Most editors and journalists believe that the media should provide a space for debate about important issues in society, and that space should accommodate diverse views and voices. Public debate is seen as essential to democracy; a way in which the citizens of a nation can engage with issues of common interest, and hold the state accountable to the people through its awareness of public opinion. However, fulfilling this ideal is, in practice, complicated by a variety of factors.
The first and most obvious difficulty is selection: The media are not able to represent all views and all voices in society in the limited space and time they have at their disposal. A process must take place to extract a selection of issues and voices from the enormous range of possibilities. How does the selection process operate and what criteria are applied by decision-makers in newsrooms? Who and what is excluded? And what are the potential implications for the public debate that is produced?
Another challenge lies in the dynamics of media debates. How do the media ensure that debate is more than a smorgasbord of opinions and ideas, or just talk? Can they ensure that public deliberation takes place, proper arguments are made and different positions critically engaged and debated? Does debate in the media contribute to the operations of democracy?
Research by Wits University’s Public Intellectual Life project and the Journalism and Media Studies programme examined these questions by, on the one hand, investigating the values and practices of journalists, and, on the other, mapping the kinds of issues and voices that appear in the media. The research focused on a relatively under-researched area of media studies: sites of debate and commentary, rather than news proper. One focus of the research was the banning of certain commentators from SABC radio’s “AM Live” in 2006, which was widely condemned in the print media and led to an upheaval at the public broadcaster. The blacklisting saga surfaced a range of issues around the values and practices operating in the production of public debate. We also investigated how the radio programme “AM Live” (in particular the “After Eight Debate”) was produced, specifically looking at the operations, practices and values of the journalists and SABC executives making decisions about the show.
What emerged from the interviews with decision-makers was how highly contested certain ideas fundamental to the professional practice of journalism were. Ideas and definitions of the public, of accountability, and of representivity varied widely. The professional journalists tended to think of the public as actively engaged with and concerned about issues of the common good and issues relating to citizenship and democracy, in an ongoing manner.
The journalists thought of themselves as representing this public by virtue of their journalistic practices – interrogating the powerful, allowing a space for diverse voices and so on. Media production (in this case the production of “AM Live”) addressed itself to an imagined pre-existing public.
On the other hand, many executives of the SABC thought of the public in another way: Primarily as the majority of South Africans who voted the government into power, who are disadvantaged and who have certain developmental needs. SABC executives argued that the broadcaster accounts to the people by accounting to Parliament. In arguing that Parliament determines what is in the public interest, they asserted the principle of aligning the broadcaster with national policy and legislation. In this view the public only actively engages with significant issues episodically, through the ballot box, thereby setting the national agenda that provides the framework for discussions which take place between elections. They exert their democratic citizenship mostly at election time.
The contestation around these concepts indicates that a number of norms that other democracies take for granted are open for discussion in South Africa. Concepts like “public”, with long lineages in Western political thought, are vigorously critiqued, mostly from perspectives borne out of an alternative intellectual tradition rooted in national democratic struggle, with Marxist and Africanist inflections. Although these critiques are sometimes marshalled to promote personal and political agendas, they invite us to rethink taken-for-granted ideas about how we decide what constitutes the public interest, and also who decides what is in the public interest. The blacklisting controversy was therefore more than simply a struggle for political control over an important ideological resource.
The contest about the values and practices of publicness was, in effect, an ideological contest about the operations of democracy, with implications for the practice of citizenship.
Democratic citizenship, and how it can operate, thus emerged as an important issue. The idea of “the public”, rooted in Enlightenment thinking, assumes a body of citizens debating issues that are important to society, hopefully offering some solutions to problems or opinion about them, which should be taken seriously by the state.
However, a public is not a pre-existing entity, like the population of a country. It comes into being through its operations in relation to different kinds of production – in this case, the production of “AM Live” and the “After Eight Debate”.
So, in fact, the kind of public deliberation that took place, or perhaps the kind of debating public that we heard on “AM Live” in 2006 was brought together by the particular operations and practices of the producers of the programme. That public could only exist and debate in the way it did because the operations of the programme had the effect of “orchestrating” that kind of debate.
This has implications for how we understand the media’s role in public engagement.
The research showed that “AM Live” operated in particular ways and with particular values. The show featured a high percentage of national and serious news that the journalists believed to be “in the public interest”, rather than sensational or entertainment-oriented.
The presentation style in the news section moved beyond the reporting of events to include substantial comment and analysis. The presenters actively challenged spokespeople and the team strove to ensure that alternative views were included in the line-up.
There was a culture of robust engagement. In fact, the 2003 decision to introduce the “After Eight Debate” section was prompted by the team’s perception of a need for more in-depth engagement that went beyond the SAfm limit of the five-minute news interview.
The debate component often looked specifically for guests who disagreed on an issue, or could argue passionately. Sometimes the presenters themselves played devil’s advocate. However, although the “After Eight Debate” actively staged argumentative and robust discussion, (former) presenter John Perlman remarked on the tendency for people on the show to seek solutions to problems, identifying a distinct strand of constructive dialogue within the debate.
The presenters coached callers into making cogent points, answering challenges and following distinct lines of reasoning, and pushed them beyond the expression of opinion. Likewise, the presenters did substantial work in contextualising issues, introducing experts and mediating their inputs in a way that made them accessible to the listeners.
The research showed, then, that to make sure that public deliberation contributes to democracy and deals with issues of complexity, a high degree of orchestration is needed. This places the onus on journalists, presenters and producers to be interventionist, skilled at conducting the discussion, careful in the choice of commentators, and highly knowledgeable. And this calls a debating, critical and continuously engaged public into being; a public that is acting in one mode of democratic citizenship.
However, the need for orchestration rests uneasily with journalistic ideas that imagine the media as creating a “space” for public debate, and simply controlling the entry to the space and allowing the different contestants an amount of time or space. This hands-off approach does not necessarily produce public discussion that rises to the level of debate. In fact, it can amount to individuals reiterating their positions without addressing the points that others raise – a “talking past” each other.
Analysis of the blacklisting controversy throws up these points in a way that allows us a different take on the ongoing media struggles between the ANC and the independent media.
Typically, in that contest, ANC analysts argue that the independent media are far from independent and that in their critical commentary they represent the interests of (largely white-owned) big business.
The media professionals dispute this, arguing that they adhere to professional standards, and operate in the public interest, and that the critique of media comes from a desire to limit its power to be critical of government.
The conflict at the SABC seemed to support this argument, in that the journalists at the SABC fiercely defended their professional values and practice against the SABC executives, in effect their paymasters. Many saw the blacklisting as a vindication of their view that current media critique emanating from the ANC is nothing more than a desire to control the media.
However, the research also demonstrates the extent to which journalists shape public debate. It shows that, not only do journalists actively select commentators to trigger discussion, they also assume a powerful role in defining publics and calling them into being, as well as in orchestrating their participation in public deliberation.
These are professional responsibilities and challenges with profound ethical and political implications; responsibilities that are recognised and defended. However, the power to create publics (rather than to inform a pre-existing public) and to shape the debate in particular ways, warrants more critical scrutiny and engagement within the profession.
Lesley Cowling is a senior lecturer in Journalism and Media Studies at Wits University, and an honorary research fellow in the Constitution of Public Intellectual Life Research Project. Professor Carolyn Hamilton is National Research Foundation (NRF) Chair of Archive and Public Culture at the University of Cape Town and former director of the Constitution of Public Intellectual Life Research Project.
- This article first appeared in The Media magazine (October 2008).