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.

Stephane De Sakutin/AFP/Newscom
In this May 15 photo, ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, gives a speech during an ANC political meeting in Soweto, 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.

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.

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."

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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