There are so many untold stories, so many unheard voices,” says journalist Lilian Kaivilu, “but let’s always fact-check the stories and differentiate between public relations and ethical journalism.”
A 2019 Mandela Washington Fellow, Lilian Kaivilu is an award-winning multimedia journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. She has worked as a writing consultant with the World Bank Group and as a reporter for the Global Press Journal.
In this YALI Voices podcast, Lilian shares her journey to create a platform to share the untold stories of people across Africa.
Lilian founded Impacthub Media, a digital media platform that seeks to tell the unique stories of people or institutions that are making an impact in their communities. “ImpactHub Media is a digital media platform that tells stories of change-makers,” Lilian says, “people who are doing something to solve the challenges facing Africa.”
(Facebook: Impacthub Media; Instagram: @impacthub_media)
Lilian’s dedication to citizen journalism stems from her youth in rural Kenya, where she began recording stories on her father’s radio. Lilian now shares her passion with girls who are the first “class” of students of Impacthub Media.
She stresses the importance of fact checking in citizen journalism: “Anyone can just come and give you a story,” Lilian explains. “My point to the journalist is everyone is a fraud until they prove themselves otherwise.”
Listen to the full podcast or read the transcript below to find out how Lilian is leading the initiative of citizen journalism through the principles of fact-checking, accurate news writing, and media ethics.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
YALI Voices Podcast: LILIAN KAIVILU
LILIAN KAIVILU: I grew up in eastern Kenya in a place called Kitui County. It’s a very remote place. That’s where I grew up. And my father was a teacher. My mom was a stay-at-home mom.
And what happened when I was very young, my father would record me on the radio as I’d say anything. This is a very old radio that had just batteries, and I remember I would press two buttons to record myself, and I would record myself speaking Swahili or speaking English and actually imitating news anchors. And from that time on, I had so much interest in telling stories, but I had no clue what it is called. I didn’t know it was called journalism. I didn’t know it was called media.
Hello. My name is Lilian Kaivilu. I am a journalist from Kenya and the founder of ImpactHub Media.
♪ Yes we can ♪ ♪ Sure we can ♪ ♪ Change the world ♪
VOICE-OVER: Welcome to the YALI Voices podcast, your home for sharing the best stories from the Young African Leaders Initiative Network. Be sure to subscribe to the YALI Voices podcast and visit yali.state.gov to stay up to date on all things YALI.
Lilian Kaivilu is an award-winning multimedia journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya and the founder of Impacthub Media, a digital media platform that seeks to tell unique development stories of people or institutions that are making an impact in their communities.
A 2019 Mandela Washington Fellow, Lilian has previously worked as a writing consultant with the World Bank Group, a reporter for the Global Press Journal Kenya News Desk and a features writer at People Daily Newspaper Kenya. She is currently the vice president for the Africa Media Network on health. Lilian is a Bloomberg Media Initiative Fellow, Safaricom Business Journalism Fellow, Kenya Institute of Mass Communication Journalism graduate, and a Linguistics, Media and Communication graduate from Moi University. In addition, she has completed the Digital Capacity Building training by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers.
Lilian credits her parents, and in particular her father, with not only allowing her to follow her dream of becoming a journalist, but introducing her to the critical skills she’d need to succeed.
That is where we begin our conversation.
LILIAN: My father was very engaging and very interested in our careers, mostly the girls. And for a long time, he believed that — and today he still does — he believed that if he empowers the girls and the boys in equal measure, life is gonna be good, and I think it’s a good thing he did. And he wanted to leave his girls as empowered and as independent as possible. I feel like that is what made him choose to educate the girls and very deliberately do so. I feel like my father and my mother, they took time to parenting. I mean, they knew they were parents, and they took charge of our family.
So what happened, when I was growing up, because I grew up in rural Kenya, I had to do what every child in rural Kenya does — had to go look after the cow, I mean the goats, I had to go to the farm. And I remember my father had set deadlines on me and my siblings, of course. You had to read one story book every week, and you had to be able to recite the stories in those story books. You had to recite the story books. But something I found strange, as it went by, as years went by, he actually made us start looking for mistakes in those books. Are you able to identify a spelling error? Are you able to do this?
At some point we began calling him, we claimed our father — and I hope he never gets to hear this — we called him Transitive Verbs. Because he was teaching us very deep English at home in rural Kenya. We actually learned some subjects in our mother tongue, but he was so keen to teach us English and Kiswahili. He believed that with the power of language, you’re able to communicate anywhere in the world, and I’m forever grateful for that.
So, we had to stay home with him and study verbs, adverbs, how do you express yourself, how do you tell a story. And then — now at that point we’d then review the books we’d been reading for the week. So, I was forced at a very early stage to learn how to read story books. They stuck in my head word-for-word, stories I crammed in class one, in the early ’90s.
VOICE-OVER: After high school, Lilian feared that she would be expected to follow in her father’s footsteps, something she calls a common habit in many Kenyan families, and become a teacher. But it was a career in journalism that called to her, and she was pleasantly surprised when her father asked her, “What do you want to do?”
LILIAN: I was able to get into the best media school in the country. In Kenya it is called the Kenya Institute of Mass Communication. It’s a school where I went, and from the very first instance in that school, I was exposed to practical journalism training.
I never had this kind of theory and all that. So I applied for a diploma in journalism, and I got it. So I go to school at age of 18 and I go to college. And by the first week, I had my first article published in the national newspaper. I recall it was an article on cigarette smoking. A small opinion piece on cigarette smoking.
Every morning throughout my college life, I had access and every student in my department had an access to all the five newspapers. And the idea of this was to expose us to newswriting and how stories are told in the mainstream media, because we were being prepared for the mainstream media.
And as I said, I went to a very good college that was very practical in their teaching. So the first week, we had to begin exposing ourselves to the mainstream media and to have our bylines in the mainstream media. So one of the things was to begin by writing opinions. Since we didn’t have any experience in writing, we had no command on anything, but we could give opinions. In 2006, sorry, when I joined college, there was so much debate about cigarette smoking. So it was a headline for that week, September of 2006, when I joined college. So I was giving an opinion piece based on what we had read, because that was an assignment from school.
LILIAN: So I get to college in 2006 for a diploma in journalism, and after two weeks — I’m sorry, after two semesters, I was supposed to go for internship, another formal internship.
I figured that journalism was getting interesting and more interesting and more interesting. But something, at that point, something stuck with me. At first whenever I went to the field to cover court stories, I never enjoyed. I never enjoyed crime stories. I never enjoyed press conferences. I just felt like there’s some people who just come to do some speeches and use big words before the cameras. But I was developing so much interest in the stories of people, very small people we may call them. I got so much interest in people who were running community-based organizations in the grassroots, people who were doing small things in their own small way. I got so much interest in such people.
Although I had interest in stories of ordinary people making an impact in their communities, I never had that chance. I was on an internship, and there was a clear scope of coverage. You had to cover everything. Because of the kind of news agency. You were like a newswire, so you distribute news to all media houses in the country. So I had to cover everything, including sports.
My internship gave me a chance actually to select what I want to do and to experience all, all beats in the newsroom. I was able to experience the court beat, the sports, business, education, everything, human rights. I was able to cover all that. And what that did for me is it prepared me for exactly how the world, it looks like. So I would come back to college after three months of internship, continued my education, graduated, and in 2009 during my graduation, the minister for information gave me an award as the most distinct student in the college.
LILIAN: So I left KMC, the Kenya School of Mass Communication, and went to work in a publishing firm where I was doing stories on education. We had a magazine called Education News and a magazine called Education Watch.
I was a reporter for that newspaper for some time before I went down to the mainstream media, and I worked for People Daily in Kenya — it’s a daily newspaper — as a business reporter. I was one of the primary reporters for Development Agenda, People Daily. And from there I went to — I worked in development stories in People Daily all the way now until 2015 when I joined the Global Press, a U.S.-based media house, but with coverage in more than 63 countries across the world. So I left Global Press to go to World Bank as a development writer on short contract. So after that, here I am today.
So I’ll take you back to when I began ImpactHub Media. When I worked for People Daily, which was the first mainstream media house I worked for as a business reporter and a development reporter, our media house at that time never had a website. So it was just a print newspaper. So you would do your story today, and after the day is gone and people have taken their newspapers home, perhaps to use them for other things, that is the end of your story. And I got very concerned. On the way I would go to the field or to a press conference, maybe cover the launch for a very nice product, but when you come to the newsroom, because every newsroom has its own policies, you only get a space of about 300 words to tell a story that you spent a whole week doing in the field. And I got very worried.
And I asked myself, with all my skills and what I know today, what happens to the rest of my stories? And by the time I’m five years into the profession, what’s going to happen to these stories that keep dying every day? Because out of a one week’s stories, maybe only one gets published, and published perhaps in the style of the media house, based on their biases or the media ownership and all that. And I kept wondering what I could do with those stories.
So I decided to begin a platform where I would publish the stories that never saw the light of day in the newsroom. And I never began as ImpactHub Media. I began as my name, just liliankaivilu.com. And I began publishing my stories there. And I observed something. People actually would call, and people started getting interested in my stories. And what that did to me was that gave me so much confidence, that actually people were not reading the stories because of the newspaper. They were reading my byline. They were reading Lilian’s stories. And that gave me so much confidence in me. And I was like, so if they’re coming to me because of my stories and because of me, why don’t I have then that platform and expand it?
And now — so I registered ImpactHub Media in 2016 as a media organization, as a business in Kenya. And we now got our website now from liliankaivilu.com to impacthubmedia.com, because I was looking for a brand, and the brand is ImpactHub Media.
So ImpactHub Media is a digital media platform that tells stories of change-makers, that tells stories of people who are doing something to solve the challenges facing Africa, America, Asia, and all other continents in the world.
LILIAN: So, currently I have five girls. I have five girls I work with. And I’ll tell you why I work with five girls. I … I began ImpactHub Media in 2016, and I got a co-founder, a partner who happened to be one of my former bosses and the lady who taught me development writing. She was my editor. I loved her skills in editorial management.
Rebecca Mutiso is my co-founder for ImpactHub Media. And I brought her on board about one and a half years after I began ImpactHub Media. And why I brought her on board is I wanted to transfer these skills of solutions journalism. What we do now is called solutions journalism. I wanted someone who could pass their skills to other people, and I wanted a very good teacher.
So what I did in 2018 early, I began teaching young girls how to tell positive stories of their own communities. And I recall, we had a meeting with Rebecca, my co-founder, and the five girls that we got from Kibera slums. Kibera is an informal settlement and the biggest slum in Africa.
And I called these girls to a meeting inside the slum. And I remember the first question I asked them was, “Tell me something about your neighborhood, about where you stay.” And the five girls began giving their stories. And the first girl said, “In my neighborhood there’s no water. In my neighborhood there’s never electricity.” And one talked about there’s so much crime in her neighborhood, there’s so much trash in the neighborhood. So I told them, this is now your assignment. You’ll go back to your homes and look for something good in your neighborhood, and please come with an answer next Tuesday, because I’m going to meet once every week, on Tuesdays or on Mondays.
So the next week they came, and I was so amazed because the girls came with more than five good stories from their neighborhood. Someone said, “In fact, in my neighborhood there’s a group of young people that are trying to do a car wash to eke a living.” Another one said, “I noticed my mother has a group of other women that they make beads, beads and ornaments for sale.” Another told me that they have another group of young people who are recycling paper to actually make beads. And so there were so much stories coming from them. I told them that is now the vision of ImpactHub Media — to identify people who are doing good in your neighborhood and telling those stories. Because if you don’t tell the stories of your neighborhood, no one will.
VOICE-OVER: With the increase in the availability of platforms for citizens to share their stories, it is important the basic principles of journalism, such as ethics, fact checking, news writing, and being prepared are followed, now more than ever. These are skills that Lilian is teaching the girls who are a part of ImpactHub Media.
LILIAN: So, the girls came and told me about their first stories. And with my co-founder, we noticed that this is a group that is very passionate about journalism. In June of 2018 we began our training with them. And with the training, our plan was to go with at least seven or six months of training, because I didn’t want to send girls out and they’d go and bring us some photos or some stories that defy media ethics in Kenya, since we are working in Kenya.
So we took them to the very first training on media ethics. That was the first thing we did, even before newswriting and all that. We took them through media ethics. And in Kenya we have a very small booklet called The Code of Conduct by the Media Council of Kenya. We call it the media bible in Kenya. That is the book we have to go through with them. We appreciate that they aren’t trained journalists, but since they have to gather stories, are citizen journalists now, we had to train them, “Hey look, you may go get these stories, but there are rules in this game of media.”
So we took them through media ethics. How do you ask for a photo from a person, first of all? How do you start to record a person before you talk to them? How do you ask for consent before you do anything? How do you introduce yourself? How do you dress when going to do some stories? Because you go to a Muslim community, and if you’re wearing something that is very revealing, perhaps they won’t talk to you. How do you identify with the source when you’re going to talk to them?
So we could call any journalist, and we had very good links in the Media Council of Kenya. And thanks to them, because they’ve come in very handy. There were journalists that would come and share their real-life experiences of how maybe past steps like bad dressing cost them an interview, or how going to the field with a camera with no batteries cost them their interviews and cost them their jobs, for that matter.
So, we bring the basics of news writing, I mean the basics of media ethics. Then now on to news writing — how do you compose a story, how do you tell a story. But surely what shocked us the most: When the girls did their first story, my editor who now — who now does the first editing of the stories, she was like, these girls write like professional journalists. Still, they’re raw stories. And I wonder, where have they been?
So our conclusion was, from that group of five, there are so many people in the world today, I feel, who can tell stories of what is happening in their neighborhoods. It’s just that they have never been given a chance.
LILIAN: Those girls are very good. And something else they complained about when we were doing our stories, they said, you know, I can’t go to the field because I have no camera, I have no recorder, I have no nothing. And we asked them, you guys, you have nice smartphones. Do you know the ones you’re holding in your hands? A smartphone will get you a color photo. A smartphone will get you a recording. And in case you misplace your notebook or your pen, you can still type on your phone, on the notepad on your phone.
So what we’re trying to do first of all is to get out of their minds that they are incapable, that they don’t have it. You have everything you need to tell a story. Then they said, you see, I have to go to a cybercafé and get to an email address and send my stories. I’m like, no, no, no, no, no. Send your story on WhatsApp and do the editing.
Now, you may ask about how we confirm these stories, that they’re true, and how we do fact checking. And one thing I thank the Global Press Journal in the U.S. I learned from my editor, Krista Kapralos in Maryland, was I learned how to fact-check stories. That was the greatest thing I got from international media, how to fact-check stories and how to confirm some names.
I’ll give you an example of the name Mohammed. It’s a very popular name. Mohammed, Mahmud. Those are names that you can easily get wrong. And what I learned from there and that I’ve transferred to the girls I work with today is always get the source to spell their names for you. If you can’t do it, get their ID, their NIC card, and take a photo of it, just to be sure about the name.
And of course we’ve learned how to fact-check stories in so many other ways. How to fact-check stories, how to confirm that this is not cooked up. And this is something I’m teaching them now, although it feels a bit early, on how to identify someone who’s lying to you about their story. Most people lie a lot when you’re interviewing them. So we’re teaching them also how to identify a fake story at the point of interview.
I’ll tell you one skill I’ve learned to identify a fake story, because I’ve been conned more than twice when I’m doing my own stories. And one thing is to ask someone to tell their story in three different ways.
You ask for the story this way. Then you ask them again. Then you ask them again. Something else is to read about the person before you get to them. So most likely, if their story doesn’t rhyme, you know that they’re lying.
We feel it’s a bit early for them, but it’s very good for them, because one thing that has happened in citizen journalism is there’s so much trouble in fact-checking news stories, because anyone can just come and give you a story, and people are hungry for publicity, so they will give you a story in any design.
So fact checking is something we are teaching them. Fact checking, basic newswriting, and media ethics.
My point to the journalist is everyone is a fraud until they prove themselves otherwise.
LILIAN: My advice to people who are in the YALI Network who are interested in citizen journalism is there is a whole space of opportunities in this field. There are so many untold stories, there are so many unheard voices. But as I do that, let’s always fact-check the stories. You can easily fall into traps of people who want free publicity. And let’s always differentiate between public relations and ethical journalism.
VOICE-OVER: If you’d like to learn more about Lilian’s work at ImpactHub Media, visit impacthubmedia.com. That’s i-m-p-a-c-t-h-u-b-m-e-d-i-a dot com.