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Yes, SA media’s China coverage sucks and here’s why

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

There is no doubt the coverage of China by local media has been wanting. It’s a failing, one of many in media. But saying that local coverage isn’t there is just one half of the enquiry. What are the reasons for this? The answers make for sorry reading.

I often walk past the office of Agence France Presse, located just a few minutes’ walk from where I live. It’s not a magnificent office. But it’s a presence nonetheless. The Guardian keeps a man in the country. So does the Christian Science Monitor. I’ve met them all. Time, The Economist, The New York Times, BBC, CNN, Reuters, AP and many other publications have correspondents in the country as well. It shows in the coverage these agencies and news organisations offer, off-beat though it may sometimes be. The stories of Africa that are published by European and American publications are more often than not better than those of African publications themselves because the foreign organisations have the resources to invest and the highly skilled people to dedicate.

How many SA news organisations have foreign correspondents based in China? How many of them have people in South Africa who are dedicated to covering China? The actual question is: how many local news organisations have that type of money?

Quality journalism costs money. Unfortunately, the China coverage reflects the excuse, “when we can spare someone”. It’s unfortunate, but a result of simple economics. To simply accuse South African media of being asleep without bringing in the context of a lack of resources is half the truth. Being asleep and having one’s hands tied are two different things.

In fact, the resource issue also explains why local coverage of the rest of Africa is so bad. It doesn’t take a degree in journalism to see why trying to extensively and exhaustively cover Africa or China or any place on the globe from a news desk in Johannesburg or Cape Town would be a futile and irresponsible endeavour.

There are the glaringly obvious reasons as well – China with its cheap labour and social cohesion, is over there. Malema and the political hyenas and the sushi-eaters are all right here. With pinched resources and a readership that is largely intolerant of pieces that deal with lofty thoughts or far-reaching articles, such as foreign policy, it makes a lot more sense for local reporters to drive to 54 Sauer Street in Johannesburg to attend the latest ANC press conference, than it does to fly to Beijing. South Africans are far happier (or sadder, for that matter) reading about Malema’s latest shenanigans than they are learning that China’s deputy head of government Xi Jinping is in the country, and what that might mean for them. It’s difficult to make China locally newsworthy. As easy a cop-out as that may seem, that’s the choice editors face, and again, the empty coffers have a lot of say in what one will be reading over breakfast.

There’s another reason for the missing China coverage which I suspect won’t get much airtime. I do get the sense that South African media aren’t exactly sure what to make of China’s increased involvement in the country. A simple good/bad paradigm is unhelpful and limiting – that much is obvious to anyone. The economic implications for South Africa are enormous. As Jeremy Goldkorn points out in his column, China is already South Africa’s main trading partner. At the same time, there are reservations about what this closeness to China will mean for South African politics and the country itself. The countries some journalists wish we were cosier with don’t really want to be South Africa’s trading partner – at least, not so much that they’d try to outbid China for our attention. Simply put, I don’t think anyone really knows what to make of China.

All of this is not to say that committing people to China ,who can give the important socioeconomic relationship between the two countries the reportage that it rightly deserves, is impossible. Local media organisations could pool their resources, and perhaps jointly manage to afford a foreign correspondent or two based in China. Even then, we’d never be able to compete with the likes of Reuters or the BBC or The New York Times. You’ll have to look there for your South Africa–China news, for as long as money is such a huge issue for South African media organisations. DM


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