On the beat makes all the difference

2017-09-17 06:06
Janet Heard, Media24 parliamentary editor.

Janet Heard, Media24 parliamentary editor.

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As a rookie reporter in The Star newsroom in Joburg in the late 1980s, I found it was not the end of the world to be sent on an assignment out of town, only to find it was a nonstory.

I recall, on one occasion, heading off with a photographer to cover a fire out in the sticks. We had been sent by deputy news editor Mike Cohen. We drove for about three hours in a company-supplied car, only to return many hours later with nothing to report. Cohen nonchalantly shrugged his shoulders.

The mainstream media was well-resourced and staffed then. In addition to beats that still exist, The Star employed two labour reporters, a high court reporter, a separate investigative unit and a religion reporter, among others. You name it, we had it. These days, shifting business models and relentless cost-cutting have resulted in lean newsrooms.

Gutsy, innovative, alternative media titles have sprung up. Doing more with even less, they are often supported by noncommercial funding.

Time wasted on a nonstory wreaks havoc in shrunken newsrooms, where reporters multitask on various media platforms and juggle a number of stories. News editors are forced to make decisions about what to cover on the ground and from live-streaming or TV, and what to leave to a desk-bound “reporter” via indirect sourcing, which can be manipulated by peddlers of disinformation and public relations spin.

When it comes to news reporting, there is nothing like being there to witness first-hand what is unfolding. But reporting costs money; it takes time and resources.

It is possible to cover a Constitutional Court ruling or a National Assembly sitting by watching a flat-screen TV in the newsroom, but reporting will be exactly that – flat, without multiple dimensions and side views.

A few years ago, News24 parliamentary reporter Jan Gerber published articles about National Assembly gatherings that he watched from his press gallery perch. Writing in Afrikaans for Netwerk24, he focused on MPs’ antics under the title, “Wat jy nie op TV kon sien nie [What you can’t see on TV]”.

It had a limited though appreciative readership. Human Settlements Minister Lindiwe Sisulu sent Gerber a letter, in Afrikaans, welcoming him to her chocolate networking club after he wrote about her sneaky Cadbury bar distribution habits in the House.

While outing Sisulu for having a sweet tooth is trivial, Gerber’s observations demonstrate the power of being there, which is essential when the white-shirt bouncers are hauled in to deal with the Economic Freedom Fighters and other disruptions.

This week, online start-up publication GroundUp reported that 14-year-old Ona Dubula was shot by police at close range with rubber bullets during a protest in Hangberg, Hout Bay. Because he witnessed the incident, reporter Kimon de Greef did not need to write that the police “allegedly” shot the boy.

You, the reader, can do your bit to safeguard quality reporting. Do not cancel your subscriptions to trustworthy newspapers. Buy a subscription for a friend. Click on digital media crowd-funding icons, interact with newsrooms to call out shoddy reporting and do not share fake, manufactured news online.

This support will help to safeguard quality reporting and ensure that when the sh*t hits the fan, reporters – not peddlers of falsehoods – are on the ground to deliver the first draft of history.

Follow me on Twitter @janetheard

Read more on:    parliament  |  journalism  |  media

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