Posts Tagged ‘news’

The roads we travel

coverage

When I was invited to attend a debate, I thought it would be a quick trip to Johannesburg. It has turned out to be a long journey. Although the traveling itself  took only 24 hours, I have learnt a lot about myself and about the people that share the roads we travel on in South Africa, and so the trip was about more than traveling over 1000kms across South Africa, it was about listening, sharing, debating and discussing.

It started last week with an invitation to The Mail & Guardian’s Critical Thinking Forum which was to debate ‘The Role of South Africa’s Youth in the National Development Plan’. By Monday this week it was confirmed that I would attend and by Wednesday morning the journey began in earnest – starting with a shuttle from Grahamstown to Port Elizabeth. On the drive I was fortunate to have a very friendly, intelligent South African driver, and we chatted about many things. The conversation started with talk about Nelson’s Mandela’s continued stay in hospital, and then swiftly moved onto his impressions of the bumpy road that South Africa currently finds itself on. He lamented about the fact that things had not changed significantly since the end of Apartheid, and commented that many people he had spoken to said that things had in fact gotten worse. While there are many aspects of the lives of ordinary people that have improved significantly, the media sometimes point to particular sectors which have deteriorated since the transition to democracy. The Economist, for example, recently published a story where it reported that Mamphela Ramphele had argued that education is currently worse than during Apartheid (http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21580151-ruling-party-triumphed-under-nelson-mandela-desperate-need).  Business Day quoted Desmond Tutu as saying that violence is worse now than during apartheid (http://www.bdlive.co.za/national/2013/04/12/sa-more-violent-now-than-under-apartheid-says-tutu). While these are subjective positions, they clearly point to some of the potholes that we are currently experiencing as South African citizens on the road to a grown-up democracy.

The flight to Johannesburg was uneventful and I quickly made my way to Rosebank where the event was being held. The debate itself included some of the 200 Young South Africans, recently profiled in the Mail & Guardian (http://mg.co.za/report/200-young-south-africans), and was targeted very much at a young, professional, elite audience who were there to debate and discuss how to get more young people (those who are not the targets of the event) to engage with the National Development Plan (NDP – http://www.info.gov.za/issues/national-development-plan/).

The first panel comprised of Matsi Modise (National executive director of the South African Black Entrepreneurs Forum), Lise Kuhle (Founder of Eco Smart), Godfrey Phetla (Director for policy and research at the Department of Trade and Industry), Angel Kgokolo (President of the JCI South Africa), and Langalethu Manquele (from BMF). This panel was tasked with discussing the NPA itself, and while this was interesting, it centered largely around enterprise development and whether this was the best option for addressing unemployment amongst the youth as proposed by the NDP. The questions that constantly came to mind for me were: Do young people know about the NDP? How do they find out about opportunities for internships, starting their own businesses, and mentorships? How much of the knowledge being shared in the room by these panelists is in the public sphere and being debated in the media in a way that is accessible and relevant to young people? Is the NDP the right vehicle for change, and are young people drivers,  passengers, or bystanders desperately trying to catch a lift?

The second panel comprised of Mike Sharman (owner of Retroviral Digital Communications), Khanyisile Magubane (SAfm broadcaster), Catherine Peter (Africa Director of One Young World), and Patrick Mashanda (Regional coordinator of Ikamva Youth). This panel looked specifically at the role of the media in addressing social cohesion – the focus of much of the work I do. The panel members said many interesting, inspirational, but somewhat idealistic things in their very short openings. The really interesting comments, however, started once the debate opened to the floor and as participants we were able to contribute. Many people complained about the largely negative reporting in the media, and the phrase “if it bleeds, it leads” was quoted numerous times, guests questioned the popularity of tabloid newspapers, and the media was generally charged with poor driving and failing to obey the rules of the normative road a democracy follows – i.e. being the watchdog, holding the government to account, and giving citizens a voice to debate in the public sphere.

And this is the crux of where the mainstream news media is failing. I qualify the media here, because I think a problem with the debate was that ‘the media’ was treated as a homogenous entity that needed to be put into place, but is in fact a multi-faceted institution in South African society that varies so greatly that we need to be quite careful in how we use the term. In my view, the biggest role (and there are many) that the mainstream news media can play in engaging with young people on the NDP (or any issue for that matter) is to allow young people VOICE in their coverage of issues that affect young people. These are the very issues that we have been doing research on in the Mellon Media and Citizenship Project, and we have learnt a lot about young people over the last year and a half. The issues which are the most important to young people currently are the economy, service delivery, health, education, and crime. The young people that we spoke to in our study said that they were most concerned about crime (93.4%), the economy (90.7%), and health (89.3%). The problem is that these are not the issues that are being covered for young people in the mainstream news media they consume.

                                                     

More worryingly, is that even in coverage on issues which do affect young people, the stories do not speak to young people, and they certainly do not give voice to young people. In research I conducted which examined coverage by a range of newspapers around the country (Daily Dispatch, Grocott’s Mail, and Mail & Guardian), coverage on education included young people as sources or quoted young people in only 9.7% of the stories. More often stories quoted or gave voice to adults in management positions at schools or universities, government officials, or members of the public. This, in part, is why tabloid newspapers should not be laughed at or regarded disparagingly, and it is why they are so popular – they give voice to ordinary South Africans who are telling their stories (regardless of how bizarre they are).

If the media want to include young people on the road to building a strong democracy, they need to invite them on the journey rather than ignore them as bystanders. If the young, upwardly mobile South Africans who attended the debate are any indication of where the born frees can get to and how they can do it, then the young people of today are a force as strong as those who drove the revolution in 1976.

And so, having shared the work that we’ve done, and having listened to young people with something to say, I made my way back to the Eastern Cape. Another uneventful flight, and another interesting conversation with the shuttle driver. We came to the conclusion that there is a long road ahead for South African’s, but that the scenery is worth the effort. As we made our way through the rolling hills of the Eastern Cape, I wondered how many young South Africans would be making their own journeys of discovery and where the road would lead them.

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).

http://soundcloud.com/mellon-media-citizenship/media-citizenship-recording-1

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.

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