The mainstream media is not unbiased nor is it entirely objective. It chooses its heroes and darlings and like many loves, an antagonist and a protagonist. In today’s media and consumer landscape of click baiting and measuring success by the number of likes or comments, the desire to be first supercedes the journalistic principles of being fair and accurate.
Regulatory frameworks are put in place to “protect” us from “harm” i.e. fatalistic banner warnings on packs of cigarettes, movie classifications and so on. So where do news products and how and what we consume fit into our decision-making processes? Fake news, theoretically anyway, should make the conscious news consumer be ever more vigilant, quizzical and interrogative about everything news-related they watch on television or online and what they read in newspapers and on social media.
In South Africa, we naively hold onto the virtues of an “independent” media. Openly and blatantly supporting a particular political party, for example, is met with howls of derision, and yet, those so-called bastions of democracy – the US and the UK – which our consumptive patterns are overwhelmingly influenced by thrive on partisan mainstream media driving specific politicians and/or their political agendas.
Tune into Fox News and it is mostly Republican party drum-beating and Democratic Party bashing and vice-versa for the likes of CNN and CBS. In the UK, newspapers have openly advocated for their readers to vote for a specific Prime Minister candidate and more recently they were either advocating for their readers to vote to remain in the European Union or to exit it.
Does this mean that they have abandoned their journalistic independence altogether and have forgotten their role as societal watchdog? Has the so-called “corporatisation” of news organizations rendered them wholly untrustworthy?
Does this make them less credible? Or do we judge credibility favourably only when what we consume in media as being agreeable and inoffensive to our world views?
Does this mean you cannot trust “biased” media outlets to “speak truth to power” or to “shine a light in dark corners”?
Sure, comparisons are relative, but why is it that we in South Africa are appalled when particular news organizations openly state that they buy into particular political ideologies? And given brand and audience, by default, media products within any given organization will have a specific projection or angle on stories which will differ from news organizations with an entirely different ideological make-up, history or intention.
We have to start questioning the strength of our democracy when we fail to publish or broadcast a wide range of voices (hate speech is another argument altogether). Failing which, it weakens us as a society and undermines the very ideals of our “free” society.
In this year of heated party-political leadership battles – within the ANC and the DA – we have to wade through the murky morass that is our democracy and try to find authentic voices that are balanced in their delivery and not vitriolic in their ideology. Access to information has never been easier. Access to the truth is another matter. It all depends on who you ask or who you choose to believe.
Muhammad Khalid Sayed is the Provincial Chairperson of the ANC Youth League Western Cape