Ruth First Memorial Lecture: Journalism suffers crisis of quality and credibility

2018-10-19 16:27


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Three children died in a fire at Fannin Road informal settlement outside Durban on 10 June 2017. The reports of their deaths were minimal and vague. They were girls who may have been aged two, three and six years old, according to East Coast Radio.

Or, they may have been a pair of five-year-old twins, with a younger sister who could have been three, according to News24.

There were a few certainties, however: They were poor; the girls lived in a shack. Their lives ended excruciatingly; the neighbours who woke up to the girls' screams in the early morning testified to this. The dead were black. Aside from one story in The Mercury newspaper, none of the reports named the twins: Snegugu and Snenhlanhla Mtolo (6 years old) and their 3-year-old sister, Esihle.

Three days earlier Madré Johnston and her husband Tony burnt to death outside their home in Elandskraal near Knysna. According to the Sunday Times, Tony was found next to the family's cars on top of the bodies of Madré and their son, Michael. Madré was 8 months pregnant when she died. The couple would have celebrated Michael's third birthday that afternoon.

We know the contents of the final WhatsApp message Madré sent. It was to her neighbour, Anton du Plessis, in which she described the "red glow" of the fire nearing their home early that morning. We know Du Plessis and his wife Anita survived by fleeing in their Land Rover, and that they packed their three dogs in with them. We know the names of their dogs: Mojo, Cola and Nika.

What we know, or don't know, about these fires — how they started, who they consumed and how those who died had lived their lives — we garner from news reports. That information is managed by journalists, their subjectivities, their biases, their stresses and pressures, their curiosities; their willingness to witness and make enquiries of the world around them.

Journalists move between worlds: we can be in a shack settlement in the morning and in Mahlamba Ndlopfu in the afternoon. We have unparalleled access to the present — in all its shades of class and race, squalor and opulence, power and agency, unnerving beauty, repugnant violence… as we – ideally – document all this for those not as lucky as we are to have such freedom of movement and enquiry.

Is this what journalists do in South Africa in 2018? Are we, as the cliché goes, writing history's first draft? If so, are we writing for future generations and what will their interest in the news be — if any? And in the present, for whose interest do we write the news?

Are we mindful of the agendas of our sources? Do we report without fear or favour? Do we speak truth to power regardless of whether it is white capital or "black government"? Do we place a microphone to the mouths of those who are voiceless and extend the public sphere to the marginalised?


Journalism, undeniably, requires the internet for stories to spread and to gain traction in people's minds and imaginations. For the formulation of ideas and opinions — to keep us connected to our political realities.

In a digital age, social media appears the most effective tool for this dissemination and interaction — for the spread of wildfire. It is the fuel that allows journalism, like fire, to self-perpetuate. Yet, social media is premised on the "attention economy". It aims to hold our attention while we freely give away our information and autonomy to be sold off for billions of dollars in advertising revenues by Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google.

These tech behemoths are the mining companies of the digital age. Like Lonmin or Anglo-American, they are in the business of extraction and profit — not radical progress or the pursuit of egalitarian societies. Their methodology is as rapacious as that of the Randlords.

These are platforms which, especially on our smartphones, cynically use unethical "persuasive" design to hook into our brain's dopamine pathways and manipulate our time, ideas, vulnerabilities, the political, the personal. Like junkies we return to their "addictive feedback loops" where our sense of outrage is heightened. Our individual and collective will undermined and political and social bonds fractured.

Against this backdrop why should journalism, never mind good journalism, even matter? Will the future care about history's first draft? What hope, then, for journalism's survival?

In using the internet and social media, journalism's survivalist response in South Africa, as in most other places, has been to favour the sensational over the nuanced; to appeal to emotion, anger and outrage; to bait and draw up listicles rather than to investigate. To subscribe to the parameters that Silicon Valley has imposed on us.

South African newsrooms are under pressure to move away from thoughtful and in-depth reporting towards responding to social media. The dot.coms who drive "digital first" planning in newsrooms are unconcerned about the ethical problems of rehashing another publication's story without verifying documents and other source material.

Traditional journalistic processes like developing contacts, corroborating their information with independent sources, following paper trails and spending time in the field, for iconoclastic journalism, is being replaced by the click-bait pile-ons.

I felt this during my time working at the M&G from 2005-2013. Online we lost our identity and started to look like any other 24-hour news cycle website. In one instance, I recall an online editor ordering a promising intern not to bother going out to a shack settlement to interview residents who had experienced the double pain of an attempted eviction and a fire. The official version from police and the landowners would suffice, apparently.

Against the backdrop of ruinous ownership spending and retrenchments, this dumbing down exacerbated a traumatic time for the newspaper. The consequences were best reflected in a "music review" of a Kanye album. It consisted of a succession of selfies with the reviewer's facial expression for each song reflecting their thoughts on the music and lyrics. It had neither substance nor insight — the M&G's trademarks.

We now treat social media as a core source of our news reporting. Over the last three years Times Live reported on what the celebrities Bonang and AKA tweeted about Marikana or state capture, rather than sending journalists out to interview and investigate.

Journalists have stopped looking. We have stopped looking up from our smartphones and social media platforms when we report on something. In doing this we miss the detail which elevates our story-telling. We do this because we are told our readers demand constant information. We also do it to for the endorphin rush of virality, for the narcissistic kicks of affirmation from our digital networks. With our heads down, we have physically stopped looking at the world around us, its stories and its nuances.

Like the society around them, journalists have developed an inward-looking narcissism which is contrary to our essential role: to tell other people's stories. The journalistic eye has been replaced by the self-aggrandising "I" as opinion replaces more expensive social and forensic investigation in an age of relentless newsroom corporatisation and austerity.

Digitisation and atomisation have exacerbated elitism and individualisation in the world, and in the media. In this moment of late Capitalism, there is a recalibration of the global order as the gap between rich and poor widens, there is an accelerated flow of capital and precious metals through borders which obstruct people while ethnonationalism around the world rises and fascist ideas become normalised. This has infected journalists too: many of those who consider themselves progressive or liberal are guardians of racialised privilege in the media.

There was, once, an optimism that technology was wholly good for journalism. But we have learnt, through pro-Gupta online trolls, paid-Twitter, fake news sites, the emergence of social media influencers and Russian social bots that we cannot trust social media. The numbers — of followers and interactions — used to grade our online relevance and success were untruths. Journalism had not checked its facts when unquestioningly embracing technology.

We live in a time when, as Frederic Jameson noted, we constantly expose ourselves to "isolated, disconnected, discontinuous material signifiers which fail to link up into a coherent sequence".

Journalism reflects this atomisation.

Editorial identity is chopped and julienned into small chunks before being aggregated on social media. Algorithms dictate our news morsels. We are losing the whole, the bigger picture. The "mix" that we found in an actual newspaper which caused us to read outside of our information silos and prejudices. No more. We are now one-dimensional in our knowledge and information gathering.

I was reminded of this while paging through the edition of the Knysna-Plett Herald published a week after the fire. All 48 pages, from the front to the sports section examined different aspects of the fire. Reading through a particular social media feed online I would have misunderstood the Herald to care only about the pampered cats surviving the fire.

The "mix" of an actual newspaper, that tactile, material thing consigned to history's dustbin ensured we knew more than we chose, or would like to know. That discomfiting provocation is what journalism is about.

The truth is, however, that with the honourable exception of some vernacular newspapers in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Drum generation and the leftwing and alternative press during apartheid, journalism in South Africa has largely colluded with power.

The Afrikaans press unashamedly propped up apartheid. The English press, owned by mining companies protected capitalist interests. Newsrooms abounded with spies. It is an undistinguished history for which South African journalism has never properly atoned. By atonement, I do not mean Naspers, on its centenary in 2015, apologising for its "complicity" in apartheid. For those words, a single action, did not address the structural anti-black, anti-poor, anti-female, anti-queer prejudices that exist at News24.

If it did, we wouldn't have young white male editors at Netwerk24 not being held accountable for the racist and misogynist vitriol that "slips through" their systems to be published online. Or young white male editors defending the publishing of Steve Hofmeyr's hate speech political analysis as fair comment.

The lack of an apology rooted in profound transformation, allows many of us to ignore the need for introspection, to carry on with arrogance and hubris — often with a sense of untouchability, to detrimental effect. We have seen this when the Sunday Times published their various accounts of the "SARS rogue unit", the Cato Manor death squad story and others. Or when the M&G led the newspaper with a fake story about DA leader Mmusi Maimane taking "presidential" lessons from FW de Klerk.

This lack of transformation means that the concentrated and toxic nature of ownership in South African media — at News24, Tiso Deathstar and Independent Newspapers and previously at the M&G and the New Age — can flourish without concern for journalism ethics or the consequence of managements' intrusion into the newsroom.

It means even without the stresses of technology, we continue to suffer a crisis of quality and credibility.

* This is an extract from the 15th Annual Ruth First Memorial Lecture delivered by Niren Tolsi on October 18.

Read more on:    media freedom  |  journalism

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