Opinionista Stephen Grootes 16 September 2013

Hlaudi weather: the problem with the SABC’s ‘good news’ journalism

Over the past few weeks it's become evident that we are in the middle of one of those perennial discussions about whether our media is bad, mad or just plain evil. It started this time when Hlaudi Motsoeneng said he wanted “70% good news” in SABC bulletins. Then President Jacob Zuma weighed in, saying our media was “too negative”. The issue is whether the messenger is the problem, and whether the perception that is created and becomes our reality is actually better than objective reality (should such a thing exist). The question is also why don’t we concentrate on the good, instead of just the bad? Here’s why.

We have to start off, as all good high school debaters should, with the definition of the word “news”. It is not, as I was once taught, the north, south, east and west points of the compass, but has its roots in Latin, through French. The root appears to be the word “nova” which means “new things”.

Can we, dear reader, at least agree on that?

That is probably all we can agree on because facts, or “new things”, are always going to be contested. If those in power write the history, those who stand to lose power try to write it first. In other words, there is no such thing as an objectively “good” fact. There is also no such thing as an objectively “bad” one. It depends, to quote Gwede Mantashe, on where you sit.

Take interest rates, for example. When interest rates go down, most of the country celebrates. We all have more money in our pocket, and it’s good for the economy, etc. Hell, it’s something you would think that business would certainly celebrate.

So, why not lead with it on the seven o’clock news and give the newsreader some pom-poms for the occasion. Because there is a rather important minority for whom this would be bad news. Pensioners, those who live off fixed incomes from long-term accounts and many others who will see a cut in interest rates leaving less money in their pockets. To celebrate would be to laugh in their faces.

The same holds true for just about every single event imaginable. There is almost always a winner and a loser. Take Nkandla, for example. With every leaked detail about how much money was spent on President Jacob Zuma’s property, it’s important to know how it’s being covered. Certainly the SABC’s (forever) acting chief operating officer, “70%” Hlaudi Motsoeneng, believes he shouldn’t “follow the hullabaloo” about it. Because it’s “bad” news.

But for whom? For Number One? Sure. For the ANC? Probably. For Helen Zille? Not a chance. So then, how would you decide whether to cover it or not? And don’t forget Hlaudi, we’ve been here before.

There was a time when Snuki Zikalala told his troops not to lead news bulletins with crime stories. Which worked for a while. But how do you define a crime story? Is it when something is stolen? Or when someone is murdered? How about the killing of a politician? Murder or assassination? Crime or politics? How about a kidnapping? Is that a family drama or a crime?

Once you go down this road, it’s really hard to end up anywhere good.

If you do try to slant the news, the “new things”, people will know. It’s obvious. Even in totalitarian states, where there is no free or independent or “other” media, people know. Look at Zimbabwe. Zanu-PF controls the airwaves, and yet many, many people still voted for the MDC. (Exactly how many we will never know, because we will never trust the outcome of that election.)

Again, at the SABC there was a time Menzi Simelane, then head of the National Prosecuting Authority, would only do interviews on SAfm. He wouldn’t come on other platforms. And even if the presenter gave him an easy run of things, it was clear from callers that no one believed him. Caller after caller would phone in and give him hell, call him a disgrace, etc. Because they knew he was not “fit and proper” and they knew that the presenter wasn’t asking the questions he needed to be asked.

The other problem with “sunshine” news is that it doesn’t sell. Now before you accuse me of bolstering Zuma’s point last week that newspapers only put bad news on their front pages to make profits, what I mean is, if you don’t have credibility, no one will read, buy or listen to you.

Look at the New Age. Do you know what its circulation figures are? Neither do we, because they aren’t saying. Why not? Because it would seem that those figures would make it difficult to prove claims about how successful it’s been.

Now, if you’re not going to be watched, read, or heard, then what’s the point? What are you going to achieve by existing in the first place? Why does ANN7 exist if no one watches it? What does it accomplish? How can it affect an election result if it’s not watched? To be blunt: if a TV station is not watched, does it really exist? The answer must surely be “no”.

All that said there is a claim from Zuma and Motsoeneng, who are clearly on the same hymn sheet, which does need further explanation. Their claim is that there is a culture in the South African media that likes to dwell on the “negative”, and that there is no accent on the positive. Zuma’s claims about the Mexican media are so wrong they don’t even deserve dwelling on, but his suggestion that there is nothing positive is important.

In short, things that might be considered “good news” tend to occur through processes, while things that are “bad news” tend to be events. So, if the country is gradually becoming richer, creating jobs and more and more people are getting electricity, that is “good news”. But it is also over time. It is not an event. It is also something that is planned, many years in advance. So it is not a “new thing”. It is an “expected thing”.

An event on the other hand, say, a leak that government money is spent on the President’s house is unexpected. You didn’t know that was going to happen when you had breakfast. Thus it is a “new thing”.

And this really goes to the heart of it. Zuma, Motsoeneng and their fellow media travellers are judging the wrong thing. They need to look at the media as a whole. Not just at the front page of the newspaper, but the entire paper. Not just on a radio station’s news bulletin, but at its entire product. The front page and the bulletin is news. New things. For a real picture of what’s going on, you need to look further. And then judge.

But in the end, you can’t actually do that because every single fact, every incident, every leak, every decision to spend money or not, every policy decision, every choice that government makes, that a politician makes, is political, contestable and arguable. It is not an objective fact.

It is really the starting point for our debate, the argument that is to come.

So, Mr President, when you suggest that media has too much “bad news”, that means that it is only “bad news” for some. Particularly you. DM

Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. He’s been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.


Support DAILY MAVERICK & get FREE UBER vouchers every month

An increasingly rare commodity, quality independent journalism costs money, though not nearly as much as its absence can cost global community. No country can live and prosper without truth - that's why it matters.

Every Daily Maverick article and every Scorpio exposé is proof of our dedication to this unshakeable mission. Investing in our news media is by far the most effective investment into South Africa's future.

You can support Independent and Investigative journalism by joining Maverick Insider. If you contribute R150 or more per month you will receive R100 back in UBER vouchers. EVERY MONTH until October 2019.

So, if you'd like to help and do something meaningful for yourself and your country, then sign up to become a Maverick Insider. Together we can Defend Truth.

2018 African Person of The Year

Abiy Ahmed – bringing a touch of Madiba Magic to Ethiopia

By Carien Du Plessis

2018 Sentient Naartjie of The Year

Donald J Trump, The Sum of All Our Fears

J Brooks Spector 17 DEC

Praying Mantises only have one ear.