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Writers, editors must simplify information

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By PHILIP OCHIENG
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If you work in the editorial department of a newspaper — as I did for very many long decades — please do remember every minute that passes that information is what your company is in the marketplace to sell.

In other words, information is what the company has set itself up in the marketplace to sell to the public to make money.

That is the reason that, as a journalistic employee of a newspaper — as a writer and as an editor — your task is to help the company to sell to the public only genuine information.

Thus, into the bargain, your task is to help the company to package the information both accurately and attractively. But accuracy is what I want to stress.

Whenever a newspaper carries a statement raising a question, the newspaper has cheated that person — the buyer — out of his or her money.

If, on November 17, you had just arrived somewhere in Kenya for the first time in your life and picked up a copy of, say, The Daily Nation, you will have been deeply mystified by the newspaper’s double-deck page one “splash” heading.

It ran as follows: ‘Exposed: How 8-4-4 shift was bungled …’ Any new arrival in your country will thus have wondered greatly: What on this earth of ours is an 8-4-4 shift? Nay, how does one go about “exposing” the bungling of such a “shift”? Yet 8-4-4 has been part of Kenya’s vocabulary for a number of decades of what embarrassingly passes as “education”.

The term 8-4-4 refers to the fact that, in Kenya, a learner must go through eight years of primary, four years of secondary and four years of tertiary stages of a formality alleged to be education

Thus most local newspaper readers will have known what the subeditor was trying to say when he or she penned that headline.

None the least, as far as the language that England once imposed on us is concerned, the statement was extremely unfortunate.

It was to be regretted because not every speaker of English who lives in or is visiting Kenya has ever even heard of the term 8-4-4. Indeed, the term ceased to be common even in Kenya’s dialogues a number of years ago.

The task of a newspaper is to ensure that every human being who reads it is at home with every term that the newspaper uses.

I can report that the editors and all long-term journalistic employees of Kenya’s newspapers know it very well.

But it is also their duty to transfer that knowledge immediately, systematically and powerfully into the heads and hands of all newcomers into the editorial department.

For if they fail to do so, the newspaper is likely to succeed only in mystifying and, therefore, shortchanging every foreign reader who arrives in Kenya on any day and buys a copy of your newspaper.

Indeed, the term 8-4-4 will mystify even those Kenyans who were born after the 8-4-4 educational system died a decade ago.

Mr Ochieng is a veteran journalist.

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