The big, bad media

2008-08-06 00:00

If you were an alien and landed on Earth, and were asked to describe the interests of the human species, what kind of report do you think you’d write if all you went by was the contents of newspapers? The conclusion might read: “Overall, a fascination with death and destruction, chaos and scandal, with a generally negative outlook on life.”

Bad news sells. Unfortunately. Newspapers use this fact to increase their profits and people gobble up their daily dose of disaster with morbid satisfaction. We want bad news, it entertains us. Good news just doesn’t make interesting conversation.

The South African media have been a great watchdog, exposing the corrupt and incompetent, and keeping a check on our young democracy. A free and independent press makes us different from most African countries, where government critique is like blasphemy. In fact, last year’s World Press Freedom Index placed South Africa in the top 30 out of 167 countries, ahead of the United States, the whole of Asia and South America, and even Spain and Italy.

Our media are powerful. And a little dangerous too. They are powerful because they shape public opinion and our perceptions of the world in which we live; dangerous because they’ve created a really frightened society, constantly scared about where this country’s heading. But in a developing country like ours, the role of the media needs to go beyond a catalogue of corrupt officials. We all know the problems, we constantly face these challenges, but we — South African society — need to be reminded of our successes because if we are not, we will begin to stop believing in our ability to become a nation of achievers and problem-solvers.

And sadly, this has already begun.

Optimism levels have dropped to 49% in 2008, according to TNS Research Surveys. And more people — black, white and brown — are planning to emigrate. They are being swept away by the strong waves of bad news. The life jacket is a one-way ticket to Australia or the United Kingdom. The media, through unbalanced reporting, are shooting this country in the foot by creating a tsunami of negativity. We’re losing skills and talent.

Bad news sucks us in. Perhaps we’re mentally hard-wired to pay attention to danger, an evolutionary skill to help us survive. Or perhaps we’re so used to a world drowning in misery that news is naturally negative — anything else is an exception, a rare success story, or government propaganda.

Endless exposure to depressing newspapers creates a collective “catastrophising” mindset — where we begin to exaggerate the extent of how bad life really is, either in our community or country. Through sensational headlines and anxiety-inducing stories, every question, every angle and every picture is chosen to shock and to scare. The media have tried their best to make the worst of everything. They perpetuate our image as the dark continent and fuel Afro-pessimism.

The solution is not to splash good news all over our front pages. This is often not tastefully done and distracts from the horrors of truly sad stories. Publishing “Robbers kill grandmother” next to “Local scientist wins award” hardly balances anything.

We do not need more feel-good, warm-and-fuzzy stories. Plenty of daily newspapers carry pictures of smiling residents and local achievers. And in any event, how much good news is enough to balance the bad news? An impossible question. Neither is the solution to ignore the terrible stuff happening in the big bad world. We cannot change what we do not acknowledge, so there needs to be a healthy dose of our problems. Ignoring problems won’t help anyone.

We need realistic optimism. It’s ridiculous to tell people to believe blindly in a brighter tomorrow when we live in such a homicidal country, with lethargic political responses.

The solution, luckily, might not be too difficult. It’s about managing the delicate art of recognising the bad stuff without becoming overly consumed by it.

I believe a practical solution lies with the media. Bad news sells, so keep it. But report it with plenty of information to allow readers to make up their own minds. Add multiple perspectives. Is a corrupt official an exception in a generally efficient department? Is our petrol price as bad as other countries? Did other young democracies go through similar problems and if so how did they resolve them? How common are crimes in a specific area, especially when they’re highly publicised cases that start to scare all the residents?

We need more self-critical media that reflect on their own practices. Are the media really contributing to nation-building? And is the public being too gullible?

We are already becoming victims of our own pessimism. Change is needed and we just need to go back to the basics — balanced reporting. It’s not about reinventing the news, it’s about rethinking the news.

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