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The state of South Africa's news media: Where's the substance?

This weekend's coverage of fiery ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema missed his reasonable arguments, and focused instead on scoring political points.

By Zama NdlovuGuest blogger / June 28, 2011

In this May 15 photo, ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, gives a speech during an ANC political meeting in Soweto, South Africa.

Stephane De Sakutin/AFP/Newscom

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Johannesburg, South Africa

Media has the most power to drive how a country views itself and is viewed by the rest of the world. It has the power to shape how the different groups of people see themselves and each other. Media can direct the conversations, highlight the plights, and uncover the faults of a society.

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Nowhere is this more true than in a racially conscious and often divided country. Here in South Africa, the responsibilities toward fairness, accuracy, accountability, ethics, and honesty are further heightened. Citizens of this country rely on the media for the truest account of events, a fair analysis of their implications, and a completeness and thoroughness in the assessments of the different angles of a story. In an ideal world, people should rely on media to expose them to their own ignorance, and challenge them to think beyond prejudice.

I watched Julius Malema’s closing remarks at the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) Conference expecting the usual DRIVEL often quoted to me by my favorite online and print newspapers. I was very surprised to hear a man who might not win the Nobel Prize in Economic Science, but has a deep and personal understanding of the plight of poor South Africans.

Unemployment rates have been conservatively estimated at 25%, double that figure for youth. According to the statistics used by Mr. Malema, less than 5% of land has been redistributed since 1994, far behind the goal of redistributing 30% of farm land by 2014. The government and private sector have failed to address these issues, leaving the hardest hit group, young South Africa, with no choice but to act. There is no denying Malema’s point that after seventeen years of democracy, both government and the free market system have failed to effectively address poverty and unemployment in this country.

The ANCYL’s (and I repeat, the ANCYL’s) solution recommendations may be unconstitutional, and quite frankly downright ridiculous, but they are still solutions.

Reading the Monday papers the next day, my pleasant surprise at Malema’s ability to talk about substance turned to shock at news media’s lack of substance. It was as though journalists had only chosen to listen to parts of the speech, and had chosen to ignore most of it. Certainly I expected some of the usual focus on Malema’s penchant for bluster. But I did not expect the only point that the media would walk away with would be nationalization and land distribution without compensation. Instead of a balanced review of the speech, good and bad, journalists chose to focus on the naughty militant sound bites, sure to frighten even your most level-headed liberal into a borderline online troll. Some of the most respected editors and journalists chose to write from the heart, their personal perspectives, and not from their heads, urging readers to sell their houses now “while they still can”. There was no review of the situation that had led to this critical moment in our history, no attempt at trying to understand the youth’s perspective. It was as though the ANCYL was making it all up.

Later, when business had offered a measured response to the ANCYL’s call, only then did we see more appropriate and calmer responses from these respected publications.

One might say that choice of news outlets and diversity of journalistic perspectives would naturally manage one-dimensional reporting. Where one publication focuses on the left’s view of the speech, naturally, there would be opposing newspapers focused on the right. In addition, the competitiveness of the industry forces journalists to find different angles to outsmart each other. Unfortunately this is not the case in South Africa. Ours is not a diverse media. In a country where print media is concentrated among four major players, views in the “first economy” are fairly one sided, depending on the “market” you are in, and as Athol Trollip’s controversial rant showed, often very lenient on the opposition.

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