Duo investigates idealism, corruption in Kenyan journalism
CAA grant funds faculty-student research

The proposal for the Kenya trip didn’t anticipate the European-cut suits. Yet one summer day in Nairobi, Mark Fackler, a Calvin professor of communication arts and sciences, and Calvin senior Eric Baker, his research assistant, found themselves buying couture in the city’s largest open-air market, “not a place for unescorted foreigners,” Fackler wrote later.

“We got Eric and me fitted and tailored and ready to rock and roll for under $25,” Fackler reminisced recently. The researchers wore their fancy gear to the debut party for a new publication, the Leader, at Nairobi’s five-star Serena Hotel. It was an unusual expenditure for a trip funded by a Calvin Alumni Association (CAA) grant, but Fackler knew the occasion would lead to contacts with upper-level government officers and media barons.

Professor Mark Fackler and senior Eric Baker

Fackler and Baker weren’t simply networking at random. They were conducting a six-week research project on the Kenya Union of Journalist’s Code of Conduct, the ethical standard for the country’s media. Through in-depth interviews with print and broadcast, publicly supported and private, senior and fledgling journalists, they hoped to discover how much influence the Code of Conduct has had on the practice of journalism in a country, as Fackler wrote, “only 42 years old in its democratic traditions.”

Fackler hoped to land 16 to 18 interviews, and ended up talking to 26 journalists, “partly due to the networking,” he said. “It grew like a tree.” With such a substantial cross-section of Kenyan journalistic opinion on tape, it only remained for somebody to transfer it all to paper. “So Eric the Diligent transcribed those interviews, often difficult to decipher due to accent and background noise,” Fackler said. The transcripts were then fed into qualitative research software, which tracks themes.

The view of Kenyan journalism gained through the interview collection is that of an ethical standard in development. “The Code of Conduct is not used,” Fackler said, “but the mentoring of journalists happens via the networking that governs everything over there.”

And though Kenya is notorious for “brown envelope journalism” — wherein the size of a bribe in the brown envelope dictates the size and quality of a political story — the professor and student found considerable idealism among the journalists they interviewed (some of whom were Fackler’s former students from classes he has taught since 1996 at Daystar University in Nairobi). “Many talked about a ‘call’ to journalism. Many talked about the people of their country and how good journalism would help them,” Fackler said.

“Obviously, we have certain conceptions in the West about how media should operate, and other countries don’t have those same media ethics and media values. There are a lot of good reasons why they don’t …,” Baker added. “They don’t have the legal protection, the historical background and the educational background to have a free and independent media.” The bribes, he added, are sad: “We talked about it a lot. It’s definitely still present in Kenya media, mostly because most journalists are not paid enough. It’s almost inevitable that some politician, some businessman would offer somebody a little chai kidogo or ‘a little money for tea.’”

“Diligent” wasn’t the only epithet Fackler ascribed to Baker, who arrived early in Africa to climb Mount Kilimanjaro and stayed behind to explore Dar es Salaam, Zanzibar and Mombasa. “Senior, English department adventurer, researcher, cross-cultural worker,” were the student’s other honorifics. And from the Maasai tribe, who adopted Fackler in 2000 with the name Ole Van Nanka, meaning “The Banner,” Baker received the name Oromat: “one who quietly observes.”

Without his student assistant, Fackler admitted, “I would have come back with too much unprocessed stuff, and in the busyness of the semester it would have been lost.” Instead, the research will become a co-authored chapter in the book Ethics and Evil in the Public Sphere as well as a co-authored encyclopedia article. “We believe the chapter will break new ground in comparative cultural research,” Fackler wrote in gratitude to the CAA grant committee.

Baker is also grateful for the opportunity. “I was able to work very closely with a professor as an undergraduate and to have something published. Getting to know a professor on that level is pretty amazing, especially for someone who’s considering grad school. So, that’s a great opportunity that Calvin undergraduates have,” he said.

Fackler and Baker received a McGregor Fellowship (for student research in the humanities) which provided Baker's summer salary stipend and a Calvin Alumni Association Faculty Grant to fund Baker's travel expenses to Kenya.

The Alumni Association Board awarded seven new Alumni Association Faculty Grants totaling almost $30,000 at its February 2006 meeting.