Defend Truth


In this age of media zombification spare a thought for audiences


Glenda Daniels is associate professor of media studies, Wits University and is Sanef’s Gauteng convenor. These views are her own.

When they’re fed dodgy stories about most Russians supporting the war in Ukraine, and somebody giving birth to 10 babies in South Africa, it’s no wonder readers and viewers confused.

On World Press Freedom Day (3 May) Reporters Sans Frontières will release its World Press Freedom Index 2022, when we will see whether it follows the patterns from 2021: the usual top four, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and the same old at the bottom – Russia at 150, Syria (173), Iran (174), Vietnam (175), Djibouti (176), China (177), Turkmenistan (178), North Korea (179) and Eritrea dead last (180).

In 2021, South Africa was number 32 (the UK was 33, for some context), but Namibia (24) always beats South Africa. Among 180 countries from which the data are drawn, it’s always the same culprits (countries) in the last 30.

The rankings indicate the countries’ democratic temperatures, and on World Press Freedom Day, media freedom activists, journalists, NGOs, academics and commentators focus on how many journalists have been killed, how many are in jail, how democracies lose when there is no independent, factually informative and free press. All of this is tallied to give us first or last place in the press freedom indexes. 

Unesco hosts the World Press Freedom Day 2022 conference in Uruguay, with the theme “Journalism under digital siege”, where the digital era’s impact on freedom of expression, the safety of journalists, access to information and privacy will be discussed. The conference will physically reunite policymakers, journalists, media representatives, activists, cybersecurity managers and legal experts to explore these issues and develop concrete solutions to address the threats posed by increased surveillance of press freedom and privacy.

Media zombies

About 10 years ago, Mark Deuze (Amsterdam University) theorised in the article, “Living as a Zombie in Media”, about how intense and immersive media use is turning us into helpless addicts, slaves to machines, unthinking. He wrote: 

“We are zombies because we use media in ways that erase our distinctiveness as individuals as we record and remix ourselves and each other into media. Our society zombifies as we navigate it – willingly or involuntarily – augmented by virtualising technologies…

“When we live in media, we become less aware of our surroundings, less tuned in to our senses, and thus more like lifeless automatons. Yet at the same time, living in media extends our senses and enhances our abilities to connect with others, to see ourselves and each other, and to manage the growing social complexity of our world.”

A complex world indeed, with journalism in the centre of a zombified storm. How more so for audiences when they get confused about what they hear and see. So, as we focus on freedom for journalists, spare a special thought, would you, for audiences. Imagine how hard it must be for the public to discern fake news from real news, facts from fiction. Let’s take these two cases: global media awards shortlisting a story that is under interrogation, and a journalist writing that 75% of Russians support Putin.

Awards for baby stories

The International News Media Association (INMA) Global Media Awards shortlisted the Baby Trade story (in the category Best Use of Social Media) – which emerged from the 10 babies born in South Africa story, breaking world records. Of course, the babies have never been spotted. It was hailed by the owner of Independent News, Iqbal Survé, as a “good news story”. Subsequently the group released a “docuseries” about the babies being trafficked and traded. After strong objections from the South African National Editors’ Forum and others, the docuseries Baby Trade, alleging that hospitals trafficked the babies and covered up, was removed from the INMA shortlist. The judges said they had been “judging the quality of the social media campaign – not the story itself”. So, does this mean I can make up anything and attach a fantastic social media campaign to it and win because the form was good, never mind the content was not verified? This sounds like zombification to me. 

Anyway, Earl Wilkinson, INMA’s executive director, retracted the entry, saying he hoped the INMA “will in the future attend better to shortlisted pieces, particularly those that threaten the trust in the media”. This resonates with Deuze’s words. This is how it’s become: media zombification of society, even with awards. All pretty mindless stuff. So, spare a thought for audiences. 

What about freedom of expression, and possible ideological agendas and motives, in the zombie age? Case number two. 

Many sides to a story, but both sides are equal 

I read this story (“The West doesn’t get it and most Russians aren’t zombified”) a few times to double check (unfortunately this just adds to algorithms and looks like the story got lots of hits): was it really equalising both sides (Russia and Ukraine in the war, a war started by Russia when it invaded its neighbouring country)?

Astonishing. An RT (Russia Today, official Kremlin propaganda TV) view. Paula Slier writes that the war is popular, with 75% supporting it. Has she done the hard work, the research to prove this? Ah, official Russian stats. Seriously. This is the same country that puts journalists in jail for reporting facts, and is number 150 on the World Press Freedom Index.

This is media zombification: with these stories it must be confusing for audiences, just sowing more confusion and doubt instead of giving the facts. If “many outsiders don’t know who – or what – to believe anymore”, as Slier writes, it’s because of journalism like this. 

Who comes first, second or last on World Press Freedom Day vis-à-vis how countries treat journalists, is a great index, but spare a thought for audiences in this age of chronic media zombification. It’s even worse now than when Deuze wrote 10 years ago. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    An interesting fact for ‘readers’ to note (consistent with Glenda’s take) is the failure of Putin and his lapdog Lavrov – (the one who has just casually alleged Hitler had Jewish blood – justifying their perjorative use of the Nazi label against Ukrainians) who ‘instantly’ deny all and any accusations against “Russia” wrongdoing and atrocities … is that they have not blamed the ‘west’ for the systematic doping many Russian athletes who have been charged, and an intrepid few have admitted to ! What a sad missed opportunity at more vehement denialism by Russian authorities . Not that other countries do not have individual coaches in collaboration with selected ‘scientists’ not attempting the same – but not on a nationally ‘sanctioned/approved’ scale ! Besides the jailing of journalists (and opposition figures on trumped up charges – as in Donald Trump) in Russia, there is an escalating rhetoric about unleasing nuclear warfar in the current Ukrain invasion (as if there could not be a similar/equal retaliation!) … he has that magical exilir compound called Novivchok … well has already been utilised effectively in several instances. Putin does fantasise that he has the world (not unlike Eugene Terblanch here) at his feet … but don’t such people concurrently also have a death wish also ? Not being a psychiatrist.. I leave that question to the experts. I have no doubt that the ‘banning’ of Russin and Bellorussion athletes from international competition is a small price/sacrifice to pay (like SA did during the struggle against apartheid) for a coutry’s return to some form of ‘acceptability’. Long may the struggle for a degree of ‘fairness’ continue.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.