First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
University of Cape Town Professor of Media Studies Herman Wasserman’s new book, The Ethics of Engagement (Oxford University Press), poses challenges to journalism. We should reflect on whether we in the Global South impose Global North values. Could we examine particular conditions and tailor-make our storytelling to contribute to deepening democracy? This is the politico-philosophical tension in the book, that of the universal versus the particular, and a recurring backdrop theme is the media’s role in a democracy.
Wasserman’s book is engaging and accessible. Interestingly, it even proposes a radical intervention into – or a total overhaul of – the self-regulation system of the Press Code in SA, towards more ethical engagement within the framework of “listening journalism”. Wasserman does not pose the questions I’ve listed above, but asserts strongly that we are too fixated on “professional codes of ethics”, rather than being engaged with our local communities by practising listening. How does he get there?
Using radical democracy theory, Wasserman argues that conflict is normal. It is part of the human condition. We cannot eliminate conflict, but we can change its character. Africa has particular conditions, and we cannot simply apply theory from the North to the South. He then applies this theoretical framework to the reporting of conflict: How does journalism report ethically? Does it amplify conflict or does it contribute to peace?
Journalism needs to engage more with communities and be part of communities, he writes. This proposition goes against the present “professional” codes, with their lauding of objectivity and distance. The rest of the world can learn from Africa, to make journalism ethical, if we practise listening journalism.
To do so, fewer boundaries are needed between publics and journalists, not more. The argument is: let’s not amplify conflict but let’s contribute to peace in Africa, and the rest of the world. When we talk about the public service function of journalism – indeed, what other function should it have? – are we talking about escalating conflict and war, or do we want to make the world a better place?
The Ethics of Engagement approaches the media’s role from the angle of conflict, democratisation and transition. Wasserman takes off from the premise that the collapse of authoritarian regimes and the transition to democracy in recent decades are significant global phenomena shaping political life around the world. This applies as much to Africa as to the rest of the world.
The book comes shortly after the release of the SA National Editors Forum (Sanef) Inquiry into Ethics report. A conference will be held in May to plot the way forward for a new kind of journalism based on higher ethical codes and standards. It appears Wasserman would like journalism to go much further than the normative ideals we have before us.
In 2011 and 2012, the Press Council of SA revised its codes of good practice, after the Press Freedom Commission hearings under Justice Pius Langa. Wasserman believes this “reform” is not enough. He seems to dislike the epithet “professional”, seeing it as alienating, as standing in the way of journalism’s participation in the social body, of being part of it. He wants to see more collaboration in an unfolding democracy. He asks that we “re-think completely”.
What would a more radical opening up of journalism to the public entail? More town-hall meetings or community dialogues? The book refers to the community dialogues initiated in 2011 by DM168 editor Heather Robertson, when she was editor of The Herald in the Eastern Cape, working with Allan Zinn, the director of the Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy (Canrad) at Nelson Mandela University. This is an often used example of listening: the editors, journalists and the community gathered regularly to listen to the issues affecting the community and what they’d like covered in the paper. It was a successful intervention.
But has there been real interrogation of what happens to initiatives like this when editors move on or owners want to turn listening exercises into profit centres? Most community dialogues or “town halls” have become revenue streams – sponsored webinars during the Covid-19 pandemic or fee-paying big events for the wealthy convocations of elites with experts in conversation with each other and journalists.
There is no tapping into what communities deem important or listening to them. Wasserman does pointedly ask how we are to translate the listening into better reporting on poor communities. It may well be that cultural and other approaches to better ethics in journalism are superior to what is currently on the table in the West – and to which we in SA have an attachment. But how would ownership, management and editor structures support this shift, when newsrooms are being depleted of staff in bloodbaths of retrenchments? I think different approaches can operate in tandem – professional codes with listening journalism and cultural approaches. The opening up of journalism is a splendid idea, but the “how” is the question.
Not doing harm by not exacerbating conflict is an important principle that Wasserman explores and I fully endorse. Lots of challenges exist – archaic concepts such as distance, neutrality and objectivity lead to a chasm between publics and journalists. This breeds a cynical view of the media and journalism on the part of the public.
Other ideas to reflect on include the need to protect the dignity of subjects rather than viewing them merely as objects; to give dignity to subjects in conflicts and wars as well as conditions of poverty, such as starvation.
Reflecting on peace journalism, the ethics of listening, the discussion of voyeurism and avoiding exposure to more pain makes it clear that more empathy and compassion are needed all round. In Wasserman’s view, there is still room for watchdog journalism, as we currently have it in SA, which holds the powerful to account for their corruption.
The Ethics of Engagement is a great book to read, with lots of food for thought for media companies, newsrooms, editors and journalists, academics and consumers of media. DM168
Glenda Daniels is an associate professor in the Media Studies department at Wits University and the author of Power and Loss in South African Journalism: News in the Age of Social Media (2020).
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.