The US election has shown how advertising space and editorial coverage can successfully mobilise people in numbers not previously expected. Media are undoubtedly a powerful “tool” in shaping people’s perceptions. Likewise, the elections have shown that cleverly placed stereotypes impact on people’s decisions, and to correct these misperceptions is often impossible.
Media can build a person’s career but it can equally destroy it. Being the centre of media attention does not automatically indicate an individual’s or organisation’s degree of “power”; but if the media is strategically utilised, coverage can certainly be a powerful means to exercise influence and to drive opinions.
In South Africa, media have come a long way since 1994. Of course there are still issues around quality, accuracy and ethics, but when the particularly robust discussions on politics in 2008 are considered, media certainly have contributed to a greater understanding of what democracy means. If it weren’t for this dialogue, certain newcomers and new agendas would not have emerged.
Who is in the driver’s seat?
The question is, however, who is playing whom? I am often under the impression that the media assume they are in control of the stories, and that they are the ones who determine which direction the story will take.
However, they do not realise that they are sometimes being played and become nothing more than executors of the agendas of certain people. When these agendas eventually surface, I am certain many journalists and editors ask themselves: Have we caused this?
It amazes me to read media complaining about the “utterances” of ANC Youth League president, Julius Malema, while it is the same media who are largely responsible for these remarks receiving the prominence and media space they probably never really deserved.
But let the numbers speak for themselves: In the period January until September 2008 (the pre-Mbeki recall/ousting period), politics largely dominated the media agenda. It is therefore not surprising that it was largely politicians that were occupying media’s space, with former president Thabo Mbeki (9,565 references) and ANC president Jacob Zuma (7,567) fi rmly ahead (see box, page 19). Other South African politicians that generated extensive coverage were Finance Minister Trevor Manuel, former president Nelson Mandela and President Kgalema Motlanthe.
There are a few “new kids” that have received unprecedented coverage: ANC secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe, Cosatu’s Zwelinzima Vavi and Malema.
A few have become (perhaps not surprisingly so) more quiet than in previous years: National Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi, former Western Cape premier Ebrahim Rasool, former ministers Charles Nqakula and Alec Erwin.
In fact, the lists of newcomers and those slipping behind, closely correlates with political events: Media seem to devote far more space to those who question the leaders than to the leaders themselves. Until of course they become the leaders.
Newsmakers of the year
There is one true newsmaker in South African media in 2008: Cape Town mayor and DA leader, Helen Zille. More than doubling her presence from the previous year (1,148 references compared with 495 in 2007), she not only is the most media-influential woman in politics (ahead of former Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang and Education Minister Naledi Pandor), but is the sixth most reported on politician overall. Generally, women politicians are far more often reported on than in previous years: Eight of the 20 most reported on politicians are women.
On the business front, executives had a trying time this year, not only because of a declining economy, but also owing to a number of large corporate scandals or controversies.
Not surprisingly, Eskom CEO, Jacob Maroga, received the largest coverage, followed by the SABC’s Dali Mpofu.
The third male CEO amongst the top five most covered executives has been former Tiger Brands CEO Nick Dennis. For the first time since Media Tenor’s analysis started in 2000, two women received intense media focus: Transnet’s Maria Ramos (behind Maroga and Mpofu) and following Ramos, Anglo American’s Cynthia Carroll.
The remaining executives in the top 10 represent a mix of industries: Absa’s Steve Booysen, Vodacom’s former CEO Alan Knott-Craig and Standard Bank Group CEO, Jacko Maree. Other than Carroll, a newcomer to the top 20 is MTN’s Phuthuma Nhleko.
The coverage received by Ramos, Carroll and Nhleko is particularly noteworthy since it occupied a larger than average proportion of their respective companies’ corporate coverage (the average share an executive occupies is around 15 percent; in the case of the above-mentioned individuals this has been more than 25 percent).
In other words, individuals are largely responsible in driving a company’s perception in the media.
In the battle of power and influence in corporate coverage it must be noted that our research indicates that the performance of black executives seems to be more thoroughly scrutinised than that of their white counterparts.
Although this could also largely be attributed to particularly intense coverage of state-owned enterprises or those previously owned by government, there seem to be different degrees of “patience” in terms of company performance when black and white executive coverage are compared.
Becoming the Fourth Estate
Overall, the figures are telling us that there seems to be a greater awareness of the importance of the media in both the political and the corporate sphere. It almost appears that in previous years, media relations existed because textbooks said that media were important. Now they exist because media are starting to grow in its role as watchdog for the public or a real Fourth Estate.
I am, however, not always convinced that media understand the responsibility that comes with this power. If your checks and balances are not in place, people’s careers are irreparably destroyed, and a retraction, no matter how prominently displayed, won’t make it right.
However, individuals who recognise how media “tick” have a much better way to steer their or their respective organisation’s agenda and influence public perception.
Media will continue to give individuals a bigger space than organisations. It makes telling the story so much easier: A battle for a corporate takeover for instance is a complicated matter and breaking it down to a clash between two individual leaders (CEOs) makes it much easier to digest.
And since the next few months running up to the elections are all about clashes, we should expect a range of individuals to position themselves strategically in the media.
Wadim Schreiner is the managing director of Media Tenor South Africa. The Pretoria-based Media Tenor is part of the international Media Tenor Group, which focuses on the scientific analysis of media.
- This article first appeared in The Media magazine (December 2008).