As a former journalist, I understand the dynamics of newsrooms. I understand pressures and I understand too, that despite the best intentions (and denials) every publication/media has an agenda. By Sarah Mann.
I also understand that it is an ongoing, bitter fight to attract readers. These are the harsh realities of the media world. News media, like politicians, are not free to pursue truth and beauty. They are bound by the interests of their readers or, in the case of politicians, their constituents. This is an immutable fact and may lead to feelings, at times, of being compromised.
Despite this, journalists have a fine tradition of fighting for human rights and for providing thought leadership at critical junctures in our nation’s history. South Africa’s media has done a stellar job in squaring up to the Government and challenging the monopoly of power enjoyed by the ANC and its cronies, just as it did to the National Party and its cronies. In this sense they have provided a de-facto opposition, worthy of the finest democracies.
However, they are failing dismally on the issue of racism,. Now even the finest publications are throwing all caution (and values) to the wind and, like dysfunctional family members, are diving into the fray, fists flying. Hating, hurting, vengeful — this is the new face of “news”.
A case in point is the Penny Sparrow debacle:
When I was a journalist, news was explained thus: When a dog bites a man that is not news, when a man bites a dog that is news.
There are thousands of un-saveable idiots writing hate speech on social media. This is not news and especially not banner headline news.
The media gave Penny Sparrow an undeserved platform to spread her hateful message. She, in herself, was not a newsmaker, — she wasn’t a celebrity, a famous person nor was she a politician or in Government employ. There was, strictly speaking, no justification for the publication of her hate speech.
It was not, in newspaper parlance, in the public interest and nor did it fit into a news category. Imagine how busy journalists would be if they needed to report on every racist rant out there. This should not be the stuff of newspapers/media.
Publishing Sparrow’s hate speech had immediate and dangerous consequences. First off it outed Velaphi Khumalo with a call to kill all whites and it gave rise to an unedifying froth of vitriol from every side. (I must point out here that Khumalo falls into a different category to Sparrow as he is a Government employee and his hate speech is news).
The Sparrow-fest caused race relations to dive to new and ungodly lows. The Institute of Race Relations dived for cover, saying they “would leave people to slug it out” — most unseemly and in fact, cowardly, in our post-apartheid state.
The damage these two individuals have done to race relations is possibly un-fixable. People are still being wiped off ceilings.
My message is a nuanced one. I am not saying the media is to be blamed for racism – not at all — but rather that they re-visit it too many times and with alacrity, at times forgetting the basic tenets of their craft. They may be doing it to drive readership or for more sinister motives or, to quote Tony Leon, in his article in the Sunday Times, to “stay onsides with establishment thinking”.
This has never been the role of media in a vigorous democracy. In the (better) newsrooms I worked in, the media was mindful of its power and the responsibility that comes with it. They were able to separate news from troublemaking and political comment from hate speech or unashamed racism.
I am referring to the hectares of space dedicated to the sole purpose of bashing a particular race group. Most popular right now are the “open letters to whites”. They serve no purpose other than to force South Africans apart.
I read an interesting piece in a publication, (I forget which) written by a Muslim after the 9/11 attacks. He said that being a Muslim had been just one dimension of his identity, but after the Al-Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Centre it came to dominate his life, something he resented.
Society takes a dangerous turn when we are no longer seen as individuals with values and thoughts all our own, but rather as groups, answerable to the crimes of our ancestors, brethren and fellow tribe members. History has shown that this can lead to ethnic cleansing and hate killings.
Forgive the pun, but things are neither black nor white, but a myriad shades in between and the media need to reflect that. People advocating non-racial values need to be heard as well, and urgently so. DM
Photo by Herbstrose via Flickr.