Posts Tagged ‘listening’

The citizen-first bloggers

Rod 1

 

Rod 1

As standard journalism business models corrode in the potent chemical soup of online technologies, fragmenting audiences and vanishing advertisers, the industry urgently needs models that re-engineer the relationships between journalists and their publics. Legacy news outlets have long adhered to sacrosanct conventions of independence, balance and fairness, but more nimble news start-ups could offer different mindsets and values. One critical shift is the welcome commitment by some news entrepreneurs to much higher levels of engagement with media audiences.

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The Art of Listening

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)

Listening across difference

How do we listen and how do we hear voices that sound different to our own? This question, raised by Tanja Dreher*in an article, Listening across difference: Media and multiculturalism beyond the politics of voice, elevates the skill of listening off the platitude level of the greeting card to the arena of radical politics.

Dreher questions the one-sided emphasis on “voice” in advocacy campaigns to bring marginalised groups into the realm of democratic discussion. Having a voice, she argues, may not be enough to challenge and counter “hierarchies of language” and “linguistic conventions”. These hierarchies and conventions tend to drown the voices of different politics, identities and desires. She proposes that a “particular kind of listening” is needed to “undo these entrenched hierarchies of voice.” This “kind of listening” requires an analysis of the way in which those who are privileged to be part of the mainstream conversation – the “discursively privileged” – hear and respond to “others”.

In the article Dreher challenges the media to face the hard and complex work of real transformation beyond the provision of spaces for diverse voices. The media, as part of the “discursively privileged”, has power beyond the recognition, representation and validation of different voices. Dreher offers the example of the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) in Australia that is required by a Charter to “provide airtime for diverse languages and cultures as well as education, entertaining and informing all Australians”. Dreher talks about NGO responses to counter racism against Arab and Muslim Australians in the “war on terror” aftermath of 9/11 through workshops with the media and marginalised communities that emphasize strategies for “speaking up and talking back”. While these achievements are important, Dreher warns that, for example, for Muslim women, being heard on “their own terms” remains a challenge.

“My insistence on attention to listening is not meant to imply that speaking is unimportant, or that the politics of voice ineffective or undesirable. The intention is rather to address the relative lack of attention to listening to better understand the possibilities for speaking and listening.”

Robert Mattes provides evidence from the Afrobarometer surveys that, in South Africa, despite a “reformed public broadcaster”, increased access to local and international news and more independently-owned media, there is little “positive impact” in terms of media use on the extent to which citizens believe they can make elected officials listen and have their voices heard between elections. Steven Friedman’s analysis of the South African media – that it “informs only some citizens of only some realities” – also highlights the need for a reconsideration of not only the way in which different voices are represented and recognised but also the way in which the media recognise and listen across difference. The effect of Friedman’s argument is, in Dreher’s words, that “mainstream audiences are again protected from the challenges of listening across difference”.

The complex and radical challenge is the difference between strategies of inclusion and strategies of transformation. Says Dreher:
“A transformative politics of multicultural media, in contrast (to strategies of inclusion), would seek to shift the unequal relationships of attention and influence between mainstream and alternative public spheres and the news values and media conventions which shape who and what is heard.”

More attention to listening and practices of listening offers possibilities for “innovative research and advocacy work”, says Dreher. Scholarly work in this field could point to who gets attention, whose voices are valued, who has discursive privilege, who refuses to listen. It could also shift the onus for change from “the other” or “ethnic communities” on to “the institutions and conventions which enable and constrain receptivity and response.”

Mamphela Ramphele highlights the relevance of listening in the South African context**:
“Helping young people develop communication skills to enable them to assert their rights as citizens is key to consolidating our democracy. An essential part of such skills is listening.”

*Tanja Dreher teaches Journalism at the University of Wollongong in Australia
**Challenges of Citizenship is Chapter 8 in Laying ghosts to rest – dilemmas of the transformation in South Africa by Mamphela Ramphele published in 2008 by Tafelberg

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