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Power and Loss in South African Journalism: News in the age of social media

Power and Loss in South African Journalism: News in the age of social media

The changes in journalism have been huge over the past decade with, among others, digitisation, the acceleration of social media, misinformation, and job losses exacerbated in the Covid-19 era. In her new book, Glenda Daniels examines the balance of power for the future of the industry. In this chapter, Re-imagining Media, she explores future trends.

It is trite, a homily perhaps, to say that in crisis lies an opportunity. It remains true, nonetheless. In myriad ways journalism is in a crisis vis-à-vis job losses, how to pay for journalism as revenues decline and tackle the misinformation scourge in the social media age. Ideas on how to emerge from this crisis, to something much better, are needed.

Diversity of voices

The digital transition remains a messy and random one. No one has cracked the code to make money from digital, although the New York Times now gathers more than half its revenue from digital subscriptions for the first time exceeding print. Mostly though, the public has become accustomed to obtaining news online for free and on social media, where it is mixed up with “fake news” – the latter travelling faster than any other. By 2019, the New York Times, interestingly enough, had slightly more women users (than men) amid its 3.4 million paid subscribers: could this be the result of hiring a gender editor in 2017, inspired by the #MeToo movement? This book points to the significance of gender and race diversity and equality throughout its chapters.

Social media and journalists

It is possible that news could be saved if journalists disengaged, at least to some extent, from social media. It is good for journalists to post links to their stories, but they could also avoid reactiveness and refrain from presenting a contrary position as if all social truth can be reduced to binary oppositions. Needless provocation merely stirs more unhelpful noise. There has to be some level of involvement by journalists in social media, for instance, traction for stories, info about the mood and the debates. But Twitter, Instagram and Facebook do not represent the whole of South Africa – or even close to half of its 58 million population. The toxicity of Twitter contributes to divisiveness, and the “shouty” binary oppositional nature of social media, and the more journalism contributes to this, the more power it loses. The multiple views they are supposed to reflect, the nuance that could be offered and the analyses of these views is not found on social media, reliance on which merely does the opposite to creating a radical democracy with a diversity of opinion. Social media tends to feed war-like “enemy positions”.

A role for governments

The government-funded Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA) has not been a huge success. The community newspaper sector is dying: eg we had about 585 community papers a decade ago to less than 200 today. The community news media is now gathering as “Facebook communities” instead of receiving support for independent online digital news products. The general expectation was that social media and the internet would allow levelling of the playing fields for more inclusion and diversity but, instead, more power than ever before has been relocated to the international technology companies. The imposition of fair and effective tax on large media entities such as Facebook and Google has become an urgent campaign but it will require a concerted international governmental effort and considerable political will to seriously take off.

Media companies need imagination

Media companies have shown insensitivity and clumsiness in the way they have retrenched in droves, cutting the professional journalist workforce in half in the past 10 years. In the Covid-19 era, more journalists lost jobs. The functioning of the news media has never recovered from the 2008 global financial crisis, when companies hired “content producers” to replace journalists. Mainstream newsrooms today have tech-savvy young content producers, who work long hours earning low wages. Instead of discarding older journalists there could have been – and there remains room – for a more imaginative scheme to retain both the older and the younger. For example, the previously high-earning senior journalists could work fewer hours, coaching the young content producers to write, encapsulating the context that is so often missing in the “content”. In turn, the content producers could coach the older journalists on tech skills; skills are passed on in both directions. In the book’s Chapter 4: The Job Loss Tsunami, a survey showed that none of the media companies asked senior journalists, including sub-editors, whether they would accept lower salaries, or work half days or half weeks, so their skills could be retained and passed on. This has been one of the biggest power losses to journalism.

The state of the newsroom

Calling public relations personnel journalists attests to the problem (enhanced by digital media) of a new term, “fluid journalism”. There are many people putting out “facts”, “information” or “opinion” in the media, but are they journalists? In this context, fact-checking and verification, which is what journalists are supposed to do, has become more important than ever. Independent fact-checking entities such as Africa Check, are widespread worldwide. This is good news but fact-checking entities are needed in newsrooms too. A cry for “back to basics” is one way to save the craft. Verification and fact-checking give reliability and credibility to the news, and add value to it. The ranks of the journalist fact-checking sub desks have been almost depleted but at great cost to the value of news. Greater awareness of the Press Code in our newsrooms would help especially the issue of right to replies – the biggest percentage of all complaints to the Press Council.

Information disorder

The phenomenon of “fake news” will continue and will worsen in an age of growing nationalism, populism and the onslaught against democracy. The media researchers Claire Wardle and Hossein Derakhshan advocate that we stop using the term “fake news”. In the age of information disorder, the term “fake news” glibly glosses over misinformation, disinformation, mal-information (deliberately malicious, intended to harm) and political propaganda. Fake news is enabled by technology, and in particular social media, although this is not the same as saying technology and social media are responsible. They merely make it easier. And, the backlash of social media is felt particularly on women journalists who are trolled and persecuted for their exposures of corruption. Media companies have a responsibility to play in dealing with cyber-misogyny: for example, name and shame trolls who spread falsities that cause harm. When members of the public jump in to spread information they know may be fake, they are engaging in Schadenfreude (joys of misfortune or malicious joy).

Regain trust

The more the idea of “fluid journalism” is touted by the techno determinists and techno optimists, the more journalism loses. The more that journalism is conflated with social media, and the more that “fake news” appears on social media, the more trust is lost in journalism. Journalists have to stop chasing social media and technology and shift the focus to fair reporting, good long-form pieces, analysis and investigations. Those brands that prove themselves tend to survive, irrespective of what platform they publish on. Public interest journalism can survive. What I referred to as the “green shoots” in Chapter 7 are signs of hope. There is some re-imagining of what public interest journalism could be. Many of these agencies are non-profit, relying on reader support funds and philanthropy (New Frame, GroundUp, and Daily Maverick for instance) as well as alliances with academia, as exemplified by The Conversation.


Collaborations and alliances is the international and local investigative journalism trend to catch the crooks. Alliances between civil society advocacy groups such as the Right2Know, community-based organisations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) may be useful, especially for the feminist struggle against violence and for other issues such as climate change. However, advocacy journalism should be marked as such. This would apply to groups involved in improving the position of the poor, the marginalised and unemployed, as well as those supporting LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender/transsexual, intersex and queer/questioning) concerns.

I sat in a Sanef (SA National Editors’ Forum) meeting in 2018 with LGBTIQ groups and was struck at how many black women expressed frustrations with mainstream newspapers: they cited writing analyses and op-eds which got “dumped” or, in newsroom jargon, “spiked”. “That’s mainstream media for you,” they said. What is the point of hearing the same old ways of being, when there are new views, reflecting new times, landing on editors’ desks? Who benefits when new views are cast aside? For the first time in the Glass Ceilings research 2018, a small proportion of respondents referred to themselves as “other” rather than male or female. Those asserting a right to have fluid identity and sexuality testify to changes in the times. This must be reflected in the surveys we do, the stories we write, who we interview and how we do so, if true diversity – race, gender, class and sexuality – is to be reflected in the media.

More investigations

Investigative journalism is an area of great power in the media and should be further capacitated. As a result of its plethora of stories over the past two decades, investigations helped bring down a corrupt president. The Zondo Commission continues to reveal how tender manipulation takes place, how many millions were paid in bribes (including cash stuffed in Louis Vuitton handbags), when again we saw that Jacob Zuma and many of his supporters were at the heart of the witnesses’ testimonies. But sight must not be lost of the fact that investigative journalists had revealed the links between Bosasa and government corruption more than a decade ago. The Zondo Commission is now hearing it directly from witnesses, blowing the whistle. The commission got a head start from journalism.

Opportunity to serve

The media has power to think and act beyond the norms of everyday mainstream culture and perceptions. This book performed an interrogation of the balance of power and acknowledged there was something afoot: old norms are shifting and structures of power are challenged more than ever; there is more pushback against the greed of corporates, corrupt politicians, patriarchy, racism but also of mainstream media, part of the old norms and elitist establishments.

But there is an opportunity for change to finally serve audiences: investigative journalism continues to be lauded but I have argued that journalists can do more than expose the corrupt; they can also expose the media companies for their lack of humanity, and could do journalism with more compassion, empathy and include diversity of voices.

Journalism has power and can find humanity itself amid the noise of social media, of the binary oppositions of us and them, male and female, black and white, left and right, for climate change or not, feminist or sexist. All this seems possible when we examine the mainstream coverage of the Afro saga, in Chapter 7: Decolonial Green Shoots. As Fanon said in Black Skin, White Masks, “yes to life, yes to love, yes to generosity” (no to degradation, scorn, indignity, inhumanity – the latter we see racism, poverty and cyber-misogyny in SA and all over the world). We could reflect on this as we re-imagine media and journalism in the “battle for the creation of a human world – a world of reciprocal recognition” (Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth). This applies to journalism as much as to politics and life itself.

In this book, we have seen the mechanics of power and how it acts. Power is quirky, slippery and paradoxical. It shifts and slides, depending on where you are standing, your position and your gaze. Power also lies in re-imagining. DM

Glenda Daniels is an associate professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. She is a media-freedom activist and journalist and author of Fight for Democracy (2014).

This is an edited extract from Power and Loss in South African Journalism: news in the age of social media is published by Wits University Press, 2020. 


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