SA journalism: current challenges
By Guy Berger
Chapter for book to be published by HSRC, 2004/5
Under apartheid, much of our journalism was criticised for being Eurocentric – that is, for reflecting a world that had little to do with South African realities. A decade of democracy has seen major improvements, but a totally new and South African paradigm of journalism has still to emerge.
This contrasts with other areas of media. Take television shows like Yizo Yizo, or adverts for beer and cellphones. They’ve adopted Western, formerly
Eurocentric, formats yet adapted them to suit our situation. But journalism lags behind – and it probably makes a lot less impact on our transitional society than it could.
Too much of our reporting is dull, dry and predictable – and of interest only
to a bunch of middle-aged elites. Much else is trivial entertainment for dumbed-down masses, without any illuminating information. There are many - too many - mistakes and inaccuracies. Worst is the recent advent of imitating Fleet Street’s tabloid-style sensationalism. That mix of clichéd
sexuality and soccer scandal does not make for a valued model of South African journalism. Finally, the narrow, nationalistic focus in much media is an injustice to the richness of all who live in our society.
So, how can we better tell our stories? It's not easy, but then we can take inspiration from a famous South African who perservered even though, as he noted, there was “no easy walk to freedom”. We can also take on board the acronyms spelt out below, and have some tips to fall back upon on the long, hard journey to a new South African journalism.
Start with “R” for race. Through our history, skin colour in this country has been a signal for all kinds of things – whether people were oppressed or
oppressor, poor or rich, unschooled or educated. Race told us a lot about a person’s culture, language options and place of residence. It has left us
today with the apparent obviousness of being a white or black person, or for some, also the distinctions of being African, Coloured or Indian.
Yet, against this legacy, our constitution commits us to building a non-racial society – i.e. one where race is no longer destiny, and where our diversity refers to social, not biological, differences. For journalism, this entails resisting the ingrained instinct to take race as something fixed and for granted in terms of what it means. The point is that race may indeed be important in some stories (such as those about racism) and in regard to some audiences; it is irrelevant in many other cases. Dig beneath the surface and make the judgement call, don't make automatic assumptions. Recognise that to properly explain most stories, requires uncovering the complexities of people that cannot be conveyed simply through the racial identity of the actors.
Non-racial journalism, however, doesn't mean being completely colour-blind. It means being sensitive to correcting the remaining historical imbalances wherein those people defined as black are neglected and/or negated in the media.
As a journalist, you have to deal continuously and consciously with the difficult issue of race as it has been, is now, and as it could be in the future. Looking ahead, the challenge is to begin to see beyond skin-colours and to understand how class and culture are becoming the new passports to identity, privilege and newsworthiness. These will be detached from race, but they can risk being as discriminatory in their impact.
“A” is for Africa, the continent of which we are part. The understanding must
be not "South Africa" and "Africa", but "South Africa" and "the rest of Africa". One integrated body, where pain in one part is felt in another. As we know, South Africa cannot be healthy if our neighbours are ailing. Conversely, success in one country sets up echoes elsewhere on the continent. What’s needed is for South African journalists to see ourselves as African journalists. This means waking up to the many fellow Africans living here, and
recognising their diversity by refusing to perpetuate stereotypes about Nigerians, Zimbabweans or other nationalities. We need to remember, too, that immigrants are not just subjects of stories; they are also part of our audience.
“Africa” also means giving South African audiences information and insight
from other countries on the continent, and not only the stories when the news is at its most negative. To have an African mindset implies understanding the commonalities across the sweep of the continent – and
including South Africa - of similar colonial histories, peripheral economies, rural cultures, ancestral traditions ... and also health challenges like HiV and malaria.
So, keep in mind the African-ness required of our journalism (though don't fall into the trap of thinking there is can only be one way of being African). Otherwise, miss out on this vast historical tide delivering increasing social integration to the fragmented geographical map of the continent's countries.
“Income” is what you should remember from the “I”. Arguably, the biggest
problem in South Africa is poverty. The only thing worse than having HiV is to be poor and have HiV. Our journalism thus needs to keep the question of class on the public agenda. The challenge is to cover the voices of the poor and the marginalized, many of whom are outside the ranks of media audiences. This requires extra efforts – the poor do not send out press
releases or call conferences. We also have to avoid representing poor people as purely victims in need of charity, and instead reveal their legitimate rights to a decent lifestyle plus their struggles to survive against severe odds. For journalism to put a dent into poverty, it is essential to pressurise powerful people into a permanent state of debate about policies and practices, and about how government, business and middle-class people can make more of a difference to their deprived compatriots.
“N” is for nation. Nation-building is not something that the media alone can manufacture, but there is still a part that journalists can play. Each and every story should be able to successfully answer the question: “Why will this information be of any interest to anyone outside of this community?”.
How can you get readers in Sandton to care about a Kwaito group comprised of shack-dwellers in Soweto-by-the-Sea? What will make TV viewers in big cities interested in the effects of drought in Northern Cape? Can we convey to listeners of Tsonga radio news that the Afrikaans Klein Karoo arts festival is fun and full of cultural inspiration? Take this nation-building challenge to heart, and help us begin to talk in a real sense about "the South African people".
“S” stands for sex – or, perhaps more correctly, gender. Only when our
journalism proactively presents women in better proportion to their population percentages, will we be able to say that we have made a proper break with the past. There is still a long way to go here - both in terms of the quantity and quality dimensions of women in the news. Female sources of news have to consciously sought out, and stories have to be scrutinised to see if they are not being written with the self-fulfilling assumption that the audience comprises mainly men. We have to speak to (and for) both sexes, and we have to ensure that the second-class status of women is not something our journalism legitimises. Our challenge then is to mount a challenge - against sexist attitudes and behaviour. Not by propagandising or proselytising (these aren't the jobs of journalism), but by professional gender-sensitive reporting.
Take all this to heart, and let the “RAINS” fall on your journalism. We’ll then see some South African sprouts peeping through the parched soil of the media! Coverage that is cognisant of Race, Africa, Income, Nation and Sex will help grow a proud model of South African human-rights based journalism.
You have the power as a journalist to put into practice a range of roles in relation to the RAINS. Here's a sample: Play an Orientation role, a Watchdog role, an Empowering role and a Representative role. Too many media people get stuck in a single rut, sing a single tune. The beauty of being a journalist, however, is that you can make diverse kinds of music. At times you are an able guardian of people’s rights through a watchdog role in exposing abuses.
At other times, you can be a cheerleader championing role-models that will empower your audience. And there are more possibilities as well. Let’s look at these in more detail.
“Play”. As in a drama, a role is an identity you take up and work within. It is
a script you follow to achieve a set purpose. So it goes in journalism. Some roles may come more naturally to your personality and skill. You may ache to be a celebrity interviewer or investigative crusader in front of the camera, you may prefer the behind-the-scenes editing or research. But remember that an actor is able to play a variety of parts, and similarly a journalist should strive to be as broadly multi-skilled as possible. A professional actor also recognises the importance of entertaining an audience. Journalism also allows you to make emotional impact - both pleasurable and painful. You can be playful at times; on other occasions, you may move an audience to tears. Don’t forget these dynamics of Play.
“Orientation” is about giving helpful information to your audience. It is about being a guide in a complicated world, enabling people to position themselves and to understand what is going on around them. It is about providing context and educational information - not just the “what”, but also the “how”
and “why” of your stories. It is about serving the needs of people to network themselves in a world that is cruel one moment and compassionate the next.
“Watchdog” is a role that focuses on accountability. It puts ill-doers in the
public limelight for actions they would prefer to keep in the dark. This role may expose men molesting children, or bureaucrats stealing from the people. It can put the spotlight on a politician dodging responsibility to act on a pressing problem, and it can name-and-shame a company polluting the environment. In all this, watchdog journalism represents the public interest and it upholds human rights. The only caveat is that this role should beware of narrowing into guard-dog journalism – i.e. working on behalf of special
interests instead of the general interest. Playing the watchdog role needs to be even-handed. Government is indeed a fair target, but so too are business, civil society and even private individuals involved in abuses.
The necessary sceptical attitude that goes along with “Watchdog-ism” does
not mean that journalists should become cynical. The sceptic asks critical questions, whereas the cynic already knows the answers - and that these are the worst possible. Scepticism is not cynicism. Nor is it incompatible with the next role - one which gives hope.
This third role, to "Empower", helps us remember that journalism not only exists to discredit the abusers, but also to celebrate the heroes and heroines. An “Empowering” role can highlight acts of courage and nobility in cases of
disaster and tragedy. It can find the flaws in Afro-pessimism. It can give individuals the confidence to believe in themselves and their fellows, as well as provide solutions-oriented information that will give practical effect to people's empowerment.
A “Watchdog” role entails a partisan position – taking sides on behalf of the
public. But there is also a very different role – that of reflecting, fairly and
impartially, a range of different viewpoints. This is the “Representative” role. It does not mean that a journalist turns into a silent platform, to be walked upon by would-be newsmakers irrespective of whether they are honest or are spouting untruths. It means, instead, a journalist as an active referee, enforcing rules of debate and reprimanding or countermanding players where appropriate.
Playing the professional roles of Orientator, Watchdog, Empowerer and Representative is a complex challenge. Some roles are more suited to some stories, sometimes a mix is called for. A good journalist should be versatile enough to deploy them as appropriate. Covering an election, for example, may call equally for stories that are educational, and for stories showing voter intimidation or political deceit. There are important places, too, for stories of successes in peaceful electioneering and also for a range of different political views. Not every story is a Watchdog one, and nor is there a need to always give every loudmouth instant access to the soapbox. The point is that Journalists need the POWER to provide audiences with the richness of all these roles, as befits the content.
There's more that's needed if RAINS and POWER are to produce a paradigm shift in our media practice. Underlying all journalism is a set of values. The craft is not a detached, objective science with clearcut rules for every conundrum. There are difficult choices to be made all along the way.
What story should I do, what angle ought I take on it? Whom do I interview, and whom not? Do I tell them I am a journalist or keep quiet? What facts do I accept as gospel, and which do I verify? When can I use information from someone else's story? Should I accept information off-the-record? What will the consequences be of my story on the people involved?
Do you need assistance in deciding how to answer these and other ethical questions? Here’s HELP!
“H” is for your Heart. Listen carefully when there are pricks of conscience, half-formed questions and faint uncertainties. Beware the dulling of your emotions just because you may have done things a certain way many times before. The point is that your gut feel is an important barometer about what is an ethical issue, and about how you should proceed with it. So, when your Heart hesitates, pause your Head and Hands for a moment. And then follow the steps below.
“E” stands for Externalise. You can’t simply make a self-centred decision.
Chances are, you’re employed in a media firm and there are policies and practices in place. Do they allow you to use anonymous sources – if so,
under what conditions? Do you agree with a newseditor who says it's fine to hype up a story for its sensational value – or will you contest this, perhaps
even to the point of seeking a job elsewhere?
Besides your immediate context of employment, you also need to Externalise by asking what your peers in the profession would say in regard to your decision? Ask them. See, too, if there is an item in a journalistic code of conduct that speaks to the issue. Finally, consider the morality of your friends and family – can you defend your decision to them? (You may end up having to!).
“L” points us to “Looking more closely at the story”. How important is it? What really will be the reaction by the source if you concentrate on some quotes rather than others? Check out what you take for granted as facts about your ethical conundrum. What is potential speculation about consequences, and what is for definite?
“P” puts you in the position now to examine “Possibilities”. There are always several choices in making a decision. Think proactively about at least one alternative way of resolving the ethical issue at hand. Then refer to your Heart, your Externalising and your Look at the facts. Which alternative now looks preferable? And will your choice be because the end result is better with that particular option, or because you put a premium of the ethics of the means to the end? Know what Possibility you choose and why.
“!” signals that you have to act. Journalism works to deadlines. On the other hand, however, rather miss a deadline than regret what you have published. It is better to take the time to check your facts or get a comment from a source who is adversely implicated, than to bring yourself and your medium into disrepute by cutting corners. If you get something wrong, get the correction out quickly. Remember: a new South African journalism has to be a paragon of ethical practice.
These three acronyms – RAINS, POWER and HELP! – are basic tools. The
first deals with the character of our country and its impact on journalism. The second is about the role options open to journalists in responding to these challenges. The third comes down to specific choices and decisions to be made on the job.
The importance of these formulae is underlined by the challenges facing the media industry in South Africa. An audit of skills by the South African National Editors Forum (Sanef) in 2002 showed a huge shortfall on the part of reporters. In turn, however, this deficiency was blamed on weaknesses in training institutions as well as an inadequate leadership by newsroom managers. Money-mad owners were also identified as a source of the problems because of their insistence on small staffs and insufficient salary
budgets. Each of these stakeholders is central to breaking the impasse. But no one needs to wait for the other to act, and reporters themselves can do a lot to remedy the skills situation.
To be a journalist in South Africa is to enjoy one of the most exciting jobs on the planet, and to enjoy constitutional protection into the bargain. However, it also means taking on board a weighty professional responsibility, and taking seriously that the currency of the job is the credibility which comes from serving the public interest.
It follows that journalists should understand that to be a good producer of public meanings requires being an informed and critical consumer of the media. It means ongoing self-scrutiny and efforts to improve oneself and the industry.
It is hard for a working journalist to keep an eye on all this. The pressures of production force a focus on the daily job. This is to the detriment of following up yesterday’s story, and of researching tomorrow’s coverage. Even more damaging is the effect on the big-picture. Good journalism needs the follow-up and to prepare for what’s coming up; but great journalism takes on board a whole lot more as well. It comes to grips with the challenges of South Africa (RAINS), the various roles that journalists can play (POWER), and the foundational ethics for making wise decisions (HELP!).
Our country deserves a new paradigm of journalism. Fortunately, it has the capacity to generate one. It will take time to reinvent the practice and for the profession to make more of a contribution to society. But let’s give it our best.
Remember, as you're out there, the POWER of RAINS to HELP!.
Sources and credits:
Many of the ideas in this chapter are drawn from the following sources:
Kovach, B and Rosensthiel, T. 2001. The elements of journalism. New York:
Three Rivers Press.
Poynter Institute. www.poynter.org
SANEF 2002. Skills Audit. Online at:
Thloloe, J. 1997. A new paradigm for journalism in South Africa. Rhodes Journalism Review. http://journ.ru.ac.za/review/15/paradigm.htm
Professor Guy Berger is head of the department of Journalism and Media
Studies at Rhodes University, South Africa. He is active in media training
and press freedom networks in southern Africa, and is currently deputy chair of the South African National Editors Forum. In 2003, he oversaw the acquisition of the community newspaper Grocotts' Mail as a novel training platform for Rhodes students and a service to the local community. He has a PhD from Rhodes University (1989), and his research covers Media coverage of poverty, Multi-media and new media issues, Media policy issues, the Impact of Media Training, South Africa's Alternative Press, and African Media He was jailed as a political prisoner (1980-1983), and later forced into exile (1985-1990).
Fortnightly column, "Converse": www.mg.co.za