Opinionista Zimasa Mpemnyama 22 July 2020

Reporting on local government elections: A call for ‘listening journalism’

Listening journalism refers to the conscious process where journalists prioritise the voices of marginalised and underrepresented groups through actively ‘listening’. The emphasis is on providing well-rounded and informative content.

Last week, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) briefed Parliament on its state of readiness for the 2021 local government election. The commission told Parliament’s portfolio committee on Home Affairs during a virtual briefing that local government elections will be held between 4 August and 1 November 2021. Voting will be on a Wednesday and will be preceded by special voting days and that there will also be two voter registration weekends ahead of the elections. 

These local government elections are a hotbed of contestation and activity. During election periods, the media often become the only credible primary source of information for the public. Reporting on local government elections becomes a tricky maze for journalists to navigate as municipal elections require participation from many political actors, they highlight community-based service delivery issues and it becomes a period where alarming rates of politically motivated killings are seen, raising the question of safety for journalists.

With the fast-paced nature of journalism and the highly contested terrain of elections, a lot of useful information usually falls through the cracks in election coverage. Tula Dlamini and Sarah Chiumbu’s research looking into the South African Broadcasting Corporation’s (SABC) coverage of the 2016 local government election highlights a bleak picture of the broadcaster’s coverage of the elections, finding that it was biased “in favour of accredited national leaders at the expense of local candidates and the electorate”. 

On the other hand, Media Monitoring Africa’s Sarah Findlay and Azola Dayile found that coverage of the 2019 national elections focused on “politicised issues”, including internal party factions, national political matters and party campaigns. According to Dayile and Findlay, critical issues which affected people’s lived reality were “relegated to the periphery of public discourse”. These findings, and indeed there are many more, force a moment of reflection on journalistic practice and its place in deepening South Africa’s democracy ahead of next year’s election. 

Concepts like “public journalism”, “alternative journalism”, “civic journalism” and “listening journalism” have been conceived by academics to drive the thinking around journalism practice beyond its current limited, middle-class focused scope. These concepts are all grounded in creating a journalism culture which is responsive to contemporary society’s needs, rather than just reporting on matters. 

For instance, “listening journalism” refers to the conscious process where journalists prioritise the voices of marginalised and underrepresented groups through actively “listening”. This approach takes cognisance of the complexities of South Africa’s history and current reality, with an emphasis on providing well-rounded and informative content. As Professor of Media Studies at the University of Cape Town, Herman Wasserman, highlights, the ethics of a listening kind of journalism are important because they foreground connecting “horizontal discussions between citizens to the vertical axis of political power … Journalists who listen can facilitate a politics from the ground up.” 

The coverage of local government elections is particularly important because it has the potential to open the doors of communication between the electorate and those candidates which are closest to their communities. This desire to open this line of communication need not only be the job of community media organisations, while national media platforms focus their attention on political party factions (which also exist at the ground-level) and national rallies hosted by party leaders. 

The focus should rather be on letting the public know about their councillor candidates, the impact their vote will have on the provision (or lack thereof) of services, community concerns around the Covid-19 pandemic and government interventions to curb the virus, xenophobia, social welfare, unemployment and gender-based violence. And this also need not be just mere reporting. Nor should it pull its quotes from elite sources which hold historical power – voices which have been deemed as speaking for the Other, instead of with the Other. This reporting needs to pay special attention to the language, images, tone and salience.

… in a community meeting where there are community leaders, community members, and there are journalists who are there to listen, who has the power? And in this case, as when we speak of a faceless “citizen” or faceless “public”, we must identify who the faceless “journalist” is. Is this journalist a black woman, who is marginalised by virtue of this identity? Is this journalist a white male who has societal privilege? And, how does society react to these identities and also, how do communities react to these identities as those who are listening? Are these neutral identities, or do they operate within the prism of race, class and gender? Is “listening” a neutral affair?

While it is understandable that journalism (and journalists) exist within a social milieu which is still embedded in oppressive structural challenges of racism, sexism and economic exploitation, and that these challenges exist even within newsrooms themselves, it is, however, necessary to push journalism practice to do and be better. Journalism should constantly question the relevance and value of certain stories and how they fit into the nationwide programme of building a journalism with values and principles of social justice. The air of arrogance — and untouchability — which exists in some corners of the field are not useful because when interrogated further, even those media platforms which claim to be a “voice for the voiceless” or a “watchdog” for democracy are mired in political, ideological and personal battles which aid, instead of dismantle, a white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal agenda. In a situation where even the integrity of media regulatory bodies are called into question, deep reflection is necessary. 

But we must be careful not to uncritically over-glorify the project of “listening”, especially in a context as historically loaded as South African reality. We must therefore ask, who is doing the listening? What social positions do they hold and who is doing the speaking? If we claim this project of listening centres public participation, and the voices of the marginalised – when these voices of the marginalised speak, are those who are tasked with listening, capable of listening? 

For example, in a community meeting where there are community leaders, community members, and there are journalists who are there to listen, who has the power? And in this case, as when we speak of a faceless “citizen” or faceless “public”, we must identify who the faceless “journalist” is. Is this journalist a black woman, who is marginalised by virtue of this identity? Is this journalist a white male who has societal privilege? And, how does society react to these identities and also, how do communities react to these identities as those who are listening? Are these neutral identities, or do they operate within the prism of race, class and gender? Is “listening” a neutral affair?

It is important to ask these questions because when we are looking for ways in which we can do journalism better, we must always push journalism, kicking and screaming, further from where it is today. And this is not to say that the public or citizens are without agency. And that they themselves do not recognise certain power dynamics at play within these identities. But as Chris Atton and Emma Wickenden note in their study on sourcing routines and representation in alternative journalism, the ways in which alternative forms of journalism interact with communities is that they also in some way form hierarchies in communities, where activists are at the top and they speak for the greater population, while the public still does not participate in the way that it is imagined they will participate. So, if one would go to a community meeting, the ones who would be quoted would be the community activists, the councillors/candidates, members of NGOs, and the voices of the so-called “public” would be outside of the news frame. 

So, even as we propose these alternative ways of doing journalism, we must always be cognisant of the positionalities of all of the actors during this task of listening. 

South Africa has a history of progressive journalism. From the “black press” of the early 20th Century which consisted of pioneers like Sol Plaatjie and John Tengo Jabavu, to the “resistance press” which consisted of publications like Guardian, Rand Daily Mail and The World. Not forgetting the “alternative press” of the 1980s which consisted of progressive, leftist orientated newspapers which aligned themselves, with differing intensity, to popular struggles for liberation and were unapologetic in the manner they reported on sociopolitical issues.  

These publications, with differing intensity of course, concretised the ethos of a journalism based on the ethic of justice. A journalism that speaks from the ground up, and not the other way around. This is why, with the advent of neoliberalism and market ownership dictating the content of publications, the work of grounding journalism back to this ethos is necessary. DM 

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