Ever wonder what the difference is between covering news in South Africa for a local channel and in the Middle East for international news broadcasters? Paula Slier, formerly of the SABC and currently working in the Middle East, explains.
The irony is that I’ve always wanted to work for an international broadcaster and now that I do I sometimes miss reporting for a local South African station. The reason is that if you really want to effect change, make a difference and inspire people to action through your journalism, it’s better achieved by focusing local rather than global.
I remember a story I did years ago when I was with the SABC. It was about four children whose parents had died of Aids. They were living alone in a shack in Alexandra township and were vulnerable to the thugs who’d already broken into their home –twice – and raped the older girls because there were no adults to look after them. As soon as the programme aired, a man who sells burglar proofing contacted the SABC and asked for the phone number of the social worker who was dealing with the case. By the next morning he had arranged for the children to be moved into a two-roomed house with heavy bars on the windows.
There were many stories like that in the years I worked at the SABC – people phoning to donate money to help a poor grandmother send her grandchildren to school; a pensioner who financed an airplane ticket so a dying child could swim in the sea; a homeless man reunited with his family who’d seen him on the evening news.
And while no doubt the goodwill might be there, I doubt very much that most people living outside of Gaza city, on seeing a report about a teenage girl’s life in a refugee camp there, would be moved enough to track her down and help her. Logistically, it’s just that much more difficult. It can be hard enough to help someone in the same city, let alone in another country.
Audiences watching international television are also difficult to profile because they’re diverse and the knowledge they bring to stories varies substantially. When I report on violence in Syria for Russia Today TV (which is viewed in more than 100 countries including South Africa), I cannot assume that those watching understand the context, background and political climate in which that violence is taking place.
I therefore find that in almost every story I compile, a fair amount of my reporting is actually devoted to contextualising and explaining things that a South African audience watching a South African story would not need. It’s thus inevitable that stories packaged for international consumption, by their very nature, can oftentimes be more superficial than those made for a domestic audience. I wouldn’t waste airtime explaining who Julius Malema is for a South African report, whereas some background information is definitely needed for a foreign audience.
South African news is also, naturally, very localised. While one can get on top of a story (which of course one also does when working for an international channel), I find reporting from the Middle East infinitely more interesting than the stories I used to do from South Africa. To be honest, after many years of covering news in South Africa, I was bored. After the release of Nelson Mandela and the big changes the country went through, the news became a bit repetitive and rather insular. As important as I once felt the stories I did for the SABC were, is how unimportant those stories are – by and large – in the international media today.
It’s seldom that South Africa makes it into the world headlines. But it’s something I imagine all journalists feel at some point in their career. After six years of reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this story too has become predictable. The Arab Spring, however, has inspired a fresh wave of stories. These are stories that no one could have predicted as little as a year ago and so many of us working in the Middle East feel challenged and motivated by what is happening.
The downside is that it can be very dangerous and there are problems of language, culture and custom. On that score, it was always easier working in South Africa. People would pigeonhole me by my background and the neighbourhood in which I grew up – as I no doubt did to them. While this was not ideal (in fact quite the opposite!) it did help to give both sides a frame of reference.
In the Middle East so little is known about South Africa, I really am a clean slate for most of the people I interview – as they are to me. Many times I miss the knowledge of knowing who I’m dealing with as there is only so much a translator, producer and research can give one. It is this lack of knowledge that sometimes makes the work very dangerous indeed – while of course making it much more interesting at the same time.
But I don’t want to get ahead of myself. As a former news editor once told me, every story has already been told – the work is in telling it differently. And on this score, whether covering news in South Africa for a local channel, or in the Middle East for an international broadcaster, the challenge is the same.
Follow Paula Slier on Twitter @NewshoundNews
This story was first published in The Media magazine.