Respect for the media requires honesty


Thinking allowed, veteran journalist, Ryland Fisher, reflected on the threats to journalists. They should not be intimidated, he suggested in his column in the Weekend Argus, 24 November 2018, titled: “Journalists are guardians of democracy; they must not be intimidated.”

It is easy to agree with this respected, award-winning journalist and insist that there is a specific reason why the media is often referred to as the ‘fourth estate’. It is their intrinsic democratic duty to advocate and to articulate the issues. Sadly, after teaching and practicing politics in South Africa, it is my considered view that it is the media themselves who are their worst enemy.

This tragedy is sadly summed up in Fisher’s introduction. Journalists, he suggests, are some of the “worst-paid professionals” and while this may be very true it indicates the deep sense of denial within the media fraternity of the destructive role that capital and corporatisation has played within our media sphere.

No doubt, this is not peculiar to South Africa but the shenanigans, for example, between Indepedent and Tiso Star, to which South Africans are subjected, as well as the recent apology made by the Sunday Times, in respect of a number of stories that they carried, are just the tip of the iceberg of the grim context wherein our media houses operate in order to place profit before advocacy and articulation.

Whilst objectivity may be journalism 101, we must not dismiss too easily the notion that some journalists really do believe that they can be ‘objective’; just as some politicians think that they can be ‘a-political’. In fact, Fisher must be commended for recognising that often, as within a field such as psychology for example, one approaches the subject with one’s own ‘baggage’. In this respect, the evolution of the idea of ‘objectivity’ and the integration of other disciplines to compliment the journalist’s story, with the pun intended, would certainly contribute to a much richer media.

As one having had the good fortune of teaching South African politics at Rhodes University, which hosts one of the best journalism schools in the country, journalism students stood out like a sore thumb in their essay writing. The thumb could be best described by that cliched and yet somewhat poignant quote of Eleanor Roosevelt: great minds speak of ideas, average minds tell of events while small minds speak of people.

Dirty linen and wrongdoings must surely be telling about people and events. This is often what a journalist student’s essay and our stories in the media would look like: a story telling about people and events. Hardly ever is there an exploration of ideas and this is simply the case because many of our journalists, writing stories, are themselves not habitual readers.

Ryland Fisher is correct to sound the alarm of caution as we head towards elections. Yet one could think of no better chapter written than the one by media academic Jane Duncan, “Desperately Seeking Depth: The Media and the 2009 Elections” in the 2010 book Zunami! the 2009 South African Election. Duncan frames academically that which Roosevelt says in her quote. South Africa’s media is too concentrated on people and events and does not examine the issues. In other words, the media does not pursue that which is fundamental to its role in a democratic society: to advocate on and articulate issues or ideas.

Using an Afrobarometer survey in November 2008, for example, Duncan highlights the issues at the time: unemployment, crime, poverty, the economy, HIV/AIDS or health issues, housing and corruption.

We have yet to hear about these issues for next year’s elections. Another example would certainly be that in the recent past, week after week, we are told of who said what at the Zondo Commission and the unfolding events. Yet hardly anyone is interested in understanding what state capture really is and how we ensure that it never happens again; if ensuring that it never happens again is even possible.

The reality is that investigative journalism has become vogue and therein lies the money. Journalists who can rely on their privileged backgrounds can afford to work on one story for months, if not years, or, as the Sunday Times saga illustrated, be paid by others to write about ‘investigated stories’. The rest, the majority of the “worst-paid”, report on people and events and certainly don’t have time to read.

In the end, it all comes down to the money. Newspapers and stories are sold not because they can make people think of ideas but because they can satisfy the appetite of a populace hungry for tabloid stories on people and events. As a result, when the course served is an attack on the media by politicians, the people want to read about it because it is a menu set by no one else but the media.

Wesley Seale taught politics at UWC and Rhodes University. He is currently completing his PhD in Beijing.