SA newspapers killing South Africa

2012-09-25 17:47

Last Thursday, I entered my office to the red flashing light on my fruitless Blackberry: "My friend has gone missing," I read.

The girl's mother had used Facebook to voice her panic after not hearing from her daughter. Like a bad song on Youtube becomes viral (*cough* Gangnam Style *cough*), the missing girl's wall became a meeting point for all concerned and all who may have last seen her – each one fearing the worst.

“Hectic,” I replied, too early in the morning and too late in the week for me to respond in anything but clichés. I had wanted to say that she probably got drunk and fell asleep at a friend's place, or met a great guy who took her to Table Mountain for breakfast and her phone was probably off, in the car, stolen or, if she owned a Blackberry, dead. However, a part of me suddenly feared wandering through Cape Town in case I went missing.

Living in South Africa, the country put on the map by Shrien Dewani as an easy place to silence a spouse, has this effect. The most natural South African response is to freak out and consider all possible what if’s:

What if she was kidnapped, raped, hijacked, murdered, hacked or used as muti?

What if she was infected with the new SARS-like virus and died on the side of the road unable to make it home?

What if she was mistaken for Salman Rushdie or worse, that French cartoonist who ridiculed Prophet Mahammed, and was being tortured?

What if she was attempting to implement the proposed smoking laws and while finding a spot ten metres from the door of [insert public place here] she was hit by a truck and her body was tossed in a dark alley?

... and that’s just some of last week’s headlines.

While reports on the most recent crime statistics showed that the majority of crime had decreased, the latest news headlines screamed the opposite. The death of the South African boxing legend, Corrie Sanders, who was killed during a family outing in Brits on Saturday, has been milked over the last three days and could probably still make a page three appearance tomorrow. A smaller page four story reported that three men had been shot over the weekend in Cape Town alone.

The tragic case of being at the wrong place, at the wrong time or just another murder on the streets of South Africa?

Much of the news today has transformed into an extended obituary – death by crime, death by road and death by corruption and bad decisions. We have become so numb to stories of people dying that we respond to it with an another-one-bites-the-dust attitude. Newspaper editors know this and therefore try to eradicate the most bizarre, tragic, heart-warming and grotesque details to coax readers to buy their newspapers.

I’ve written those stories. I’ve been to funerals to grab some grub from the mourning friends and relatives. I’ve searched for the family of the deceased by calling random people with the same surname in the phone directory. I’ve stalked their Facebook pages to see what’s being said about them and used those heartfelt messages as 'colour' to make the story more ‘interesting’.

I've often wondered how the hobbies and dreams of a family killed by an intoxicated motorist is a front page story. Sure, it’s a story that readers love and can relate to, making it a story that’s sells newspapers, but how does it benefit readers other than make them more depressed about life and more afraid to leave their homes.

Because in South Africa, not even our over-pampered and pointless poodles are safe on the streets.

Newspapers are what make shrinks and security companies rich. They are what influence more and more people to abandon their heritage and emigrate to some seemingly safer country. They spread negativity, and they are what make South Africa one of the ten most unhappy countries in the world.

I love South Africa. Having spent most of my time as a journalist with the somewhat hippies of editorial, I’ve come to believe that the simple change in people’s perceptions can make South Africa a better place.

People would be more positive about South Africa if newspapers adopted a positive news approach - by simply re-angling the story, focusing on more positive news, and keeping the tragedies to bullet point facts (however reflecting our government and wannabes sunny side up may be a bit more difficult). Stress and paranoia will decrease, thereby increasing readers’ health, making roads more pleasant to drive on and the workplace a sunnier environment. In time, people would start feeling more positive about their country and would hopefully start to pay their taxes willingly, helping causes that they believe in and just be more giving to the uplifting of their country.

While newspapers may fear that such a drastic approach would kill their readership in an already dying industry, it should be pointed out that many South Africans and expats boycott the news because it is so depressing.

As for the girl that ‘went missing’; she later updated her Facebook status: “OMG people, calm down. I’m fine. My battery died.”

Damn Blackberrys.

Follow me on twitter: @jackswede57

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