When a combination of headline and photograph confuses readers


I had a bad weekend. The usual crop of readers kept me busy explaining that I’m not an operational editor. Or that I cannot take editorial decisions or be blamed for editorial transgressions.

But they kept baiting me. Why did the Saturday Nation run the front-page splash headline “Who stole Sh10bn from Treasury?” Why the question mark? And why publish in juxtaposition with the question headline a portrait of Anne Waiguru? Are you suggesting she is the one?

I had no brave answer, though I had my own misgivings. Feebly, I said it was a matter of page typography and layout. But one smart alec punctured that argument by going statistical. He said the front-page headline and Kirinyaga Governor Waiguru’s portrait occupied 70 per cent of the space devoted to the story on the front page. Another reader retorted by saying page layouts do not drop down from heaven. So, what is going on, Mr Public Editor?

I had nowhere to hide. However, I pointed out the redeeming paragraph immediately following the headline, which said Ms Waiguru was one of the 11 county governors who wanted the DCI to find out if the Ifmis system was used “to conceal the loss of the billions of shillings”.

The full story, I pointed out, was published on page 5 under the heading “Governors: Ifmis accounts stuffed with stolen billions”. That headline did not implicate Ms Waiguru. If anything, she was portrayed as one of the governor whistle-blowers, I said.

But why did the Saturday Nation publish her picture instead of that of her Kakamega colleague Wycliffe Oparanya, the chairman of the Council of Governors, I was asked. I had no idea. Okay, I pleaded with the unbelieving readers, I will check with the Saturday Nation editor. Just give me up to Monday, I said.

I was relieved when the Sunday Nation published a full-length clarification and apology.

“The juxtaposition of the main headline, ‘Who stole Sh10bn from Treasury?’, and a photo of Kirinyaga Governor Anne Waiguru on the front page of the Saturday Nation of May 18, 2019, might create the impression that she had something to do with the loss of that money. Nothing could be further from the truth,” said the paper. “As clearly stated in the second part of the headline and the reporting elsewhere in the paper, Ms Waiguru is among 11 governors demanding that the police investigate whether Ifmis was used to cover up the theft of public funds at the Treasury.

“We apologise to Ms Waiguru for any embarrassment that might have resulted from the unintended insinuation.”

That was great relief to me. This is one of the few complaints I have seen decided by the Editorial Department within 24 hours. Congratulations. I look forward to seeing NMG clarify and apologise to persons who have been aggrieved by misleading reports just as promptly as in the Waiguru case, regardless of their station in life.

But some questions linger regarding the headline-picture juxtaposition. It was a conscious effort. The portrait was manipulated. It was cut out from its original background. That was not a mistake. It was an image of a very photogenic woman. Publishing her smashingly powerful photo facing the headline with a question mark (?) quickly conveyed a message to some readers that she was the “who”.

Fortunately for NMG, the law of defamation, as proclaimed by the courts, holds that an article that is said to be defamatory must be read as a whole, not in parts. In this case, the story read as a whole is not defamatory of Ms Waiguru.

But our conclusion must remain that the Saturday Nation staff did not give sufficient attention or thought to the page to avoid the innuendo that Ms Waiguru was ‘the one’, at least for readers who only look at the picture and read the headline and not the rest of the article.

The foul-up cannot be explained in any other away, I must say.


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