Media struggle credentials: Are all good journalist anti-government?

2015-01-18 08:16

African National Congress regalia have caused a storm in the South African media teacup. The cause of all the commotion took place on the eve of the ANC 103rd birthday in Cape Town. Vukani Mde and Karima Brown, both senior editors at Independent Newspapers, took and shared (on Facebook) a ‘selfie’ showcasing their ANC attire.

Marianne Thamm of Daily Maverick penned a breathless column about the incident. To no surprise, she did not actually criticize Mde and Brown. Instead, her column packs subtle jabs. The takeaway is this: “If government […] threatens or undermines our democratic freedoms we must expose this without fear or favour. Good journalism is about monitoring and holding power to account, whether it wears black, green and gold, blue or red.”

The debate then raged on, fueled mostly by mudslinging, convoluted spins and anti-arguments. Editors and journalists from competing titles, intoxicated the opportunity to paint a competitor black, have weighed in on various media platforms. It is a dog eats dog situation. I won’t catalogue the exchange here; I am interested only in the core arguments.

The first argument is prescriptive: journalists should not wear political party regalia, particularly of one in government, because it calls into question their credibility and independence. Ethical journalism, the argument goes, is about reporting the news impartially, without fear, favor or prejudice.

The second argument is contextual and directed specifically at Brown and Mde as senior editors at Independent Newspapers. There is a perception that Independent — which was recently acquired by a black consortium aligned to the ANC — seeks to be a mouthpiece for the government. This perception is propped up by recent reports of threats by government to withdraw lucrative advertising from critical news outlets. Therefore, critics of Brown and Mde argue their conduct was unethical as it reinforces this perception and, possibly, sends an incorrect message to journalists under their command.

The myth of impartiality

The premise that good journalism is about impartiality is false. Good journalism is about the ability to interrogate facts and to present factual and balanced reports.

The concept of impartiality holds that “decisions should be based on objective criteria, rather than on the basis of bias, prejudice, or preferring the benefit to one person over another for improper reasons.”

According to David Cox, impartiality in the media context “involves no more than the attempt to regard different ideas, opinions, interests or individuals with detachment.” It adds no value for news consumers.

Philosopher Bernard Gert once explained that impartiality is a function of outcome. The question is not whether the journalist has view, but whether her views distort the final product. If the journalist is transparent about their views (such as in a column), partiality is not a problem.

Impartiality must be distinguished from balance. According to Cox, balance is “the allocation of equal space to opposing views”. The idea of balance is intricately linked to fairness. Journalists are not expected to craft detached, colorless stories. They are required to be balanced and fair.

Anti-government fundamentalism

Generally, media independence is concerned with inputs and not outputs. A free media must set its own agenda—not influenced by financial considerations or political interference. Citizens in a free society are free to create platforms to propagate a particular perspective or ideology.

Media freedom is eroded when government outlaws a particular perspective—as it happened with communism in North America during the cold war.

Strangely, South Africa is experiencing the exact opposite. The mainstream media enforces the idea that for a journalist to have integrity, he or she must be anti-government. Significant resources and energy are dedicated to discrediting outlets that are regarded as pro-government. This was evident when The New Age was established as an independent government-aligned newspaper.

The causes of this phenomenon are complex. The media institution in South Africa is market-driven and hegemonic. The market itself is white and neo-liberal. Therefore, the media is, by design, biased against a black center-left government.

I am willing to accept that criticizing and discrediting pro-government journalists is a function of free speech. In order words, I accept that anti-government outlets are entitled to criticize and discredit anyone they perceive as pro-government. However, they should not do so under the false and hypocritical construct of impartiality. When the media is avowedly anti-government, that is partiality.

I also think that the anti-government fanaticism we are experiencing in South Africa is unfair and unbalanced. The current debate about Brown and Mde is a good example of the absolutist and uncritical nature of anti-government fundamentalism. The debate rubbishes Brown and Mde’s significant body of work on the basis of a single event. Everything they have done stops to matter when their colleagues perceive them to be pro-government.

There are plenty examples of how the media institution in South Africa snubs commentators that are considered pro-government. If you disagree, look at the way the media in South Africa treats the work of Steven Friedman and then compare that to Jonathan Jansen.

My bone with everyone who has criticized Brown and Mde is that they are dishonest. They are not defending impartiality or media independence, but are enforcing their anti-government position.

We should abandon the idea of media impartially and strive instead for fairness, balance and transparency. Alan Mutter said it best: “Let’s replace this threadbare notion with a realistic and credible standard of transparency that requires journalists to forthrightly declare their personal predilections, financial entanglements and political allegiances so the public can evaluate the quality of the information it is getting.”

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