News we need — or want?

2011-08-12 00:00

OLDER people have time on their hands. So I read newspapers on the Internet. The New York Times is the best — world news, snappy “op-ed” pieces, even recipes. Sometimes I look at the Sydney Morning Herald or the New Zealand Dominion to get their views on the Springboks. Occasionally, I read The Times from London, although they now charge a subscription. But the subscription for The Times is less than that for The Witness.

So why every morning do I still fetch my Witness at the crack of dawn? Not just to see who has died or got married (sadly more of the former these days). Not for the world news — the New York Times does that better. Even the national news I know from the television. It’s because I want to hear the views of the people among whom I live. The leader page, the excellent opinion pieces, even the letters to the editor, help me get a feel about living in KwaZulu-Natal, living in South Africa, sometimes reluctantly, sometimes with pride and joy. The Witness makes me feel part of a community.

I don’t always agree with the opinions. But I need to hear them. Should Eric Miyeni have been fired for expressing his opinion? Should the Sowetan have printed it? I remember Miyeni from his student days — even then touchy, likely to shoot his mouth off, but basically a nice person. His words may be actionable, but I need to know how people like him think. It is the job of a newspaper to help me understand beyond the confines of my own limited perspective, to help build a wider community, to extend our awareness and to expose us to things we’d rather not know.

Education or entertainment? Often what we want are opinions that match our own. We want news that is saucy, or sometimes news that is exciting and gripping. Even that can be taken to extremes. I probably won’t go to see the recently released film of the Bang Bang Club, the story of the four photojournalists many of whom met their deaths. Although many of the events happened nearly 20 years ago, the memories are still painful. Ken Oosterbroek was killed in crossfire in a firefight on the East Rand. Kevin Carter, disturbed by the tragedy, committed suicide. In more recent months, João Silva had his legs blown off by a land mine in Afg­hanistan. Of the four, only Greg Marinovich remains physically unharmed. And just recently Anton Hammerl, protégé of Ken Oosterbroek, was killed in Libya.

What were they striving for, these photographers who risked their lives to get the one great shot? Ken was my son-in-law. He was a great photographer, and a poor conversationalist. He spoke through his pictures. The few family occasions we shared with him before his death were punctuated with the constant click of a camera. Not all of his pictures were of death and drama. My wife once asked him for a picture of something peaceful, and he gave her a lovely photo of tulips with a distant girl on a bicycle. He had an incredible eye for the right shot. But he, and all of the Bang Bang Club and those who emulate them, earned their fame by photographing war. Of course, they do us a service. Their pictures speak more loudly than words of the drama, the pain and the fear. But it can be taken too far. As I said at Ken’s funeral, war can be photographed through a distant lens rather than close-ups, except that readers want the immediacy of the drama. We want excitement and sensation even more than we want the dry facts of news.

Ken’s wife, my daughter Monica, recalled those times in a recent Witness article. She was a journalist alongside Ken. I had not known about the article until I saw it, and I was struck by her words. “I myself am so ashamed about my vain and haughty attitude about journalism. Everything was about me. As it was with so much of the media around me. Everyone would boast about their near-death experiences … as if the world could not exist if we did not personally expose other people’s lives. As if we made a difference.”

I think she is too hard on herself and the media. The media do make a difference. But I remember all too well Monica, in the midst of a firefight in the street outside the Star’s Johannesburg office, taking shelter in a concrete pipe at the roadside in order to get close to the action, or Monica and Ken rushing off to Israel when war broke out between Israel and Lebanon, in order to write about the bombing. They were not good days for a parent. Risk-taking in order to get the most dramatic stories and pictures. Do we need it? We can blame gung-ho journalists and photojournalists seeking sensationalism. We can decry phone hacking and the recent invasion of privacy in Britain. We can blame the editors who permit it. But they do it because we want them to. All too often this is the news we want. Sensationalism, scandal, secrets, and bland opinion pieces that reinforce our prejudices.

• Ronald Nicolson is a retired academic and Anglican priest.

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