Victims & Survivors

Case Study: Church burning during 2008 Kenyan Political Crisis


Violence has become part of our lives. We hear about violence somewhere in the world almost everyday through media reports.

Whenever there is violence, there are victims and survivors. However, not all news coverage of conflict features or even mentions those who died or were injured. Often the political context of an event is what is featured, and personal stories are only used to grab the public’s attention, rather than to tell an in-depth story about a suffering individual, a family, or a community.

Sometimes, numbers are all the media tell of the victims. Numbers are crucial to describe the scale of the violence, but numbers are never enough to tell the full story. How can media get behind the numbers? How can media best cover the victims and survivors?

VIOLENCE IN KENYA: On 2 January 2008, a mob torched a church near Kenya’s western town of Eldoret. Hundreds of Kenyans had sought refuge in the sanctuary and at least 50 people—mostly children and women—were burnt or hacked to death.

News outlets around the world reported the story, one of the deadliest incidents since the Kenya’s presidential election on 27 December 2007, which Pres. Mwai Kibaki won by a slight margin. Violence broke out in the country after Kibaki’s opponent, Raila Odingae, who is from a different ethnic group, charged the president’s party with vote-rigging.

British, American and Chinese television all aired reports on the church attack. Each, however, made different choices about what people to feature in its coverage: Victims and survivors? The gangs? Public officials? International observers? The news outlets’ own anchor or correspondent? The news outlets also made different decisions about what mattered: American network CNN emphasized the political context of the violence, for example, while the Shanghai-based Dragon TV focused on those who were killed.

BBC, CNN and Dragon TV’s videos can be easily found on their websites as well as on YouTube and Tudou, a Chinese version of YouTube, allowing direct comparison of their on-air coverage of the church attack.


BBC COVERAGE: On 2 January, the BBC broadcast a 4:29-minute video on the mob’s attack on the church. (Click here for BBC’s video.)

The video began with a lead-in of an anchor in a studio telling briefly what happened to the church and the women and children sheltering there. Then a female correspondent, on the scene in Kenya, showed the audience the ruins of the burning church while telling what occurred when the mob set fire to it.

The correspondent emphasized a story she said she heard from a survivor, a mother whose three small children had died in the fire. She cited the mother saying that when smoke filled the church, and she threw her babies out of a nearby window in order to save them, only to later find them dead.

Throughout the portion of the video package devoted to the church story, the audience only saw the correspondent and the burnt out remains of the church. The audience heard nothing but the correspondent’s description of what happened. No Kenyans, neither survivors nor other witnesses, were shown on the screen.

The remaining portion of the BBC video covered other violence across Kenya, cutting between footage of burning houses, bleeding civilians, armed police and chaos in the street. The report stated that the country-wide death toll had risen to three hundred and over thirty thousand people had fled their homes.


CNN COVERAGE: CNN covered the same story on the church attack in a video package two minutes shorter (2:24-minutes long) than that of the BBC. (Click here for CNN’s video.)

CNN’s video began with footage of a man waving a machete and shouting at the camera. He was neither identified by name nor was his action in front of the camera explained. Following that footage were images of gangs roaming the street.

Then for a brief 10-second clip, CNN showed the burning remains of the church, and a crying survivor lying on the ground. After that, the screen cut to Pres. Mwai Kibaki wishing the country “Happy New Year” and urging calm. That was followed by more footage of opposition party members shooting in the streets.

Two other political voices then appeared in CNN’s video: Kenya’s foreign minister who asserted that the election was over and everyone should accept the result and then the chief of the European Union election observer mission who observed on camera that the recent election did not measure up to international standards.


DRAGON TV (CHINA) COVERAGE: The Chinese network Dragon TV also covered the church attack in a brief 1:20 minute-long video package—a story three minutes shorter than the BBC’s and a minute shorter than CNN’s coverage. (Click here for Dragon TV’s video.)

Dragon TV’s video began with footage of a Red Cross staff member giving a brief overview of what happened, then the video cut to footage of the burning remains of the church, a survivor in pain, a burnt body impossible to be recognized and a bloodied body of a victim who escaped the fire but failed to escape the machetes of the mob.

Dragon TV interviewed a survivor who gave details about what happened to those who took refuge in the church. The survivor said the mobs roaming the streets were both armed and organized, and attacking those from the other ethnic groups.

Most of Dragon TV’s video was devoted to the church incident, with some little background information on the election. No political figures were pictured or interviewed.

SUMMARY of COVERAGE: BBC sent a correspondent to the site and told the story of the church ruins. But it showed no picture of victims and survivors. CNN and Dragon TV did not have a correspondent on the scene—which perhaps helps to account for the shorter length of their stories. CNN devoted much of its air time to political figures, while Dragon TV mostly concentrated on civilians. Dragon TV’s video was the shortest, but it was the most horrifying since it showed the burnt bodies of those who died and the bleeding bodies of those who survived.

Videos and images are often more powerful than words. When are images the best way to cover victims and survivors? When are images not the best way to tell their stories? Showing victims and interviewing survivors are often persuasive ways to pull in an audience to get them to care about what’s happened. When it is better to let the survivors speak for themselves and when it is better to let reporters narrate and interpret events?

Why it is essential for media to cover victims and survivors? Why does the public need to know the stories of the victims and survivors? How should media cover them?