Posts Tagged ‘journalism’

Journalism in a New Democracy: the ethics of listening

Prof Wasserman, Deputy Head of School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes, presented his Inaugural Lecture last week entitled: “Journalism in a New Democracy: the ethics of listening”.
The roles and responsibilities of journalists and the media in post-apartheid South Africa came under the spotlight. Wasserman shared his view that a willingness to listen and to become self-reflective, presents an effective way forward for journalists who aspire to deepen the freedoms of democracy.

“There is the saying that journalism is ‘history in a hurry’. Journalism is often in a hurry to speak but slower to listen. The role of journalism and media studies scholarship should therefore be to encourage a certain slowness and self-reflection.”

“For journalism in a new democracy such as South Africa to serve more than an elite, for it to enable citizens to actively practice their citizenship through media, for it to treat all South Africans with dignity, it would have to learn to listen across the different lines that continue to keep South Africans apart – journalists would have to learn to listen to the stories of those on the other side of the railway line, the breadline, the picket line, the barbed wire fence.”

Wasserman explained that news was a contested discursive space, and his experiences led him to question what could be expected of journalists in a post-apartheid era, and, in turn, what could be expected of journalism and media studies scholarship?

“For someone like me who has grown up in 1980s Afrikaans suburbia, this link between journalism and democracy has never been quite as self-evident. The journalism I grew up with was technically sophisticated and professional in style and approach, but it nevertheless failed to provide me with information about what was really happening in the country at the time. It was just like the line from that well-known song by George and Ira Gershwin: “The more I read the papers/The less I comprehend”.

The transition to democracy in South Africa has not been without its critics, with the argument that an “elite transition” took place.

“This alignment of journalists with authority is nevertheless often defended through an appeal to the professional journalistic tenets of ‘objectivity’, ‘detachment’ and ‘balance’. Because when journalism sides with power, be it military, political or economic, that position is often hidden or presented as neutral. That is because the alignment of journalism with power mostly takes place unintentionally as a result of established journalistic routines and practices, rather than through conscious choice. Journalists may write news, but are themselves also ‘written by’ the discourses and practices of journalism.”

He outlined the concept of racial transformation in terms of media ownership and editorial management, while the media remains governed by a market which divides audiences according to income and social position.

“The commercial media are still governed by the market logic that results in the stratification of audiences according to income and social position. The public and community media sector are meant to provide a counterbalance to the commercial media, but remain under-developed and beset by various challenges.”

South African political scientist, Prof Steven Friedman echoes this with his observation that mainstream media continue to provide a very narrow view of the reality within South Africa today, essentially, a “view from the suburbs.”

“Friedman observes that most of the mainstream media continue to provide a very narrow view of South African reality. Friedman’s comments were made in the context of the current heated debates about press freedom following on the proposed Media Appeals Tribunal and Protection of State Information Bill. He questions the claims by the media that they act in the ‘public interest’, when that public is fragmented and unequal, and their interests are as a result widely divergent.”

Speaking from a background of normative theory, he used the recent shootings at the Lonmin mine in Marikana to illustrate the complicated issues surrounding the alignment of journalism with power.
This pairing, he explained is a difficult one to challenge, with the questions of where journalists should stand and where and when they should make a stand being contested ground.
“The footage that the world first saw of the shooting of the miners was filmed literally from behind the backs of firing policemen. This alignment of journalists with positions of authority when covering conflict is not unusual, but it has implications.”

The ethics of caring, frowned upon within the journalistic paradigm of professionalism and detachment, can lead to a substantive increase in the dignity of the marginalised and enable real engagement across the segmentations of race and market.

“For the new democracy to strengthen, citizens must be able to practice their citizenship, by having a say in how they are governed on a day-to-day basis, and by participating in democratic processes in such a way that their participation has real consequences”

Such an ethical system would, says Prof Wasserman, “require a pro-active intervention by journalists into society, to try and change it to what it might become, rather than just mirroring it as it already is.”

“To treat people with dignity primarily means taking their stories seriously. To view people as dignified human beings, regardless of their social standing, means thinking about them not only as statistics with which to keep government accountable, or as voters that may sway the horse-race of party-politics. People should therefore not be viewed as means to the end of adversarial, watchdog-type journalism, but as end in themselves. Listen to them as they talk about their everyday life, about their struggles but also their victories, their pain but also their pleasures. To view human life as sacred means to look for the ways that we are connected, interrelated and interdependent. This approach is in line with the principle of Ubuntu – ‘I am because you are’.”

Based on an article Jeannie Mckeown

The South African Menell Media Fellows

By Anthea Garman

The South African Menell Media Fellows (a group of about 20 journalists who’ve participated in the programme run at Duke University and funded by the Menell family) held a one-day conference on Sunday in Cape Town to ask the tough question about how journalism in South Africa can face the future with hope and purpose while new legislation threatens freedom of expression and social media is eroding established ways of making (and paying for) news. Anthea Garman (who was one of the first fellows to visit the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke with the SABC’s Angie Kapelianis in 2000) reflects on the day.

There are almost no journalists’ organisations left in this country, a situation which I think is really dire. It means that journalists don’t have forums of solidarity in which to transcend their competitive environments and speak about the issues that concern them all – issues like the Protection of Information Bill, the media appeals tribunal, the Press Freedom Commission, the judicial review of Constitutional Court decisions being called for by Jacob Zuma and the eroding ground on which most mainstream media has operated for years economically. So the day hosted by the Menell Fellows was a really important gathering and the key speakers didn’t disappoint.

James Joseph, a professor of the practice of public policy, director of the Southern African Centre for Leadership and Public Values and a former ambassador to South Africa in the Bill Clinton regime, started off the day with a heartfelt appeal to think urgently about credible and ethical journalism. He was of the opinion that unless journalism stopped “serving elites and attacking elites”, demands for government regulation of journalism could not be avoided. As a fan of civic journalism, Joseph leans heavily on the need for journalists to “produce news citizens need”. Saying that ethics in journalism is “obedience to the unenforceable”, he outlined some points:
• Democracy is a system defined by the people holding the power, but in many countries this has been whittled back to a situation in which the people only have the vote. Journalists have to contribute to the people having a role beyond just voting.
• Characterising political journalism as “reporting yelling diatribes”, he said journalism needed to provide clarity rather than adding to confusion and questioned whether a degree of “civility” wasn’t sorely needed in most public debates.
• He urged journalists to “get at consensus” on important issues and not just to do “bipolar coverage”.
• Journalists should help publics to see elections as “hiring decisions” rather than win-or-lose conflicts.

Prof James Joseph


Joseph asked the journalists if they wanted to do more than report, if they wanted to provide leadership. “Most of the great issues of the day are moral issues,” he said. Leadership required emotional intelligence – self awareness, empathy and social skills; moral intelligence – leaders are custodians of values and not just resources, he said; social intelligence – pluralism is an asset and diversity must be embraced; and spiritual intelligence – journalists should see journalism as something bigger than a job or assignment and respect the humanity of those who lives are examined and whose actions are exposed. Referring to what some commentators have called the “free-floating anxiety” of modern life, Joseph also suggested that journalists should provide hope, which he said “looks at the evidence and sees alternate possibilities”.

In response eNews Africa Editor Chris Maroleng told Joseph how complicated journalism is in South Africa because “those who have seized power regard themselves as having the authority to define journalists as illegitimate because they haven’t been voted into power”. Nic Dawes, editor of the Mail&Guardian, who continues to keep a very watchful eye on the progress of proposed legislation like the Protection of Information Bill (POIB), concurred with Maroleng and said he had been attacked by politicians often with the question “Who voted for the Mail&Guardian?” In his years of political reporting, Dawes said, he has seen Parliament “closing down” and more and more committees operating in secrecy. Dawes, after detailing his understanding of the POIB, said he had two concerns: that good governance relies on openness and transference of information and a law like this would close that down, but also that it would “overlay a layer of fear” across society.

Dawes believes that the core idea of Constitutional democracy is to “harmonise” conscience, civic duty and law, but the ANC’s attitude to the judicial system and to the amendments of many laws are showing that the Constitution is now being seen as an “obstacle”. What had to be made clear and held on to, he said, was the vision of democracy as consisting of a society of “overlapping institutions of accountability for citizen and sovereign to exchange ideas”, and this, he said, “fundamentally licences and legitimises journalism and civic work”. We should not have to trust government, he said, we should be able to “trust a complex architecture of institutions”, for our democracy to flourish. He also made a very strong appeal for those punting freedom of the press and freedom of expression to not divorce “classical rights from social-economic rights”. The Constitution strongly connects “the moral autonomy of humans with right of access to water and housing – these are inseparable”, he said, and to focus only on the former is a “false distinction”. His position is that the campaign against the draconian provisions of the POIB is a “campaign for social justice”.

eNews journalist Nikiwe Bikitsha


The rest of the day consisted of panels involving the Menell Fellows present, other journalists and an appearance by Allister Sparks, who’s working on his sixth book. In a panel focusing on mentoring new journalists eNews’ Nikiwe Bikitsha said the one piece of advice she would freely disseminate would be “learn all you can all the time”. She called for newsrooms to “boost research capacity” and extolled the virtues of “reading original documents” and not just relying on experts to interpret them. She also argued that media houses should abandon the attitude of hiring or promoting “one black at a time, one woman at a time” and “invest far more aggressively” in the future. Marion Edmunds who’s worked in multiple newsrooms, said that to work in South Africa journalists have to be comfortable with the idea that “truth is owned by more than one person and that it is not always the place of journalism to determine the dominant idea of the truth”. Gasant Abarder, Argus editor has started brown bag sessions in his paper to get conversations flowing about how they do their journalism. He’s finding that “talking more” helps to build institutional history. Sparks bemoaned the loss to journalism of 50-year-old reporters. The golden age of his career, he said, was when he stopped being an editor and became a reporter again.

Participants of the Menell Media Fellows colloquium


I found myself on the last panel of the day and was asked to address the challenges journalism faces and the changes it must make, so I summed up the day for myself like this:
• We need quality journalism – new, fresh, challenging. Tell me something I don’t already know, give me a corruption story that is not just like the one I read yesterday.
• We need ethical journalism – not the big stick-type of moralising, but a thoughtful journalism that thinks about purpose and point.
• We need public-minded journalism – how to use what we do to build the people James Joseph talked of, who can hold the democratic power and use it.
• We need civic-minded journalism – to see ourselves as part of society with a social role (as Nic Dawes said, knit that campaign of freedom of expression into one of social justice).
• We need solidarity of journalists – private media and public media, social media and community media – we need to talk about what affects us all and see ourselves as a whole entity.
• We need to be brave – speak up, speak out, do the right thing, regardless of the hostile environment that seeks to undermine journalism – and journalists – by the silencing tactic of calling it illegitimate.

And a final note: who is the “we” I’m thinking of here, particularly as unlike all the Menell fellows who are journalists every day, I’m an educator in an academic environment? Well this would be all of us who have a stake in South African journalism and its future.

Township Tours and the human spectacle

I wrote an article last year about a ‘township tour’ that I took part in. The piece was literally dripping with tears of emotion and sentimental guilt. I could not believe that in my fourth year at Rhodes University, after resisting so many of those guided tours into the black populace, I was roped into one.

The trip was a mandatory part of our course, we had to write about the experience, and I guess it was for the purpose of broadening our horizons. However, I believe that is the first major wrong about the situation. We had to go into people’s spaces as voyeurs, as writers, as plunderers, as seekers of material and as exploiters of chance.

Our aim and goal was never congenial, never for the purpose of reaching, touching, smelling, or seeing beyond the surface. We did not have the time to witness brick upon brick the building of a house, or a family of five, previously homeless, making the harsh environment a home. We were not the neighbour that greeted across the fence, or the passerby that looked in or the lost traveler stumbling through, or even the stray. We were lookers through the glass window. We were prying eyes in a combie, leaving a cloud of dust behind us. We were on safari, wide eyed, staring, gaping, gawking, pointing, marveling, pitying, reassured, and glad that this reality was not ours.

We held starving babies and made weird ‘aawh’ noises that sounded strange the minute they escaped the lips. We took pictures of wry smiles and understandings that we were uselessness personified. We stayed as long as we had to knowing that plenty awaited us on the other side. We hated ourselves for crossing the divide. We hated ourselves for being ourselves and loved ourselves for being ourselves and not them. The ‘other’ from across town, the ‘others’ from the hilltop where the sun squats half the day looked through us.

We noticed the lack of trees, and quiet, and plenty, and the abundance of scarcity. Soon it was time to go and it was not soon enough. We waved; it was awkward. They waved, a little embarrassed and amused that we had come all the way.

In retrospect I guess the trip was a success. Some people probably never went back to the township; the tour was their first time. To them black locations are an experience, one they won’t have again, and one that makes for good story at a dinner party.

Is it useful? It’s sometimes necessary to force people to go, to make them leave the comfort of campus and see how wider Grahamstown lives. I have no qualms with the principle of the tour. My problem is that if we look at it, it’s a space that needs to be scrutinised and evaluated. We need to assess the way that it is done and see if there aren’t better ways, more useful ways we can introduce different cultures, classes and races to each other.

The current model threatens being a zoo-like experience; the better-off going to view the human animal. Hopefully with the help anthropological studies conducted Dr Joy Owen (Lecturer in Anthropology at Rhodes University), theory will formalize these ramblings of a destabalised mind.

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