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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.

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Gene Weingarten, a humor columnist with The Washington Post, blames personal branding for “ruining journalism.” He states that “Newspapers used to give readers what we thought they needed. Now, in desperation, we give readers what we think they want” in an effort to compete with user-generated content. In South Africa’s case, user-generated content is often extremely biased columns and blogs representing popular beliefs rather than the less glamourous, fairer truth. It was therefore very refreshing when the better responses to the Malema speech would come from columnists (Ivo Vegter’s was my favorite one), opinion writers, and not those in charge with reporting the news. Yet there are those in the news industry who justify this tilt towards opinionated news. In his response to Mr. Weingarten trying to justify this trend, Paul Carr of TechCrunch highlights my very concern, saying “In a world in which news has been commoditised to the point where no-one will pay for raw facts, it’s the self-branders – those who inject personality, attitude and (dare I say?) opinion into their reporting – who will keep readers flooding through the paywalls, ensuring the survival of the industry we both love."

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One-sided opinions are a problem in South Africa, in a country where our realities are so different, these views are often represented as fact and can be detrimental to how a story is eventually represented. The social constructs of our country add an extra dimension to bias which is inevitably classist, and unfortunately racial. We cannot deny that leaning towards a political side, in our context, is also leaning towards a racial side. We don’t like to admit it; we rebel against those who point it out. In such a racially charged country, a one-sided media only serves more bricks in the walls that divide us. Our media makes it very clear: you are either for or against us, “our thinking”, “the side we lean on”. Yet our interpretation of events as people in South Africa is largely defined in our background, which is largely defined by color.

Yes, we do expect that journalists will lean towards a side, but what we don’t expect is for journalists to focus so much on their view of the world that they forget that there are other views to be considered. Always on the side of the underdogs, it’s expected that journalists will tend towards the views that are anti-government, and they shouldn’t be government’s propaganda brigade; but one can’t help but wonder when the same journalists are always on the opposition's side, barely reporting on the opposition's weaknesses and transgressions.

Is it too much to ask for a media that reports on facts rather than blatant favoritism towards a particular political side? Journalists are human beings, with faults, prejudices, and preferences. I just don’t believe that one should be able to read an article and be able to guess with accuracy which side the writer would vote. They should be on the side of the story, before any particular side.

--- Zama Ndlovu writes about South African news and social issues on her blog, Zama in Johannesburg.

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