Media covering politics in South Africa routinely get the story wrong. And, while there are several reasons, a strong theme is a tendency to assume that the middle class and the elites are the whole country. Professor Steven Friedman gives his view on the state of the media from a political perspective.
A while ago, I thanked the media for putting my son through university. Their political coverage was so inaccurate, I suggested, that businesses had to supplement the incomes of academics like me to find out what was really happening.
The point was exaggerated – but only slightly. Media coverage of politics here routinely gets the story wrong. And, while there are several reasons, a strong theme is a tendency to assume that the middle class and the elites are the whole country.
Some of the forms this takes are obvious. Police violence against grassroots movements is ignored, and years of citizen demonstrations in the townships and shack settlements are explained away by the term ‘service delivery protest’. Only a few politicians and academics know much about the protests because the media have no interest in finding out.
Another obvious symptom is the tendency to claim that politicians are popular with ‘the masses’ when they are not. Jacob Zuma was said to have mass support because a few thousand people attended his trial. So was Julius Malema when his march attracted less support than the annual Gay Pride Parade. (When some media did go to shack settlements to ask people what they thought after Malema was punished by an ANC disciplinary hearing, ‘the masses’ were partying, not rioting).
Often, the fraction of the population who use social media are assumed to be everyone.
But some symptoms are less obvious. One is a tendency to believe uncritically what authority figures – politicians and officials – say. When the ANC appeals committee confirmed Malema’s conviction, much of the media announced he was no longer ANC Youth League president, even though the ANC Constitution said he was. Why? Because an ANC spokesperson said so and the media preferred to write down his error than spend minutes on the web checking.
This is part of a much bigger and more damaging problem.
For four years, sections of the media reported that the ANC had shifted to the left, although no policy had changed. Why? Because some politicians wanted us to believe there had been a shift and the journalists preferred writing down their spin to looking at the evidence. Similarly, the ANC Youth League’s ‘nationalisation proposal’ does not call for nationalisation. It suits the League to say it does – and journalists would rather repeat that than read the policy document.
It is this syndrome which repeatedly leads reporters to misreport political events because leaks from politicians trump both journalistic method – checking claims with other sources – and common sense, working out whether a source has a motive to mislead. Political spin on the inside workings of the ANC is repeatedly reported as fact because politicians tell reporters that it is. The obvious possibility that politicians might have a motive to mislead is ignored.
Much of this could be dismissed as laziness. Reading documents, checking sources and working out who is doing what to whom should be routine. But the laziness is justified by the elitism– if a highly placed source has told a reporter something, it must be true, so why check?
Perhaps the least obvious way that elitism ensures inaccurate reporting is the media’s tendency to filter the world through middle class mythology.
The minds of many in the middle class harbour myths about people who are different to them. One is that governments run by black people are always dictatorial and corrupt. Another is that the black poor are irrational, angry and greedy. Since most journalists speak only to middle class people, these myths become ways of making sense of the story.
The illusion of Zuma and Malema’s popular support was based partly on the assumption that anyone who the middle class fears must be loved in townships and shack settlements. Of course the poor must adore a man who dresses in skins, has several wives and sings about machine guns – or a 30 year-old who uses the race card to gain wealth and power. There is no need to find out what people really think – the mythology knows better.
That is why a bill that aims to protect intelligence agencies from public scrutiny became an attempt to prevent media reporting on corruption even when it clearly says secrecy cannot be used to cover up corruption. Why read a bill if the myths about what African governments do make more sense than the truth?
No one benefits from this bias. It works against everyone, including the elite, because it means that everyone who relies on media has a partial and often distorted view of the society.
The solution lies partly in a return to journalistic technique, hard work and common sense. But it lies too in a journalism which reflects the entire country, not just that of journalists and those with whom they socialise.