Opinionista William Bird 6 September 2015

Media debate: Time to ditch generalisations and ask hard questions

The biggest challenge with the massive sweeping generalisations that characterised the recent debate on the media is that they prevent us from dealing with the very real and massive problems and challenges we face in the media and the country. Statements such as “all journalists are lazy” or that they violate people's rights to dignity are often used to support equally poor ideas like “we cannot ever limit media freedom” or ”let's licence journalists” as if somehow either of these will solve the problem. Neither of these options are sustainable and in fact all they do is deflect from the bigger issues.

Our media is in crisis but perhaps not for the reasons some may advocate. In some cases the ideas being put forward do more to hide the problems than to expose and address them. The real issues for me are: what are some of the questions we should be asking and what do we do about it?

A quick review of the media debates over the last few weeks (some key elements can be found in these pages of the Daily Maverick) reveal a few things and comments from all sides have very clear elements of validity. One example: some journalists are lazy and are about as inquisitive as a blob of glue. Similarly, some government communicators are simply hopeless. There are other elements that are perhaps a bit more difficult to concede. Mainstream media, and by this I include print and broadcast, give far too little coverage to the poor and marginalised, and even less to children. Our monitoring shows that the average number of sources per story has gone down from around three in the mid 1990s to just over one today. There are of course very clear exceptions. Likewise, the government and the African National Congress (ANC) have been guilty of dramatic over reaction and sweeping generalisations. Does this mean the ANC and the government as a whole is like that? Of course not! What is fair to say, in general terms, is that both our government and our media are much much better today than they were in 1994. Let’s not forget that. We have far greater diversity, some of the biggest media companies in the world, and many more titles. But this isn’t some kind of sunshine, roses and lollipops piece – as I said our media is in crisis.

Perhaps the most unfortunate element of the recent debates is that they are largely positional. We have seen clear strongly worded pieces from a range of highly respected and intelligent people with little ground gained or given in each. Like the trench warfare in World War I – brutal and gruesome – costing much but offering little gain for either side. To be clear, I think the debates around transformation, ethical journalism and quality media are critical. We need to be engaging with these issues clearly and strongly. My problem is more with how the debates have been framed pretty much from the get go, when issues around media regulation were seriously put forward in 2007, that have left participants with little real opportunity to really shift things or the discussion. I will come back to this later.

Another worrying issue is the level of generalisation that we have seen in the debates. So instead of it being a faction or even a few voices in the ANC, it becomes the “ANC agenda to destroy media freedom”. Similarly we hear “all media” by which the accusers usually mean mainstream print media “are bad and seek to undermine the government”. The trouble with such sweeping generalisations and stereotypes is that there is a grain of truth to them. So instead of being easily dismissed out of hand they often appear credible.

I know brilliant brilliant journalists, editors, broadcasters, producers and subs who rank with the best anywhere in the world and they are to be found in almost every one of our media. They are in the Daily Sun, City Press, Sunday Times, The New Age, ANN7, ENCA, Beeld, the Mail & Guardian, other dailies like the Star, the Sowetan, Daily Dispatch, Cape Times, The Voice and The Times, our online sites like Daily Maverick, The Con, Daily Vox and The Conversation as well. Excellence can be found in our numerous small commercial and community media like Cape TV, Voice of the Cape, Radio 786 and Chai FM as well as the commercial ones like 702 and Power FM and so many more. They are also to be found in SABC radio and television. Similarly there are people – ministers, parliamentarians and civil servants who are absolutely committed and work around the clock to try to meet the near impossible tasks we have set ourselves as a nation. While these statements are I believe true and verifiable, somehow you can bet they won’t gain nearly as much popularity as the sweeping negative comments – from all sides. It’s as though we love to pull each other down in South Africa – but that is a subject for another piece.

The biggest challenge with the massive sweeping generalisations is that they prevent us from dealing with the very real and bloody massive problems and challenges we do face in the media and the country. Saying “all journalists are lazy” or that they violate people’s rights to dignity may sound sexy but it is like looking at a pin up of your favourite sex icon – titillating but broadly pointless and probably offensive. Such statements are often used to support equally poor ideas like “we cannot ever limit media freedom” or ”let’s licence journalists” as if somehow either of these will solve the problem. Neither of these options are sustainable and in fact all they do is deflect from the bigger issues.

Recently the chief operating officer (COO) of the SABC was interviewed by one of our fine young minds, Waldimar Pelser. The interview was brutal and awful to watch, like a frog in a liquidiser. Hlaudi Motsoeneng was simply speaking on issues that he really should not be speaking on for our public broadcaster. The level of generalisation was so broad and untenable that the comments would have sounded bizarre even for Mr Sweeping himself, Donald Trump. They were inappropriate and did a grave disservice to those at the SABC who are not lazy and produce great content under difficult circumstances. In addition, what the generalisations swept over in their sheer audacity were the real issues such as “reporting crime encourages young people to commit crime”. Areas in which we may expect informed responses from an SABC COO are the SABC’s financial position; why the National Intelligence Agency was sweeping the SABC offices in Durban; how the SABC is implementing the recommendations of the auditor-general; or the Special Investigating Unit or even those of the public protector. If it was editorial matters: how about what’s going on with the SABC’s revised editorial policies which are now six years overdue. (Yes, SIX years!) The delay is all the more bizarre because they were reportedly finished and revised months ago. Instead we are left gawping at the ludicrous. The real issue of why the COO is speaking on these issues is not addressed nor are any answers given by the COO himself. Think about this – how many COOs of any other media house can you name, let alone identify in the media recently? Then ask why that is.

There are very real issues with quality in our print media. Over the last few years we have seen general downward trends in readership and circulation, and concomitant cuts in the number of journalists and media professionals. At a time when content that helps people understand the world around them is so crucial, we are getting rid of the best people for the job. At the same time we see the increase in numbers of public relations professionals who spin for a living. It makes the under-resourced journalists’ jobs even harder as they have to cut through the spin and still produce even more pieces. Are we really surprised that we see less sources in stories? Or fewer stories that focus on difficult issues? They require time, thought, and resources to do justice to the kinds of problems we face. Saying Eskom is delighted we haven’t had any load-shedding for a few weeks might serve some interests, but it’s pretty pointless as news really. Whose fault is that? Yes we need journalists to uncover and ask probing questions like what is the actual plan for Eskom to solve our power crisis, and I don’t mean empty platitudes. I want to know who is working around the clock and how are they doing it? A war room? Another heap of excrement that sounds as if it is doing something with men (yes, sadly, mostly men) gathered to sit in comfy chairs and talk – maybe they do come up with a plan but we don’t know what it is. Somehow we are expected to be okay with the idea that we have a ‘war room’ and that people sit in it. So yes, let’s demand more from journalists but we need to also demand more from the government and companies.

Similarly, there are very real challenges around ethics in our media and, surprise surprise, they get it wrong – sometimes. That they don’t get it wrong more frequently is amazing given how the number of journalists and levels of experience have been cut from our media houses. Lumping all journalists together, saying they are all unethical is just silly. It doesn’t address the ethical issues nor does it add anything to a reasoned debate. What Media Monitoring Africa’s work shows is that actually compared to where we were in 1994 our media is considerably more ethical today than then. It was common for example for racial identifiers to be used in a story even when they had no material value; rape stories often named survivors without their consent and one in 10 stories on children used to clearly violate children’s rights. Identification of rape survivors is now exceptional and as a general rule race as a signifier is usually only mentioned when it is genuinely material to a story. As far as children go, only around 2% of stories clearly identify a child when it is not in their best interest to do so. There are many other indicators but for those who are marginalised these are important. Again, this is not to say there isn’t room for substantial improvement in ethical reporting, but I am saying the generalisation that our media are unethical just isn’t true.

On another level, the Press Council now has an international best practice code. Our Broadcasting Complaints and Compliance Commission Code needs to be updated and brought into line with the Press Code (all the more so given the merger with the Online Publishers – again, this is for another piece). If we talk about ethical practice and minimising harm to those the media report on, I am to be honest more concerned with those who need it most – like the vulnerable, the less powerful and under resourced – rather than big business or politicians who have the means and resources to rigorously defend and minimise the harm caused. To be clear, I am not saying it is right when media get things wrong. They need to act swiftly and proportionately to minimise the harm caused but I would prefer it was one of them wronged rather than an abused child for example.

Saying we need to add more regulation to journalism is also not going to solve the problem of resources, or of quality. All it will do is lead to even poorer quality. So here’s my generalisation: there is no country in the world where the media is limited and media freedom is limited that has quality journalism. And by that I mean, well sourced, researched, accurate, balanced, ethical and informative news. If you know one I’d love to know about it then I would retract my generalisation. So like a ‘war room’ or dismissing all journalists as lazy, as a solution regulation may sound appealing on some level but really it’s just a way of pursuing limited aims and sweeping bigger problems under the carpet.

Transformation of the media is a big, real problem. The media know this. The government knows this and civil society knows this. The Print and Digital Media Transformation Task Team (funded by the media themselves) came up with some excellent ideas. How many have been implemented? How far are the media houses on achieving their goals? Have any of them set any real goals? Who monitors them? What are their long-term plans? Funnily enough we are seeing some answers in glossy marketing by MultiChoice at the moment, assuring us what a brilliant and transformed company they are. Does this mean they are really transforming or is it just smoke and mirrors or a combination of both? We have an amazing group of community and small commercial print media. How are they surviving? What are their plans for transforming and how can we work with them to feed into national media for better provincial diversity?

Go into any journalism school and look around and the classes are almost certainly heavily dominated by women. At the University of the Witwatersrand’s journalism department, a few of the lecturers joke that they need more men in their classes because they have so many women. How come we don’t see the same women-dominated imbalance in our newsrooms on all levels, not just the junior levels? These are a few of the critical questions we must ask and answer. Instead what do we get? Proposals to fine journalists and more bodies to deal with them after the fact. Erm, no! We need to expect and demand more from the government, the ANC and media on these issues. Featherweight notions are not going to address transformation in any meaningful manner.

The most recent ructions at the Mail & Guardian (M&G) show we need to demand more not only from our government and the ANC but also the media owners. In the last few months their finances have clearly been depressed. They had to retrench staff and have lost several, critical people from Chris Roper to Angela Quintal and more. Let me declare my bias. I love the M&G. But I also love the Daily Sun, the City Press, and the Diamond Field Advertiser, and our public broadcaster. I even love the Sunday Times despite some of their ethically questionable leader stories of the last few months. Which isn’t to say I don’t think they all do intensely bad things sometimes. What it does mean is that I want them to succeed, to produce great news, because I love it when they get it right. And to be clear when they do, it adds to our diversity as a nation. It gives us the odd, the traumatic and the bizarre. It also offers the amazing and the inspirational. That out of the way, what the hell is going on at the M&G? I don’t think it’s good enough to get a well-intentioned “thanks and we are sad to see Chris and now Angela go”. Like Eskom I want to know what’s being done about it. You may well not like the M&G and might think they are pursuing an evil agenda. That’s okay. The thing is our country would be so much the poorer both in terms of diversity and perspective if it didn’t exist.

Another big question is what do we do about this stuff? We can carry on having positional arguments and shouting, or we can seek to shift the debate. We can look at the issues that underlie the real problems we face. It’s easy to complain about corruption. It’s a lot harder to do something about it, to understand it and to work to prevent it. I think we need to start to look a lot more at building a vision for our media. We also need to think about what kind of country we want. At least we have some of this in the National Development Plan (NDP), but where is the NDP for our media? We need to start to ask what kind of media we want. When we say we want diversity, what do we mean? When we talk about transformed media, what does it look like? If we want quality media, what do we mean and how do we understand quality? Then we need to look at how we can try to realise that vision. How do we get better quality reporting when we are seeing a virtual massacre in the numbers of journalists losing their jobs? If we say there should be a tension between media and the government, what should that look like? When we think of a public broadcaster, what should we be seeing and demanding? Whose voices do we hear and who do we see? I want to see and work towards a vision for our media and I am interested in hearing how that can be done. How do we save critical bodies like the M&G? We know there are models out there. Just look at M&G’s Bhekisisa unit – it and Health-E News produce easily the best quality reporting on health on a sustained basis. How can we do more of that?

When we see media being involved and listening to their audiences, we see their numbers increasing. How do we do more of that? As we head towards a digital future, how do we make better and more effective use of the possibilities it offers? We know access and data costs are too high. Let’s demand cheaper and faster access for all from our regulator and the mobile operators. Let’s demand more from the government to make it happen faster, and to explain why it isn’t happening as quickly as necessary. Again this isn’t about sunshine roses and lollipops. It is hard out there, with anger and frustration and trauma and tough economics. We see excellent bodies in civil society working to address our big challenges like the Centre for Child Law which seeks to effect real change through strategic litigation, or Child Line and Rapcan who work tirelessly for our most marginalised children, to Equal Education, Section27, FXI and SOS Coalition, to name a few. For our part we work with media to improve their quality, we critique and praise, we do training and make policy submissions, we offer tools to help make journalists’ lives easier and hold them accountable, like Newstools and Wazimap.

As I see it we can carry on humiliating ourselves with pointless generalisations or we can start to ask the hard questions. And as we do, we can seek to build a vision and find real answers to our media crises. I know which option I want to work towards, how about you? DM

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