The credibility of journalism: It is important to isolate rotten apples in the profession

Perceptions of good – or bad – journalism largely rest on public perceptions of the profession in relation to matters of credibility, integrity and trustworthiness.

While there are strong media houses and journalists who have been consistent in practising responsible and credible journalism, there are some who have been found sadly wanting in this area.

While we celebrate all that is good about the profession, there is a growing sense that the practice of bad journalism could affect and contribute to negative public perceptions about the profession.

The credibility of journalism largely rests on whether it is seen to be impartial and ethical, and plays the role of “speaking truth to power”.

One would therefore be interested in how key role players within the industry are dealing with bad practice within the profession.

In a recent discussion at Unisa – the objective was to commemorate Black Wednesday and celebrate the memory of Percy Qoboza – a panel responding to the theme of the event largely agreed that there were developments in the industry that could lead to the profession being questioned because of unbecoming conduct and practice among some journalists.

To make sense of these developments, one would be encouraged to have a look at reports that recently cast some shadow on the practice of journalism in the country.

It was recently reported that a high-profile minister – who is a very senior member of the governing political party – was alleged to have bribed two journalists so that they would quash a story that revealed an extra marital affair on his part.

In the past few years some might recall the widely reported “brown envelope” scandal that allegedly involved former Western Cape premier Ibrahim Rasool and a litany of journalists who were allegedly paid to report negatively about a faction of the ANC in the province.

Having grappled with the recent allegations that surfaced about the minister and the two unnamed journalists, the SA National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) executive published a statement which called on the minister to release the names of the two journalists whom he had allegedly bribed.

It was not the first time that Sanef released a statement about naming journalists.

About three or four weeks ago, Sanef called for the names of other practising journalists.

This was in response to an allegation that surfaced in the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture when it was alleged that there were journalists who had illegally benefited from the crime intelligence slush fund.

It would not be too far from the point to state that when money exchanges hands in the practice of journalism, then the journalist would be expected to play their part in the transaction.

Such a role might involve quashing a story or ignoring and distorting facts.

These practices often lead to disinformation that arises because of the unethical conduct by some journalists.

Within the discourse of the practice of journalism and the conduct of journalists one should also examine the history of journalism in this country; how it was used and abused in the time of apartheid when the state experimented in ways to manipulate the media.

This started to happen as early as 1950 when the apartheid government explored the role of the media through the Press Commission of Inquiry that was meant to investigate domestic and international media practice in South Africa.

It is known that some elements of the state started to manipulate and interfere with journalists then.

What is crucial now is to realise that, even though it is a different time with a different state, we should be vigilant that the media and some practitioners could still be open to manipulation and interference.

The profession needs to keep a handle on what is happening. There are questions on integrity; questions on ethics; questions on the practice of disinformation.

These important issues have the potential to eradicate the trust the public has in media houses.

While all stakeholders interested in journalism await the much-needed Press Commission, which will start its work soon, it is important for journalists and the public to identify and isolate rotten apples operating in the profession.

This is important as the practice of journalism does not exist in vacuum but is directly linked to issues of public perceptions, public trust, government perceptions and political party perceptions.

A few years ago, we were all gripped by the reactionary stance of a 2010 ANC discussion paper document that identified the media appeals tribunal as an important step to solve the perceived gaps that were identified by the governing party.

While the media appeals tribunal was successfully pushed back, recent developments in the profession could affect public perception.

While there have been difficulties in the recent past, it is equally important to state that bodies such as the press council and other measures of dealing with industry problems have largely been beneficial.

However, it is still the collective responsibility of everyone interested in averting a bad perception of journalism to start a conversation on the state of this very important profession so that disinformation is quashed and unethical journalists are brought to book.

Siyasanga M Tyali is associate professor and chair of the communication science department at Unisa

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July 2020

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