Not the whole story

2010-10-06 00:00

THE prospect of appearing to have a go at journalists at a time when politicians are doing the same is frightening. It feels too much like women abuse — it is backward and upsetting to witness. Therefore I write this with a fair degree of uneasiness, but I think frank and sober discussion on media reporting will bring some sanity into what has become a hysterical slanging match between supporters and opponents of the media tribunal that is being proposed by the ANC.

The events of the last week in the mining industry and how they were reported made me rethink some of my long-held assumptions.

I attended the Mining for Change Conference at the Sandton Convention Centre. Apart from the Minister of Mineral Resources, Susan Shabangu, failing to appear due to unforeseen circumstances, the conference organisers lined up a great list of speakers.

There were mainly local and international­ speakers of vast knowledge and repute. There were also presentations and speeches from the Young Communists League, the ANC Youth League president, Julius Malema, and the South African Communist Party’s (SACP) Jeremy Cronin. The contribution of these speakers and the answers which they provided to questions that were asked by the audience gave much insight into some of the most pressing issues that are affecting the mining industry in South Africa­ today.

For instance, from the presentations we learnt that the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the SACP, while not opposed to nationalisation as an ideological­ and strategic concept, do not support the proposition­ of the ANC Youth League.

Cronin questioned the motives of those advocating the nationalisation of the mining industry. ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) member Joel Netshitenzhe, speaking in his capacity as executive director of the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection, succinctly explained that it is premature to speak of intensive state involvement in the mining industry when the ANC and the government do not have a sector strategy.

It became clear that the use of the word “nationalisation” is totally misplaced. Almost all the speakers were, in one way or another, referring to state involvement in strategic minerals to implement­ measures that are currently lacking or to safeguard the long-term economic interests of the country.

I am afraid that for the person who expected to at least get the essence of what was discussed at the conference, and therefore be sufficiently informed to follow the development of the nationalisation debate meaningfully, there was bad news. It appears that this is not how news reporting works or is supposed to try to work.

What I witnessed was a few journalists who sat through all the sessions and diligently asked questions during each panel discussion. The rest were nowhere to be found.

This changed dramatically when Malema walked in. The number of photographers suddenly multiplied. Television cameras materialised, seemingly out of nowhere, as did radio journalists who breathlessly filed reports. When I stepped outside I noticed an SABC mobile broadcast vehicle parked near the premises. It was not surprising therefore to see wall-to-wall coverage of Malema’s fine political rhetoric and very little or nothing on the other speakers. Only the odd publication ignored the Malema angle and focused on other substantive issues.

A day later a colleague of mine attended a public discussion on the mining industry at the Gordon Institute of Business Science, an event that was widely reported on by the papers. His account of the discussion was markedly different to the Armageddon which the newspapers said was predicted in the discussion. Closer reading of the articles revealed that these were views of only one of the participants in that discussion. I wondered­ what thoughts other participants­ must have shared. At least I had the benefit of my colleagues’ account of the meeting. The poor souls who didn’t know anyone there must have assumed that nothing else was shared.

These incidents made me wonder what informs a decision to ignore a significant part of an incident that is being reported. Is it fair for a journalist to assume that the reader has no interest in the views of certain participants who, when looked at objectively, are important? Does omission not constitute a form of dishonesty? Can we really be surprised when paranoid politicians assume that journalists wilfully distort facts by not giving a balanced view? Does this not leave the journalism profession open to association with conspiracy theories?

If we are to avoid unpredictable ogres such as the media tribunal, then it is necessary for the media to examine critically whether their readers are always told the whole truth.

Alternatively the media needs to examine whether the bits and pieces they choose to report on do not mislead readers. The answers are very important for a free media­.

• Songezo Zibi is a mining industry communications practitioner. He writes in his personal capacity.

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