The question of pluralism in journalism should not be ignored just because it's raised in a manner we don't agree with. When accused of being too narrowminded in its reporting and commentary, a newsroom should self-reflect, writes Austil Mathebula.
Stratcom, populists, 1652 mob, Gucci communists, fascists. These are a few of the labels we have heard in the road leading up to 2019 elections. It's a war of labels between journalists, commentators and politicians. It has not always been constructive, with threats of violence at times meted out to journalists.
At the heart of this antagonism are complaints of media bias and lack of pluralism, especially when it comes to the role the South African media are perceived to be playing in influencing voters. On the other hand, the media – often represented by the South African National Editors Forum – has been up in arms fighting what they believe are enemies of free speech.
Of all political parties, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) are the most involved in this debate and arguably the most accused of not being friendly to the media. One recent incident was when EFF leader Julius Malema shared a phone number of journalist Karima Brown on Twitter, opening her up to ardent EFF followers – some of whom allegedly threatened her with rape and death. This must be condemned, considering that gender-based violence is rife in the country.
We, collectively, must condemn and be ready to fight whoever threatens media freedom, especially when the safety of journalists is at stake.
Media must cater for diverse opinions
However, the question of pluralism in South African journalism should not be ignored just because it's raised in a manner we don't agree with. When accused of being too narrowminded in its reporting and commentary, a newsroom should rather self-reflect. A newsroom must not be seen or put itself in a position where it is seen as a club of all-agreeing commentators, hellbent at regurgitating uniform views. In other words, a newsroom must not be an echo chamber. Rather, in its reporting and commentary, the media must cater for diverse and divergent opinions on the road leading to elections.
The fact that some senior journalists generally do not believe in socialism, for instance, does not mean the platform should not be given to those who do. Likewise, media commentary should not only be for those who believe that land expropriation without compensation "will lead us to another Zimbabwe". Commentary from those who think otherwise should also find audience.
Pluralism means giving women a voice, considering that they constitute the highest number of registered voters in this year's elections. This includes women from different socio-economic backgrounds. The media mustn't be dominated by the views of the upper class, one race or gender.
Fine, we agree that corruption is rife in the country. It has robbed us of significant progress as a country and the media should always expose this. But it doesn't mean that just because the media has made corruption its agenda, that it's necessarily everyone's agenda. The issue of HIV/AIDS, landlessness, child headed households, poverty and religion may be at the top of the agenda in others' world. Plural media coverage would ensure that all get an equitable amount of coverage.
Freedom of expression not journalism's exclusive privilege
Some South African journalists on the other hand, should understand that freedom of expression is not their exclusive privilege. Those we write about and those who read the stories also have a right to respond to our journalism. The time has passed when journalists enjoyed one-way communication where they wrote the news and people had not much of a platform to respond. The advent of social media platforms meant that readers now had unlimited space to respond to our journalism, and it also means that they now often have direct access to the subjects of our journalism – such as political leaders.
It shouldn't be seen as necessarily a threat to media freedom when someone disagrees with your work. It's inescapable, readers will respond to your work and have a right to do so, unless it's inciting imminent violence or propaganda against you based on your race, gender and other grounds listed in Section 16 of the Constitution.
But, in election reporting and commentary, has the South African media provided a plurality of views? Which sources were quoted more than others? Were some political parties given more voice than others? Did women get enough voice? Which race was given more voice?
The Media Monitor Africa (MMA) has released an interim report on 2019 elections coverage by the South African media. The report analysed the elections coverage from 45 South African online news media.
The report indicates that:
- Reporting was dominated by local and national politics. Of 2 321 analysed articles, "issues that spoke to democracy building, human rights and citizens' agenda such as gender-based violence, land, health, education, poverty, child abuse and housing scantly featured and all received below 2% of total coverage," the report indicated.
- Of the same number of stories analysed, gender was a primary theme in only seven stories – equalling 0.3%. The report observed that this "relegates women to the bottom of the political and social agenda and undermines their legitimacy as a fundamental segment of the electorate". This, despite women far outweighing men in terms of registered votes in this year's elections, according to the report.
Whose voices did we hear?
The report indicates that:
- Political parties received 45% of all voices heard. Other sources included national government (7%) and the office of the Presidency at 7%. The report argued that "those voices who could provide expert opinion and independent analyses outside of electioneering narratives, such as academics, civil society groups, political commentators and organised labour groupings, are largely ignored".
- Out of 48 political parties participating in the 2019 elections, 91% of the coverage was "absolved" by the country's top three parties, ANC, DA and EFF. The ruling ANC had a greater share of coverage at 57%, while the DA and EFF got 20% and 10% respectively.
- Women as representatives of political parties were "severely under-accessed". "Our findings demonstrate that across the top 10 sources from each of the top three political parties, women representatives were only accessed 16%, 13% and 2% of the time from ANC, DA and EFF, respectively," the MMA found. "Understandably," the report noted that this was because the majority of political parties have male leaders, however noting that the absence "of a gender focus" is concerning.
- White voices were overrepresented with a 17% share of overall coverage, "despite only making roughly 8% of the population of South Africa". The report found that this was "consistent with previous trends of an overrepresentation of white sources". MMA also found that in this year's context, news on former Bosasa bosses Angelo Agrizzi and Gavin Watson was a contributing factor.
These findings speak volumes. What we see is a media environment that still has a lot to do to ensure that all get an equitable share of the platform. A lot still needs to be done to ensure that women are given more voice, and that democracy building is given more coverage. Of course, not to forget the question of ownership. Unless we deal with concentration of media ownership in the country, a lot less will be achieved in achieving internal pluralism.
- Mathebula is a content producer at News24.
Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.
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