Pack behaviour runs counter to transformation

2011-10-22 09:42

The review of the Press Council of South Africa’s operations has confirmed the necessity to tackle the long-overdue debate of media transformation.

A serious review of the media needs to go deeper and wider than just how the print media should correct the errors it publishes. It must help the industry to prevent such errors.

This can be done by looking at a number of factors.

It can reflect on management, staffing, ownership and profit imperatives, and how these impact on content.

It must debate how the media works and whether it truly reflects South African society. It should look at who decides what constitutes news and its presentation.

Do those decision- makers truly understand South Africans or do they represent only their interests and those of their circles of friends?

There is a need to intensively look at the coverage of government, a key stakeholder with more than 60% support in the country.

The media is stuck in the trap of its definition of the word “independent”, which is deciphered to mean “anti-government”.

When government delivers water to a community that has been suffering, a reporter who wants to write a human-interest story about that must not fear ostracisation or being accused of being a government lackey.

Another disservice to South African journalism is the advent of “pack journalism”.

An example is the current President Jacob Zuma narrative.

One minute we are told he is soft on corruption and indecisive. When he acts, he is vindictive and seeks to remove “opponents’’ during the build-up to the ANC’s elective conference!Another new trend is the growing blurring of the line between fact and opinion.

A classic case is a recent speech by the president at the University of Pretoria on South African foreign policy.

Some journalists seemingly went there expecting the president to speak about the Dalai Lama.

Stories the next day were about how he had failed to deal with the issue, but readers were never informed what the president actually said.

If we go back to the basics, Journalism 101 teaches that a reporter must do a factual hard-news story for the news pages, guided by the “five Ws and H”.

Opinions belong in the leader pages and need to be clearly identifiable.Sadly, the achievements that have been scored by government and many other sectors of society in the past 17 years are largely unreported.

Politically, we have achieved an impressive democratic system of governance for a young democracy with strong, effective institutions.With regards to delivery – while there are backlogs, a lot has been achieved.

More than two million houses have been built for the poor, giving shelter to more than 10 million people, while six million households have gained access to clean water since 1994. Electricity has been connected to nearly five million homes.

In 1994, only 36% of South Africans had access to electricity – today 84% do.On education – more than eight million children at primary and secondary schools benefit from feeding schemes.

Access to tertiary education is set to improve with the conversion of loans into bursaries for qualifying final-year students and fee exemptions for some in training colleges.

Government has constructed more tarred roads and has provided streetlights, sporting and recreational facilities.

South Africa is definitely not the failure that it is projected to be. It is just that the South African story is not being told appropriately.

Other issues worth probing are whether membership of the South African National Editors Forum (Sanef) by journalism trainers or academics curtails their ability to objectively study the industry and help it transform.

In addition, what role does Sanef play in the transformation of the media industry beyond watching what government is doing and responding to that?

What is being done about the shortage of women editors and female correspondents, especially given that political journalism is usually the path to editorship?

Are the so-called political analysts and thinktanks that the media rely on so much really independent?

A constructive debate on these issues should not be stifled by complaints that government is interfering with media freedom.

The industry must be as thick- skinned as anyone who throws stones should be, and as all sectors have been when they had to deal with these issues.

The ultimate goal is to achieve a media that is free and independent, and which is truly reflective of South African society.

»
Kaunda is the deputy director-general in the Presidency and is a former newspaper editor and Sanef chairperson

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