Being a journalist

2015-08-22 09:33

THE difficulty with being a journalist in the true South African sense is that you often have to hold your own view in public spaces.

Journalists are taught to report the story, not be the story. We are told to stand in the shadows and blend into the crowd. We are expected not to stand out, even if one is a 1,9-metre tall, ginger-bearded woman at a dwarf convention.

Of course, journalists today are no longer held in the same regard as even just a decade ago. The romance of Fleet Street has passed, as has the limited glamour and prestige once associated with the profession where mothers would brag at Tupperware parties about their sons’ prose.

The proliferation of online social media, blogging and community websites has taken much of the oomph away from journalists and put this squarely in the hands of everyone else. News reporting is no longer the bastion of the big media houses but in the hands of the many, albeit on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, owned by an even smaller elite, but nevertheless the community power is evident.

This in turn has also led to the growth of a subjective online press such as the Daily Maverick and Rand Daily Mail, which do not pretend to be news-only sites but offer usually fairly liberal comment, discourse and analysis. The likes of have also taken the concept of breaking news a step further, generating several thousand stories in just the few months that such organisations have existed in news wire format.

These sites offer or strive to offer, although this could be well-argued, better grammar, spelling, and style, and argument that is thought-provoking and articles that are believed to be true.

But there are still thousands of blogs, Facebook community pages, video uploads and photos loaded every day by Joe Public, reporting on everyday issues. This group is uncensored, and many are openly sexist, racist, xenophobic, anarchist, hedonists, religious fanatics, loonies, blunt and other times just plain stupid.

So when SABC head Hlaudi Motsoeneng made a call to MPs on Tuesday, no doubt either at the request of his political handlers or to satisfy his unrelentingly overstated ego, for all journalists to be regulated, my immediate question was: “What is a journalist?”

To be a journalist in the professional sense, there are a few questions you must answer before writing a piece; namely who, what, where, when, why and how. Plagiarism is also a no-no, as is head-butting your news editor.

And, of course, you need to be able to convey a story, be it in print, audio or visual. That is it. You need nothing else besides a morbid sense of humour, a healthy dose of cynicism and an inquisitive nature.

It is not a career where a specific skill set is needed, such as a licence to operate a crane or a pilot’s licence to fly a Boeing.

Motsoeneng has failed to recognise that there is no true measure to say who is and who isn’t a journalist, or that policing the entire content-creation world would need an army of brown shoes.

If this government is thinking about creating a media tribunal or any other statutory regulated authority to monitor journalists, which will no doubt come with penalties, fines and threats of imprisonment while similarly scaring off whistle-blowers, South Africa would need to become a complete “Big Brother” surveillance state.

There will be much more at stake than the freedom of the press. A thriving economy needs robust discourse, but if there is the government bogeyman in the corner of the room, people will self-censor and our educational growth will suffer infinitely. We will become just another failed state. Protecting the press is a non-negotiable deal breaker

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