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1 November 2014 13:37 (South Africa)
Opinionista Onkgopotse JJ Tabane

Media - state relations: Quo vadis?

  • Onkgopotse JJ Tabane
Journalists should pause a little and not be too defensive about  government feeling they do not cover its “stories” adequately. Let's talk about it first.

Many newsrooms no longer hire specialists who understand the subject matter as a special focus. The result of this, given that they often have to deal with specialist professionals on the other hand, can become difficult. Obviously this is not always the end of the story. A relatively unspecialised journalist can read the annual report and other policy documents of the department so they acquaint themselves about matters already in the public domain. In this way, journalists are in a better position to report on the relevant department and able to pass an informed judgement about whether the department's performance is successful or not.

What is becoming rife is short-cut journalism that relies on soundbites and not thorough research. The fact that journalists are often given a few minutes to report a story should not be an excuse. At the SABC, for instance, I have been impressed by the work of some reporters who, in a few short minutes, managed to unpack the details of international multilateral meetings such as the World Economic Forum and the United Nations, put it in context and report on the issue at hand briefly, relevantly as well as comprehensibly. So it is not impossible. Some journalists, in features or “think pieces”, are even able to disentangle for the reader what has become a political maze.

However, while possible, the reality is this is not happening as much as we would want.

Training budgets of newsrooms have been slashed over the years. The recruitment of senior people has slumped. I suppose the salaries are also taking a knock with circulation of papers in particular being debased by social media and online newspapers to an extent. 

This is before we talk about the inadequate self-regulation mechanism that exist. Thankfully these are under review and the majority of the leadership of the media agree they are inadequate and are fuelling the need for stronger measures, as proposed by the ANC at some point. So the point is, while the noise about alleged media “inaccuracy” is not always fuelled by honest intentions, there is a need for media introspection in how it addresses issues of transformation, training of its personnel to have the ability to grasp and translate complex subject matters and finally address issues of redress. I dismiss outright any notions of newsroom conspiracies against any political party. Anyone making such claims only needs to spend a day in a newsroom and observe how even one edition is produced. They will see how it is impossible to concoct a common negative agenda against anyone for that matter. The aggregate assessment of a hostile press also needs to be examined closely.

On the other hand, the ability of government to package its own information so that it is consumable by the media to cover both news and perspective leaves much to be desired. One is pleased somewhat that Cabinet has approved a communications strategy of some kind. And I suppose as it rolls out we will see how effective a strategy of improvement it is. What the media experiences at this point is stonewalling when information is needed. Poor outreach to the press by both political principals and their media relations practitioners and a misunderstanding of the role of spokespersons in relation to the press have done their own damage in the media/state relations space.

An attitude that has declared the media as a whole an enemy of the state is unscientific. There are actually many journalists who are sympathetic to the ANC, but are as frustrated as the ones who are opposed to it due to unwritten media blackouts or baseless fear of the press, where an extended hand would serve  a better purpose.

Blanket approaches like believing that a press conference is the best or only way to communicate and also believing that everything that a minister says is necessarily newsworthy, bring up the issue of poor media understanding. Knowing that there is a deficit of scientific knowledge in the crop of journalists who cover your story should point you to one solution: Package your information simply and make your “scientists” directly available to the press. As with every other sector communicating with the media, government’s job is to liaise and coordinate - not to become a gatekeeper.

Very few communicators cover themselves in glory when it comes to merely building relationships with journalists, no matter what they may believe their ideological orientation to be. As a result, very few of the 60-strong Cabinet feature widely in the many publications that hit the streets every day. Opinion pages are dominated by analysts and repetition of the same and limited voices, as many in government shy away from navigating themselves into the feature pages of these publications. Unmediated communication, as the one proposed through a monthly tabloid by government must be welcome, but can only solve one aspect of the story - news. Government must revamp and up its media relations game considerably to achieve an integrated strategy to reach citizens who have developed trust for the newspapers and then be able to win the fight for perspective. It is a fatal mistake to believe that citizens can only be interested in unmediated propaganda.

Clearly there are bridges that must be built as both sides need each other to survive. But with what has happened in the last while, one has to ask where are relation between the media and the state headed? DM

  • Onkgopotse JJ Tabane
OnkgeposteBW

Onkgopotse JJ Tabane is one of South Africa’s leading media and communications specialists, as well as a community activist and a business executive. He is currently the Chief Executive of Oresego Holdings an International Advisory Company. His most recent roles were Head of Communications for COPE [2008], Political Advisor to the COPE parliamentary Leader as well as a Corporate Affairs Executive at the JSE listed Altron. He is a member of the University of the Western Cape Council, where he is an appointee of the Minister of Higher Education after serving two terms on the council of the Northwest University. He is an Associate of the prestigious international Institute of Independent Business (IIB). He is a regular columnist for The Sunday Independent and Pretoria News. In 2011 he rejoined the ANC as an ordinary member. Tabane is a PHD Candidate in Media and Journalism Studies at WITS University.

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