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Part 2 – Community Media, Social Media or Traditional Media?

In the second part of the discussion concerning avenues for participation, lecturers from the School of Journalism and Media Studies looked at issues around educating future journalists and the role of the media in encouraging political and civic action by citizens. Prof Anthea Garman (Writing & Editing lecturer) chaired the discussion which included: Jeanne Du Toit (Radio lecturer), Jude Mathurine (New media lecturer) and Rod Amner (Writing & Editing lecturer). Below is a short excerpt of the discussion (you can listen to it or read the transcription).

Anthea: Very often your definition of politics is incredibly narrow. When we think of people’s agency, activity, participation, quite often newspaper will aim that – I’m thinking in particular of Grocott’s Mail, and it was a very interesting experiment around the municipal elections last year. Aimed a whole lot of informational stuff at people. But the fact is, how are people going to be active, and be agents in their communities if they don’t build networks and movements around the issues on the ground. And education for us, is a severe one in the Eastern Cape and in Grahamstown. So I’m thinking what you’re saying as a kind of journalist that proactively doesn’t just use media and in a more sophisticated and conscious way but also uses it to create networks and movements and spaces for activity for taking up agency and holding to account. And there are spheres in which that could be ear-marked and they will be the spheres in which politics has failed spectacularly to deliver on the things in which it would substantially make people’s lives different. So it is a very different attitude to what the journalist does. Jeanne, you wanted to say something.

Jeanne: Ja, there’s two things, listening to what you’re saying now. It strikes me that in the context that we are in here in the Eastern Cape and in Grahamstown there’s kind of added challenges that people don’t necessarily face in all situations. And with us that has to do with the extent to which people’s voices have been marginalised and the extent to which civil society has been broken down because that’s really what this kind of media depends on is that there is a spontaneous up rush of involvement from people talking about the issues and wanting to engage and claiming that space. And I think to a large extent that’s been hollowed out because of poverty, because of all complicated reasons of history. So that’s an added burden that we bear because of being able to facilitate media to work in that particular way here. But the other thing also is that we’re talking about a society that’s in the process of radical change, it’s radical change that happening at all sorts of levels. How do you keep up with making sense of all of that. In a way before you even now what you want to say you’ve got to create the language to say it in because the media’ changing so fast and because we’re doing it in such new ways. It’s a massive paradigm shift and I don’t think it’s surprising that people find it difficult to make sense of how they do that.

Jude: The challenge going forward if one wants to talk about journalism is about the sustainability of present journalism practices. In South Africa the figures for the ABC for the last quarter October to December shows we lost circulation of 90 thousand newspapers. Now consequently, particularly large commercial begin engaging in activities to try to build audiences but maximise mass audiences. That’s always what it’s supposed to do. We have seen initiatives like the Daily Dispatch and even Times Live and others, or we saw a ratcheting up of experimental approaches to new media in particular and the connection between new media and communities ratcheted back as a result of these and other pressures. And the dominant mindset when this starts to happen is cut back on costs and try to build mass audiences. The mass audience mindset to go back to that which you and Rod happened to mention, is different from the network media mindset. And in truth one has to hold a range of mindsets in place because the media in the present environment works in a range of different ways. Present media can for example be interpersonal, can be networked and it can be mass. And what we’re actually not teaching our students and we’re not doing this at all I think in respect to these so-called practices that we’re talking about is to engage our students about what we do about engendering a networked mindset that says that the mass isn’t all there is because the mass was supposed to generate the economies of scale for large media organisation but that a big part of the role is what you do when the mass is broken down into fragments and those fragments mobilise around their own needs.

Anthea: But I think what we’re saying, based on our location, our particular location based in Grahamstown and the Eastern Cape is that we can’t see the one just flowing the information leading necessarily to the other one. Which is what we want, deep in democracy, citizenship participation great activity in repairing the things that have gone wrong. We don’t necessarily see those things just flowing into each other. So I suppose what you’re leaving us with is that challenge that as educators we’ve got to think more carefully about what is, and how can we use that networked mindset. So it’s not just the informational mindest, the mass media mindset, but what is the networked mindset. What is it to reconceive the landscape of media. What is it to think of people as citizens. What is it to broaden the political so that all sorts of spheres of activity and participation can be found. What is it to be the proactive journalist who takes on all that regardless of where you’re located.
Rod: I think one of the questions that arises for me in my head when you say that is that there’s an awful lot of proactivity needed on our side. It’s a bit like the linearlist theory of organisation, you’re using media and facts as a kind of vanguard tool to whip up the masses and play that mobilising role and being proactive. But you know, one has to be careful of taking on the mantle of reconstructing social capital in a city and taking over politics. And I don’t think that the media can do that on its own and maybe it’s problematic that it would even imagine that that’s what it should be doing. I think it’s also about finding, it’s about that term civic mapping, actually finding out how things work. Where is the social capital. Who is out there, what are they doing. There are churches, there are environmental activists out there, there are people who care about education out there, there are people who care about all sorts of things.

Jeanne: So would we meet people where they are?

Rod: How do you meet people where they are? How do you build partnerships with social movements and civil society and with – and make real connections with people about things that matter to them. That’s seems like a fairly fundamental and obvious thing to say but it’s actually not what journalists ordinarily go about doing.

Anthea: I think I’m going to draw this to a close. It’s part of an ongoing series of conversations. Thank-you very much for giving us your thoughts and time. Jude Mathurine from the New Media Laboratory, Jeanne du Toit from the radio section of the School of Journalism and Media Studies, Rod Amner, who teaches writing editing. And I’m Anthea Garman, also in the writing and editing section of the School of Journalism and Media Studies.

Community Media, Social Media or Traditional Media – which holds the greatest avenue for citizen participation in South Africa’s democratic and political processes

This week the Mellon Media and Citizenship project invited lecturers from the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University to participate in a recorded discussion on the potential for different media to play a role in democratic processes within the local and national context. Prof Anthea Garman (Writing & Editing lecturer) chaired the discussion which included: Jeanne Du Toit (Radio lecturer), Jude Mathurine (New media lecturer) and Rod Amner (Writing & Editing lecturer). Below is a short excerpt of the discussion (you can listen to it or read the transcription).



“Anthea:           The blog for “Media and Citizenship: Between Marginalisation and Participation” gives us the opportunity to think about the relationship between media and democracy, and citizens and participation, and agency and accountability; all those sorts of things. And I suppose when we just operate as journalists or often as media scholars we think that that’s a simple relationship that those things relate to each other and that if you have good and wonderful media that is informational and promotional of democracy that you will automatically get a citizenry that can articulate not only what they want out of their democracy but they can also act in ways that can enhance that democracy. And I think that maybe some of the disillusion or the pessimism that we experience in South Africa seventeen years into our democracy is that we don’t quite see things working out the way we had planned. You know, free up the media; you know, make us all able to say and do what we want to do and that would allow us somehow to have a flourishing, vibrant, robust democracy. And now we see that we have this weird patchwork of stuff; and it’s not just a patchwork in the world around us, it’s also a patchwork in our media. We often look around us and see things not working in the way they were planned: community media’s not quite working in the way it was planned; traditional media has taken all sorts of directions that we didn’t see coming and we’ve had a rise of social media in a way that is different from the patterns that it has taken in different parts of the world. So I’m going to open up and ask you: what are your immediate thoughts about this situation? Rod do you want to perhaps start?

Rod:                Ja well I suppose though one of the key points is the question of activity, you know, of participation, of there being a genuine interaction and engagement. And we were looking at traditional media, social media, community media and which of these avenues provides the best possible route to activating the sort of democracy that we want. And I’m not so sure that it’s so much a question of ‘either/or’ or even making a choice, or even for me it’s more about mind-sets. It’s about the practice of journalism, it’s about what goes on in the heads of journalists wherever they’re located whether they’re primarily in community media, in traditional media or in social media I think that this kind of media can be done in any number of media institutions and it’s really about the kind of commitment to a particular brand of democracy as well. It’s about shifting away from a representative model, imagining a more deliberative and participatory democracy. And in fact that requires pro-activity; and pro-activity requires a set of idea, and practices and ways of doing things and understandings that perhaps we haven’t had the chance to cultivate properly yet in our journalists/other media workers wherever they might be located.

Anthea:           So primarily you are saying, 1) journalists need to have a different mind-set and 2) it doesn’t matter where they are located. So that’s the kind of idea, that let the traditional print media go increasingly commercialised in the market; give community media this giant job of getting the bulk of the population involved and engaged with the media; and then let the kids have the social media, is just the wrong approach. It’s not the right way to parcel up the media.

Rod:                Ja. And I think a newspaper like The Daily Disptach for example, sure, it’s traditional media, but it’s not necessarily elite media. It has credibility amongst a wide sector of the population of the Eastern Cape, it is some kind of a beacon. It still has those traditional watch-dog type roles but it’s gone beyond that. It’s actually managed to cultivate in same places at some points in its history more deliberative spaces, it has perhaps not been terribly sophisticated about it [using] social media. But the idea that it’s an elite medium – I mean for me, it’s a community newspaper.

Anthea:           Ok, Jeanne. What are your thoughts on this.

Jeanne:            Um, well what strikes me is that I think those distinctions that we are talking about between traditional print and community media and social media I mean they are really constructions in themselves aren’t they. I mean what do we mean when we say traditional media really depends on the context in which we are working it’s different in different spaces and it’s meant different things at different times. And it also has to do with the kind of resources that are available for those traditions and models to draw on and what’s happening at that moment in the political space that surrounds it. How you were describing it earlier with the kids playing with social media and the social responsibility being taken over by community media and traditional media being commercialised. I mean, what strikes me is that maybe one should then talk about a transformation of the whole landscape, that one does not stick with older ways of thinking of those spaces. I really think that one of the biggest tragedies in this country is what happened in the 1980s when there was such a fantastically interesting space for alternative media in traditional print as well as in alternative print and a lot of that has just been lost because the resources were just not ploughed into it in the long term in South Africa. So if one is going to invest in a particular way of doing media in terms of actual money and infrastructure then you’re going to start being able to talk about opportunity for that means. I mean if you look in the Grahamstown today and there’s two community radio stations here neither of which are really claiming that space for development media in the full and it has to do with how they’re prioritised in this town, both by us as the school of journalism and more broadly by the local community as spaces to claim for development and democratisation.

Anthea:           Jude, do you want to join us?

Jude:                At the end of the day, whether or not you’re using it for journalism, or the citizens themselves are using it as a platform for expression and mobilisation, these media, regardless of whether you say it’s this one or that one or that one, it’s about the use to which they’re effectively put by the traditional media and increasingly by the citizens themselves. Obviously one of the factors that factor into this equation if you’re looking at aspects around mainstreaming and marginalisation, is issues to which the ordinary citizen has access to media. Mobile is now being touted as the new saviour much in the same way as community was well over two decades ago and I think we’re going to end up still having the same levels of some wonderful examples that we’ll see in the mobile and new media space. But we’re certainly entering a new epoch where all these media and how are part of an incredibly interesting information ecosystem. If one looks at for example the utilisation of media by citizens themselves for purposes of political mobilisation during the so-called Arab-spring and Arab uprising, there’s been a lot written about the significance and importance of mobile media and social media. But perhaps less importance is actually given to the significance also of traditional and community media in those uprising. If one particularly takes a look at things like levels of access at the time, levels of online access, you’d particularly notice that there were some voices that were included as part of that group and some that excluded. And I think that’s an important part of the question to look at. The other is, to what degree the traditional media harnessed for example, and community harnessed social media tools and technology to take those messages and re-disseminate them so that network messages between groups became mass messages and that in itself was on the profound drivers of change on the ground. Alone, social media would probably have done very little on the Egyptian state, but you can see that an agglomeration of new media including social media, traditional and citizen media can have profound effects. But it is the use to which they are put.

Anthea:           Ja. I think I’m going to draw this to a close. It’s part of an on-going series of conversations. Thank-you very much for giving us your thoughts and time. Jude Mathurine from the New Media Laboratory; Jeanne DuToit from the Radio Section of the School of Journalism and Media Studies; Rod Amner who teaches writing and editing and I’m Anthea Garman, also in the writing and editing section of the school of Journalism and Media Studies.”

Media And Citizenship – Between marginalisation and participation

All research starts in personal biography and experience, in fact it’s one of the benefits of the academic world that this environment gives one the permission to turn the most perplexing questions of one’s life into legitimate research.  And one of the issues that perplexes me most about my own life – at this point in our post-apartheid, post-colonial democracy – is the condition of my citizenship, the status of my belonging and what I’m bonded to or not bonded to. I remind myself often of the words in the preamble to the Constitution: “We, the people of South Africa … believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it” [my italics]. These are extraordinary, encompassing, generous words, and I often think “What were the drafters of the Constitution thinking? Were they drunk on post-apartheid freedom in that moment?” But maybe the move from the word “believe” in the preamble to the following paragraphs that deal with “citizens” (and therefore rely on the legal provisions of who and what a citizen can be) underlines the shift from an expansive idealism (as the apartheid shackles were thrown off) to a tying down and making functional for a bureaucratic reality (and increasingly so as we leave behind that giddy moment). We are, after all, talking about the difference between a sense of “belonging” and a right to assert myself as a voter and a client of the state.

If you want to study these conditions in order to understand them better, belonging seems to sit in the fields of psychology and anthropology and citizenship perhaps more with politics and sociology. But if you’re located in media and journalism studies (and especially if you’re located in education and are working with young South Africans) you know that these two conditions have an important, if strange, relationship because they crop up in and through our public conversations captured by journalists and other media workers. I’m very interested in how we talk about who we are, how dismissive we are of those who’ve “abandoned” us in this experiment of nation-building, how we allow racialised public talk (and sometimes extremely vicious forms of public dissing) to destabilise our journey towards creating new forms of belonging and bondedness, how we construe our very different relationships to our state (and its encumbent government with its liberation legacy), and how we do and don’t do this through the media we make in this country.

So if these issues preoccupy you too (whatever their shape or form) this is the space and an invitation to join our conversations.

By: Anthea Garman

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