OPINION | The emergence of celebrity journalism: Why the media focuses on elites

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Queen Dlamini Zulu’s eldest son, Misuzulu Zulu, who has been chosen as the new Zulu king.
Queen Dlamini Zulu’s eldest son, Misuzulu Zulu, who has been chosen as the new Zulu king.

Mandla J Radebe writes that celebrity journalists emerged in the coverage of the funerals of King Goodwill Zwelithini and Queen regent Mantfombi, and a blind eye was turned to the social ills affecting the people of Nongoma.

The demise of King Goodwill Zwelithini KaBhekuzulu unleashed a flurry of media activities. Journalists and pundits alike patted each other on the back for exceptional and dignified coverage of the services of Isilo Samabandla. 

A similar pattern unfolded a few weeks later when the Zulu kingdom's Queen Regent, Mantfombi, sadly passed on. To add spice to this story, there was the heated contest for the Zulu throne. Celebrity journalists emerged. 

At the heart of their newly found celebrity status was the focus on juicy stuff that audiences so desire. They duly obliged, feeding their audience's insatiable appetite for gossip. When the then pretender to the throne and now Zulu King, Misuzulu kaZwelithini, arrived at his late mother's service, it was pandemonium. Even the service had to be halted briefly. The spectacle was in full swing. The least said about the scene that ensued during the public reading of Queen Mantfombi's will, the better.

Surrounding ills forgotten

Suddenly, all the social ills that confront the people of Nongoma and surrounding villages were conveniently forgotten. They were an irritation that needed to be edited out. The celebrity journalists even forgot about the dangerous road travelled to cover the celebrity royal family. We are grateful that none was involved in severe accidents on those bad roads.

The focus was on the main prize, the primary actors in the royal family.

Names of princesses and princes we have never heard before were flowing.

READ | Songezo Zibi: Journalists, they are Mr Magashule and Mr Malema, not SG or CIC 

American media scholar, Amanda Jones, warned as early as 2010 that we must brace ourselves for a dramatic increase of "celebrity" coverage on hard news. Some ignored the warning as just another American phenomenon. The chickens have finally come home to roost. 

Nongoma is a depressed town.

To Siboniso Mngadi's credit, his article "Plans to improve Nongoma in honour of the late Zulu king" on April 3, 2021, was one of the few, if not the only coverage that sought to bring to our attention the plight of the residents of Nongoma. Nongoma, just like many rural towns in the country, does not have a good story to tell. It is a sad state of affairs, to be precise. The direct opposite to the palatial palaces, where the King and his family are ensconced.

Not that the abject poverty would have been hidden to all visitors to KwaKhangela, including President Cyril Ramaphosa. By the time one reaches the palace, you would have passed a slew of visibly economically depressed villages.

READ | Prince Misuzulu Zulu is the new Zulu King

Evidence of underdevelopment and poverty confronts you, demonstrating the failures of the Bantustan system that was championed by Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi and his ilk, who we are told is the "traditional" prime minister of the Zulus. A debate for another day. More depressingly, though, the poor state of Nongoma demonstrates the failure of post-apartheid neoliberalism.

Just like many rural towns, Covid-19 is likely to exacerbate the levels of poverty in Nongoma. Numerous studies have found a worrying level of poverty in households that permeate the entire area, including the negative impact on learners' performance who cannot afford basic human needs.

Yet, our media was seemingly blinded by the pomp that accompanied the ceremonies of the late king and queen.

All that mattered was to get in front for the best camera angle and possible exclusive interviews. Some even fell on their backsides when the new king arrived in style, before making feeble attempts to carry the stick and shield. This probably symbolises the battles that lie ahead. Intractable levels of hunger and underdevelopment will remain the biggest enemy for His Majesty. By the time they reached the marquee, everyone was out of breath.

High levels of inequality

But why did the media fail to look beyond the mountains that surround the palace? Why is no one raising the alarm of the high levels of inequality between the royal palace and the king's subjects? Reflecting on these questions is important if we are to respond effectively to the many socioeconomic ills confronting us.

The media is central in exposing the struggles for social justice that seek to undo exclusionary practices that are embedded in South Africa. The intractable problems of inequality, poverty and unemployment necessitate a collective struggle for an egalitarian redistribution of resources. To achieve this, the media is pivotal in influencing the policy direction and implementation. It is through the media that ideas flow. 

However, our commercialised media prioritises issues of powerful societal interests. Partly, this is due to the influence of media professionals and the ideology that underpins their work. What emerges from the coverage is that, whether through omission or commission, editors and reporters hold similar ideologies. Hence, as the Dutch social scientist, Jan van Dijk, puts it, in conflict situations, "hegemonic boundaries are not overstepped".

READ | Zulu royal family's security has not been withdrawn say police

The blind eye that the media has turned on the social ills affecting the people of Nongoma is the work of sovereignty within the media itself. This creates certain standards for everyone, including their audiences on events and conditions on how these events should be covered.

To an extent, the audience has come to expect this form of coverage and overlooks serious issues. This conformity by media professionals and the audience serve to advance and entrench the agenda of powerful societal interests. Without the media personnel's internalisation of priorities and definitions of newsworthiness that conform to the institution's policies, this agenda will not be achieved.

To be fair, although media professionals possess the agency to define and defy policies, as in the case of the former Cape Times editor, Alide Dasnois, who challenged Iqbal Survé on Mandela's death, owners have influence over hiring and firing. They also influence the editorial direction of news organisations. For those employees who disagree with the direction, like Dasnois, the door is always open. In an environment where jobs are hard to come by, there will always be others ready to take over.

- Mandla Radebe is an associate professor in the University of Johannesburg's Department of Strategic Communication, and author of 'Constructing Hegemony: The SA Commercial Media and the (Mis)Representation of Nationalisation' (UKZN Press).

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