Guest Column

Media should not sacrifice professionalism and quality

2016-09-07 14:29

Faith Muthambi

We’ve known for some time now that media houses, buffeted by shrinking advertising revenues and technological advancement, have had to dramatically scale down their newsrooms. Waves and waves of retrenchments have hit virtually all media outlets.

Doing more with less is the order of the day, with journalists forced to work across platforms; be it print, online and in some instances, television. In the process, newsrooms have had to sacrifice something else that is critically important – quality.

This conundrum has come up so many times in discussions about the state of the media in South Africa, most recently three weeks ago at the Print Media Transformation Colloquium conference held by the ministry of communications. 
Mistakes are glaring, from harmless typos and grammar glitches to the more serious ones which include the absence of facts.

Stories are also getting published with little verification of what is being paraded as ‘facts’. That right of reply, once an absolute must-have in a story, is also getting thrown under the bus in this process.

While some mistakes are minor and forgivable, other transgressions are unacceptable and do long-term damage to the field of journalism.

Take for example a few stories published this past week. The Sunday Times, a once-glorious and respected newspaper, carried a story with the following content:   

"Three senior government officials told the Sunday Times that [Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi] Zwane, Communications Minister Faith Muthambi and Co-operative Governance & Traditional Affairs Minister Des van Rooyen have been at the forefront of an onslaught against Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan in Cabinet meetings for not acting against the banks on the Gupta issue."

These are very serious allegations. But, yes, you guessed it. The authors provided no shred of evidence to the allegations they made against me. It doesn’t stop there.

They also did not afford me or the ministry an opportunity to reply to these allegations. What kind of journalism is this? How did the story end up as lead story without anyone picking-up and doing some quality control? I don’t have an answer.

Another newspaper, The Sunday Independent, carried a story that read: "South Africa is splurging big bucks on a US-based lobbyist to boost its image in pursuit of investments and to positively influence perceptions among targeted audiences abroad. According to a declaration with the US Department of Justice’s foreign agents’ registry, Communications Minister Faith Muthambi, through Brand SA, has enlisted a foreign agent in the US at a cost of more than R10 million for five years, to boost South Africa’s image. The lobbyist, Mudunwazi Baloyi, was registered in March with the US department as Country Head of Brand South Africa. He will lobby through marketing and communication activities, among others."

As I was reading the story I had more questions? How did such nonsense end up making it into the newspaper? Where are copy editors, news editors and the newspaper editor?  So the story passed through all these levels without anyone questioning or seeing anything wrong? There was no comment from the ministry of communications or Brand SA. Surely someone should have seen it necessary to afford these two organisations a right of reply.     

A week ago the City Press was at it with a misleading headline that screamed:

"Government plan mooted to regulate the media". The headline is misleading and insinuates that the government wants to control the media. No matter how many times we in government state that we have no wish to control the media, the lie is out there and is repeated ad nauseam.

The two-day Print Media Transformation Colloquium was an exercise to solicit divergent viewpoints that will culminate into a discussion document that will guide policy on print media transformation. Clearly, transformation of the media cannot be limited to newsroom staff and news content.

It should also be about re-inculcating and upholding values that promote fairness, professionalism and quality.  Whatever else newsrooms have to sacrifice, let it not be these very important ones.  

*Muthambi is Minister of Communications.



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