitted against other smaller tribes.

Hae been pitted by whom?

A mother carries one of her children as she flees violence in Nairobi

Thousands of people have fled their homes

But that is only part of the story.

A more complete headline might be: “Tribal differences in Kenya, normally accepted peacefully, are exploited by politicians hungry for power who can manipulate poverty-stricken population.”

But headlines are not really headlines when they are written like that — and few would criticise the international newspapers for their pithy style.


That sounds like wishful thinking to me.

The idea behind a good headline is to combine pithiness with an accurate summary of the contents of the article so labeled.

Which is why this apologia pro lack of due diligence suo the Beeb is proposing seems insultingly trivial to me.

Were the headlines with which those stories were headlined an accurate summary of the contents of those stories? Or were they not?

HIX NIX STIX PIX, to take the classic example of headline pithiness, implies that rural moviegoers were not buying tickets to see films depicting rural life.

In 1935, Variety had box-office data to back that contention up.

But even if it did not — if it had misreported that fact, and Ma and Pa Kettle actually liked The Beverly Hillbillies — the headline would have been an accurate — and eminently pithy — description of what it misreported.

Good headline writers work hard at achieving both pithiness and accuracy is this sense. It is a quasi-poetic discipline that labors under artificial constraints, like haiku poetry or Oulipo.

The search for just the right one-syllable word is key. The brilliance of NIX — American slang for “give the thumbs down to, evaluate negatively” — is that it only uses three letters of the space allotted for your hed.

Bad, and disingenous, headline writers commit acts of pithiness for the sake of pithiness — “tout” is a common word for when a company promotes a product, for example, but it has negative connotations that warn us against overusing it just because it is a handy one-syllable headline verb — or use the headline to impart bias to the story.

Another tip: Try not to mix metaphors.

CBS Blinks, PublicEye Goes Dormant

If the overarching metaphor is the all-seeing eyeball, and you want to use a verb associated with what eyes do — blink, see, tear up, wink, get cataracts, get some shut-eye …

To be asleep: slumber. Idioms: be in the land of Nod, catch some shuteye, sleep like a log (or rock) (or top) , sleep tight. See AWARENESS.

How about this?

CBS Blinks, PublicEye Goes Blind

No, that’s no good — although there is that band Third Eye Blind.

Well, just keep fiddling with it. You have ten minutes.

Okay, here we go:

CBS Blinks, Shuts PublicEye

The IHT headline contains 32 characters, including spaces.

Could we, using a good dictionary and thesaurus, convey the same idea that the BBC says would be more accurate, in the same number of toques?

I bet we could.

How about this?

Just off the top of my head. First stab.

(One generally jots down maybe half a dozen stabs or more — several heads are often better than one if you find yourself stuck — then selects the most workable option to polish.)

“Wedge tactics drive Kenya strife.”

That is about the same number of characters. It has some nice assonance to it, into the bargain.

If you are not sure you endorse this analysis, use a question headline:

“Wedge tactics drive Kenya strife?”

You don’t always have to pretend like you actually know what’s going on.

Sometimes your most useful contribution is posing the right question to keep track of as events unfold.

The term “wedge issue” is a perfectly good dictionary word (MW10):

… a political issue that divides a candidate’s supporters or the members of a party <a wedge issue dividing the traditional Democratic constituencies>

American Heritage:

A sharply divisive political issue, especially one that is raised by a candidate or party in hopes of attracting or disaffecting a portion of an opponent’s customary supporters.

You could then explain in the lede that the apparent contradiction in this situation — apparent stability and peaceful coexistence in off years, “tribal violence” in election years — may be due to Kenyan politicians appealing to tribal identity as part of a “wedge issue” strategy.

The KNHRC actually said it observed this going on earlier this year, note. As usual.
Similar to the strategy devised by Pat Buchanan for Reagan. As Pat has quite forthrightly explained on a number of occasions.

For example, “the right to bear arms” is currently being discussed by U.S. political strategists as a “wedge issue” for the 2008 elections:

If the Republicans seize this opportunity, they can make a “kitchen table” issue into a “wedge issue” in 2008: one that will decide the minds of voters. One Republican — Mitt Romney — has spoken on this precise point. In his interview with HUMAN EVENTS, Romney said his personal view was that the Second Amendment preserves individuals’ right to keep and bear arms. No Democrat will say that.

Not that any of this is relevant to the underlying issue here, mind you.

It is a complete red herring, in fact.

The question is not whether the headlines were “too pithy,” but whether the coverage they headlined did justice to the complexity of the situation, or all the facts on the ground. Whether they asked the right questions — or asked any questions at all before endorsing vast , empty generalizations about the complex situation on the ground.

Such as whether, in fact, Kenyan politicians do employ such tactics.

And if so, which ones do? How many of them? How often? By doing what?

What was this man up to, for example, in the incident recorded by the KNHCR?

On 25/11/07, a government vehicle (White Mitsubishi Pajero, GK A545H) (See vehicle in Annex 1) assigned to the Assistant Minister for Water, Raphael Wanjala, was impounded in Naivasha carrying assorted crude weapons. The weapons included 100 pangas, whips, bows and arrows and 70 Somali swords. Also found in the car were President Mwai Kibaki s campaign posters and those of Mr Wanjala. No known action has been taken against Hon Wanjala regarding this incident. –“Still Behaving Badly” (KNHRC, December 2007)

Loading up a government car with crude weapons of the type used to off the “cockroach.”

KNHRC claims this is a fairly typical example.

Does that claim check out? Has anyone bothered to pay critical attention to these claims?

Should I trust the KNHRC? Is it an honorable and credible actor — or is it more like, say, the Mexican national human rights commission as led by Soberanes, which is a gabbling FUD factory?

Journalists who had prepared to cover the event, rather than simply parachuting in, would have been aware of such issues, and ready to reality-test them and assess their relevance as factors in unfolding events.

As part of preparing for that coverage, they could have done what I did today, in less than an hour: Looked over as much of the “morgue” coverage on past Kenyan elections as possible.

They would have discovered a discernable pattern: concrete indications of the kinds of behavior to be on the look-out for, and a well-documented debate over the causes of this pattern, with talking heads who have studied and debated the issue, ready to give quote on the interpretation of new developments in light of historical trends and events.

What good is developing an institutional memory if the currently people driving your world-class information-gathering institution are — like the live frog you dissected in your high school biology class — “pithed”?

See also

Child’s play: The Beeb used to model the English language; now it merely tortures it.


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