The story behind the stories. Long live the radio star!

2013-11-10 06:00

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Fishermen catch fish and cops catch crooks (well, in a perfect world, that is). Just so, journalists capture life.

It’s what we do. Or at least, what we set out to do with the best intentions, mostly. It really is a calling of sorts.

And hereby I include the editors, the subeditors, the online editors, the photographers, the audio gatherers, the writers; the whole Henry Ford-style assembly line of news as we know it today, which obviously contains far more nut cases than nuts and bolts per se.

At tertiary school the idea of journalism being a mirror held up to society was bandied about. It’s a nice idea, but way too lofty. For “it’s flippin’ damn complicated!” if I may embellish on the phrase coined by Mark Zuckerberg & Co.

News can never be objective. Truth has about a million sides, with new nuances always on the ready to derail the apple cart of your angle, causing havoc and panic, and a frenzy to recomprehend and reregurgitate the facts as accurately as you humanly can.

We try our best to capture slices of life in words (and these days also with audio and video), to check the facts, to beat them into shape, to polish them, to wrap them pretty-like for public consumption.

It’s about revealing injustice and tragedy, keeping tabs on industry and politics, sharing accounts of beauty and irony, all the while balancing tales of the good and the horror that characterise life.

People love criticising journalists and news and headlines and columns, which is good. Accountability is healthy and we should all keep each other in check.

But I suspect detractors don’t always quite understand the story behind the stories – the sweat, the tears, the sleepless nights, the interrupted lives, the pain and (sure) the laughs that go into the print they purchase at the corner shop, the news flashes viewed on TV, heard on the radio, or so readily consumed online.

A scenario that will always remain etched in my mind: a glorious afternoon in the Karoo, the dipping sun cutting long shadows over koppies that flank the Hex River Valley near De Doorns.

I was scribbling incomprehensible notes in my dog-eared notebook grinding my jaw while stepping over a blood-splattered Hello Kitty blankie, when my colleague, photographer Esa Alexander, shouted: “Jirre, oppas die tande!” (Look out, there are teeth!)

Driving through the Karoo with my esteemed comrade, photographer Esa Alexander.

We were out covering a bus accident. A church group returning from Secunda to Khayelitsha had fallen victim to a terrible fate and scores of people were dead.

Their bodies had been removed by the time we arrived on the scene, but carnage was everywhere. I nearly stepped on a fragment of disjointed human face when my colleague warned me so urgently.

Near us, a man was frantically sifting through the debris for remnants of his family. Another man stood ashen-faced by the road, saying he couldn’t reach his wife who had been on the bus, with their baby.

Her phone was off. His next ports of call were the hospital and the morgue. I could barely conceal the sobs in my voice when I told him I so badly hoped that everything would be fine.

It wasn’t. Later, back at our office in Cape Town, we learned that his wife and their baby had been among the deceased.

I wrote the story to a tight deadline that evening and Esa filed stomach-churning pictures. It appeared in our Sunday newspaper the next day. People were talking about the accident; it was big news, road safety was on the national agenda and dodgy transport companies were hauled over the coals.

I stole a brief glimpse at the story and photographs published on page two of the Sunday Times that weekend; as much as we had tried, our coverage barely did justice to the full horror of the previous day. I cried.

Critics love beating journalists with the “sensational” stick. How fascinating, for people don’t buy newspapers or click on links to read about soup kitchen rosters and the latest community pottery awards, do they?

To be clear, these things are important too and should feature in the mix, but life is bloody hectic and to truly capture it – and heavens, maybe even to catalyse change somehow – you have to dive into that cesspool and get your hands dirty. The case of Maygene de Wee of Die Burger comes to mind. Maygene covered the Anene Booysen rape and murder case in Bredasdorp while pregnant. I wasn’t there but I was told that when the cameras stopped rolling, so to speak, she was broken, shattered, but kept going. Maygene is no softie. She recalled her anguish in a heart-breaking feature after Johannes Kana was found guilty and sentenced last week. My thoughts today are mainly in response to a curt question I was asked at a braai about a year ago. It was something along the lines of: isn’t journalism dying because of digital? At the time I stared back blankly and probably mumbled something. I loathe people intent on having boring, serious conversations at perfectly good dinner parties.

No, journalism is not dead or dying, honey! Yawn.

Did video really kill the radio star? I think not. The radio personalities I know have Twitter accounts and constant YouTube access and are contributing to online, unfolding news as we speak.

Technology isn’t eroding journalism; it’s merely changing the game plan, and those who don’t adapt are being left behind. Swift corporate Darwinism, if you like.

There will always be a need for people to go out there, to absorb life, to capture stories, to wring the blood and tears and laughs from their notebooks or iPads; to sift through mountains of paperwork in court room corridors; to verify facts and to join the dots and to provide context. I should probably mention “gate-keeping” somewhere around here.

It’s not rocket science that Google is an aggregator and cannot distil stories out of thin air. (So how are we doing on the artificial intelligence front, then? Ja okay.)

True news hounds and storytellers don’t feel threatened by so-called citizen journalism. They use Twitter and YouTube and whatever else as tools, and people’s observations (so dispersed online) as invaluable pointers to play the game smarter.

It boils down to basic supply and demand: sadly fishermen will be out of business when we run out of fish. Cops are safe; the world will never run out of crooks.

Similarly, as long as there are people there will be news and stories to capture and disseminate on whatever media platform is best suited.

In his book Rat Roads my colleague Jacques Pauw quotes Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in trying to make sense of the travesties he saw in Rwanda.

“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, but right through every human heart,” he wrote.

Likewise, somehow, the dichotomy of inspired and sloppy runs through nation states, ethnic groups, professions and obviously, moreover, human beings and journalists. There are inspired journalists and sloppy journalists (duh) – but mainly we are all a mix of both.

I will allow myself to generalise now. What a fetching bunch of people! I would like to offer a hat-tip to my cadres; I have been surrounded by your kind for a decade now and is still regularly humbled and wildly amused by it all.

This might sound like navel-gazing, but then I’ve always had a thing for navels.

The stories behind the storytellers; they are rich and passionate and plentiful.

And yup, there are challenges.

But we’re still going strong, thanks. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

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