We often think of listening as a trivial act, something we do when someone speaks, almost as an automatic reaction. But how many of us really listen, really take the time to try and understand what we are listening to and who we are listening to? Listening does not have to mean agreeing, and in fact many theorists have argued that listening can and should be part of a deliberative process where one is open to disagreement and, as Aristotle argues, “includes people whose interests, needs and opinions conflict” (in Bickford – The Dissonance of Democracy, 1996: 30). Listening should be a process of being open to hearing another person’s views and whether you agree with them or not, you are still open to listening. In this video, Alfredo Carrasquillo of the Universidad del Sagrado Corazon provides his perspective on listening, consensus and common ground.
While I sometimes think that this kind of listening is idealistic, the reality is that very often we tend to hear what we want. Perhaps particularly in the political arena or when opinions differ. What is of more concern to me and has been the subject of much debate amongst the Mellon Media & Citizenship Project researchers is how questions and answers about listening can be used to improve journalism in South Africa. Recent events within the mining industry, and particularly the reporting on the Marikana incident, have shown that too many journalists in South Africa are not listening enough. They don’t listen to the right people, they don’t listen with an ear for compassion, or even listen to the wrong people with a critical enough ear. In partnership with our project, Prof Jane Duncan (Highway Africa Chair of Media and Information Society) recently conducted a study on coverage of the Marikana incident on the 16th August 2012 and found that journalists failed to listen to or even consider the voices of the miners themselves. She notes that “If one does just a cursory overview of the reports that have come out since last Thursday, the dominant sources are the police, government, Amcu (Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union) and NUM (the National Union of Mineworkers). Unless the stories have been, for instance, about the family’s responses to the massacre, there have been very few attempts to approach workers to ask them what they saw” (quoted in an article by Mandy de Waal). Too often journalists fall on official sources without considering the voices of the people who are integral to the stories being covered.
My own research into the way in which the media in South Africa report on education and the youth shows the same kind of disregard for the voice of those who are integral to the stories – in this case the youth themselves. Only 9% of 420 stories from a range of different newspapers (Daily Dispatch, Mail & Guardian, and Grocott’s Mail) had the voice of a youth as part of the story. Journalists source traditional, official voices from university or school management such as principals (22%), government officials such as spokespeople from the Department of Education (16%), and members of the public who very often who write in the newspaper opinion pages but who are not youth themselves (17%).
If journalists are not listening, then we as the readers/audiences are not hearing the voices, and the marginalized, who are usually the voiceless continue to believe that their voices don’t matter. If however, we are working towards a democracy where listening is part of deliberation and even disagreement, then the voices of the marginalized (as something different to the’ official’) is essential. And the media will play an integral part in sharing those voices, but only if they too can listen with respect, and with the acknowledgement that in order to foster engagement we have to listen to all the voices. Bickford, in all her eloquent writing, sums up the complexity, but equally the importance of listening:
Listening to another person cannot mean abnegating oneself; we cannot hear but as ourselves, against the background of who we are…listening involves the willingness, in other words, to play a particular role in the forming of figure-ground, which role and which action are central to perception. This interdependence, in which speaker and listener are different-but-equal participants, seems particularly apt for describing listening as a practice of citizenship. It makes listening, and not simply speaking, a matter of agency. (The Dissonance of Democracy, 1996:24)