When Rose Wangui started as an intern at NTV in 2000, she quickly noticed something was wrong. The stories being covered were all the same — politics, breaking news, the courts — there were no human stories. People’s voices, especially those from outside the city, were completely absent from the mainstream narrative.
“I wanted to show viewers something they've never seen, something they've never had,” said Wangui. “I decided to focus more on human interest stories and to go to some of the most remote areas in Kenya.”
When she pitched these ideas to editors at the television arm of the Nairobi-based Nation Media Group, however, they were quick to turn her down. As a young employee working behind the scenes, she had no reporting experience, and they didn’t want to grant her funds.
Undeterred, Wangui paid the costs of a car and camera out of her own pocket, traveling to remote, marginalized communities to tell their stories. It wasn’t long before editors and audiences alike saw the value.
“Whenever we do human interest stories, we get people talking, [saying] ‘These are the kinds of stories we want to see, we want to see more of this,’” explained Wangui. “The last thing they want to see is politics. They want something with a new perspective, something different, something that they can get empowered and inspired by.”
Now a full-time features reporter, her stories touch on difficult and taboo topics in Kenyan society, such as maternal and child health, the sexual bondage of young girls, female genital mutilation (FGM) and challenges for intersex people.
Her in-depth reporting and comprehensive interviews have sparked national debate, and inspired change. For example, after reporting about the challenges women in northern counties face traveling to the hospital to give birth, one governor built new maternity wings to reduce distances, and released free ambulances to provide rides.
Covering these topics isn’t easy. She interviews victims of trauma and people who have suffered terrible losses, which can take a toll on her emotionally. However, for Wangui it’s important to stay “neutral and strong” in these moments.
“You just have to concentrate, ask questions and get your answers. As much as you get emotional, you don't let it show,” she said. “Could you imagine, your victim is emotional and as a journalist, you're emotional?”
But Wangui does encourage other journalists to focus their energy on building empathy and connection with their sources, especially in the most difficult moments. “It helps me a lot,” she added.
Before being honored at the ICFJ Awards Dinner with the Knight International Journalism Award, Wangui spent a few days in our office where we spoke about her reporting, advice for covering sensitive topics and whether journalists can act as activists.
IJNet: What is your process like as you delve into difficult stories? What can journalists learn from your reporting on these sensitive topics?
Wangui: I've been a journalist for 12 years now, and over the years I've had opportunities to travel across the country. I've been able to build a lot of contacts over the years, and some of my subjects have become my personal friends. It's about trusting, and building that trust between you and the communities.
I think also passion plays a very big role. And dedication. Personally, I'm very passionate about what I do, which is making a difference in people's lives. No matter the obstacles or challenges, when passion is there, you'll always be focused on forging ahead.
Compassion also plays a very big role when you're trying to listen to people's stories and you really want them to open up their hearts to you and tell you some of their deep deep deep secrets, and maybe some of their personal stories.
Sometimes being a lady has a lot of advantages. People tend to trust women with their stories, unlike men.
Why is being a woman an advantage?
A lot of male journalists tend to shy away from children, women's issues, issues that deal with reproductive health, so you get women doing these kind of stories. Men will never tell these kind of stories like female journalists. For women, it's very easy, even when you're talking about FGM and you want to ask someone to tell you their story. It would be hard for them to open up to a male reporter. For a lady it's easier.
Do you have any advice for journalists who are doing stories where viewers or sources are victims of trauma?
The most important thing to do first is to research and get to know your topic. If it's a cultural practice, you need to get to know more about the community, why they practice it, how long they've been doing it and the do’s and don'ts. Research will help you break down a lot of things, come up with a list of questions, get to know your story angles and the subjects that you really want to interview.
It's also good to build trust over the years. Confide in someone who you think can help you identify good subjects, which will help in your storytelling. Research is also very important for building trust with a community.
How do you approach cultural sensitivities around FGM when reporting on the topic?
It is important when I’m doing stories about female genital mutilation. FGM was banned in 2001 — way back — but we never had laws and it was still going on. The anti-FGM bill was enacted in 2011, so whenever I'm doing these stories, I always bring up the laws, saying "female genital mutliation is against the law." We have all these laws for if you're caught practicing FGM, or if you put your daughter to FGM.
I also always try to balance. I try to explain why the community is doing this. For some, girls are seen for their social worth. Once they’re cut, they're considered eligible to get married. And if you're cut, it means that your parents will get a lot of money in terms of wealth.
When you tell these stories, and they lead to major changes, do you ever feel like you take on an activist role? Should you?
Sometimes journalists are like activists, especially when you're really passionate about what you do. For example, I've done stories of FGM over and over and over again. After I learned how harmful the practice is, and the complications that come with it, I realized that we can't just do one story and then keep quiet. Media plays a very big role in terms of changing people's perceptions. When you take on doing the stories, we are helping society to understand the implications, and at the same time changing people's perceptions and creating awareness.
Sometimes as a journalist you say, "I'm the voice of the voiceless," or an "agent of change." When you're doing stories, you're trying to push for change and create awareness. Sometimes as a journalist, you can be an activist — and also be impartial and balanced.