In his excellent book, Flat Earth News, The Guardian investigative reporter Nick Davies tells how hard-pressed (and sometimes just plain lazy) journalists – when up against crushing deadlines and with too many stories to report in a day – fall prey to clever spin doctors.
Faced with reports dozens of pages long and no time to read, journalists instead often relied on well-crafted press releases from PRs and other assorted spinners that distill the news into an easily palatable form, to churn out a story, Davies found.
But the problem, as Davies explains, is that this inevitably results in the press release defining the (usually positive) angle of the story, whereas if they had taken the time to read the report, the journalists might well have found more newsworthy nuggets buried deep inside, which the gatekeepers would have preferred to be kept secret.
And that, in a nutshell, is what has happened with much of the reporting after the release of some of the findings of Census 2011, a rather upbeat presentation of the facts as interpreted by StatsSA that led to a smiling President Jacob Zuma claiming it proved how much service delivery there had been in South Africa.
Whether it was intended to bolster Zuma going into the ANC’s critical December Manguang elective conference or not (and there is no proof that it was) the fact remains that the census information as it was released did his cause no harm, while playing down the more contentious service delivery issues making almost daily headlines in the media.
For example, the StatsSA document had a single graph relating to the access to flush and other types of toilet facilities including pit toilets, the infamous bucket systems and those without any facilities at all, but without the underlying data, so that journalists could not identify and report on problem areas. As it happens, many just reported in percentage points, courtesy of StatsSA’s handouts, how access to toilet facilities had grown between 2001 and 2011.
So enamoured were EyeWitness News with the neat package of facts, stats and graphs handed out to reporters at the same ceremony where a copy was also presented to Zuma, that they breathlessly dubbed it “the good news census”.
What StatsSA put out included huge dollops of what geeks and data journalists cynically call “data porn”: loads of colourful graphs, pie charts and other data visualisations (that were widely published across the media) – plus lots of “sexy” facts like that there are 100 women for every 95 men in SA and that the average white person earns six times more than the average black person.
Yes, there were details of education, access to toilets and water and other services, mostly showing an improvement, but the data released only covered national and provincial levels – with some limited municipal-level data.
Unfortunately it was locked inside PDFs, making it difficult to extract and interrogate the data without many hours of first scraping and then cleaning it, a problem with much of the official data available in SA. A large quantity of more useful data in Excel spreadsheets and other user-friendly formats – plus a tool to interrogate it – was loaded onto the StatsSA the next day, before being mysteriously taken down. In the absence of a valid reason, all I was able to ascertain was that there’d been “some political wrangling” that led to its removal.
But there is an even bigger problem for any journalist who had hoped to get their teeth into service delivery and use the census to dig deeper into the issues behind the many so-called service delivery protests.
What is missing is data dealing with so-called sub-places, the suburbs, townships and villages where South Africans live and where “service delivery” protests are seeing people taking to the streets to protest, often violently, in ever-increasing numbers. (This hyperlocal info, where the real meat of the census lies, is only due for release in March next year).
The missing data is far more important in the case of the bigger cities, where there could be several hotspots where services are not being delivered. With smaller municipalities where, incomplete as the data might be, it is still possible to get a sense of what is happening.
An indication that things are not all rosy and that there are genuine problems can be found in the data around places like the Matzikama Municipality (Vredendal) in the Western Cape, where access to toilets has dropped from 75% in 2001 to 70% in 2011, while the population has grown from 54,000 to 67,000 during the same period.
Or the Aganang Municipality in Limpopo, where access to toilets has grown from 1.3 percent in 2001 to 2.3 percent in 2011, while the population has dropped from 147,000 to 131,000 over the same period.
What the media should be doing is using the data to do research before heading out into the field armed with the info they have found to put a human face to it. Instead what a lot of the media did was to produce stories based almost exclusively on StatsSA’s presentation, using their pretty colour graphs and pie charts as illustrations.
Another problem with the release of only provincial and municipal data is that big metropoles like Johannesburg, Cape Town and Tshwane have a large percentage of the country’s population living in them, and generally have better service delivery than smaller municipalities.
Yet it is mainly in these smaller municipalities that many of these “service delivery” protests are happening and the data, as presented so far, does not take in account that just down the road from a big city, a small municipality might be under attack from residents over poor or non-existent delivery.
So if you wanted to know from Census 2011 about services in Khayelitsha, which falls under Cape Town, and is the scene of a growing number of “service delivery” protests – including the protests against the infamous outdoors toilets built without walls in Makhaza – you’re out of luck. And this is not the only area in Khayelitsha where access to toilets and other services are a big issue – yet the StatsSA document tells us that 90% of all people in the Cape Metropole had access to toilets in 2011, up three percent from the last census in 2001.
The same goes for Ficksburg in the Free State, the scene of the killing of activist Andries Tatane by police during a service delivery protest, which falls under the Sesotho Municipality. While access to toilets increased from 23.5% in 2001 to 61% in 2011, an improvement of a whopping 38 percentage points (the population dropped from 123,000 people to 113,000 over the same period), there is no way to evaluate what is happening in Ficksburg itself, based on the data just released. We will be able to have a better look after the more detailed data arrives in March 2013.
If you understand how to use data and dig around on the StatsSA website, it’s possible to find a limited amount in Excel format, making it possible to work with and interrogate, which most journalists are not equipped to do.
But the vast majority of information is in data-unfriendly PDF files, without access to the original data in a user-friendly format, and presented with the upbeat spin StatsSA has put on it. (Data journalists and techies will attest to just how unfriendly this format is, often joking that PDFs are where data go to die).
Put simply, the use of PDFs and the absence of underlying data used make it impossible to analyse and interrogate much of the information in any meaningful way, and possibly come to different conclusions to those arrived at by StatsSA.
But then, based on the lack of contextual reporting that was done by much – but not all – of the media, and the failure to put a human face to the ocean of stats dished out in what is a huge story of significance to all South Africans, it probably wouldn’t have made a difference.
So all in all, it was a victory for the Flat Earth spinners – and not a great advertisement for enterprising journalism in SA. DM