In the past few weeks, maybe months, I have found myself in very conflicting situations insofar as the state of journalism in particular and the media in general are concerned.
Some of these times, I asked myself whether I would cut it as a journalist today. For the record, I left professional journalism in 1997. So I write this piece not as a journalist, but certainly as someone who still plays in the media space and definitely as someone who takes serious interest in current affairs.
I have been toying a lot with the idea of writing a peer review piece about the state of journalism, but this came more into focus yesterday during an online chat with mates of mine.
This started first when one friend posted onto our chat a story of a series of crimes committed and reported by the media in Johannesburg. Immediately another friend wrote back lamenting the media’s disproportionate enthusiasm when it comes to covering good news.
He used an example of how the media were always keen to tell us about crime, but almost reluctant to report of police work in curbing crime and solving some of the cases.
I quickly responded by saying that unfortunately the failure to report on good news about police work was more the failure of the police not communicating their good news to the media. A case in point is the annual release of crime stats that for me puts an damper on good news.
But then the floodgates opened. I got under serious attack from friends and some of the attacks got even personal. I was accused of raising an argument that was “so nebulous and downright dishonest”.
Another friend added that journalists have been successfully trained in “packaging their own preferred news that is anti-government”. He added that “surely all journalists are briefed that if you write sensational stories that embarrasses the government you future is bright in our company”.
“The sad truth is media is not interested in reporting good news stories they don’t sell newspapers,” weighed in another friend.
I will not bore you with more of my chat with my friends, safe to say that at the end of it, I was convinced more than ever that journalism is in trouble. I am sure there many other similar chats all over the country.
And the media industry is aware of this. I am not sure they are doing anything about it though.
For the record, I agree with some if not most of the sentiments expressed by my buddies. I have written in this space before that our media have created a narrative that is devoid or completely ignorant of the realities lived by many South Africans.
But I have to say this first. News is a business. It is not a pastime. And most of us must get this through our skulls. The first definition of news I learnt almost 25 years ago was “news is all that hurts, all else is advertising”.
So if it doesn’t excite, agitate or even exasperate, buy an advert.
But of course this is a narrow and extreme view. The truth is the media do cover good news, just not in the same volumes they cover bad news.
It is true that journalism is premised on a notion of cynicism – which demands of a journalist to question a good news story and try to find out whether that story is not used as cover of really bad news beneath the surface.
There is however another side to this coin, and this is a point I tried to make to my friends (for which I was all but beheaded). A lot of organisations – private and public – fail to get their good news stories covered because they do not know how to package it.
The problem with many organisations I have encountered, especially government, is that they think that everything they do and subsequently communicate to the media, is not only newsworthy, but actually warrants front page news.
Horrible media releases prepared by juniors or sometimes by people who do not know how they media work are distributed to journalists whose names are misspelt (if they are still alive) and oftentimes distributed late on or after deadline. And then people wonder why their story did not make news.
News is a creative business. It is no different from sport. Although we all want goals when we watch a football game, but we also want entertainment. We enjoy more when we see skill and craftiness. Otherwise a football match would last 10 minutes, enough only for a penalty shootout.
I would be lying though if I don’t agree with the general view that the media do not make enough an effort to cover good news. For some reason the media have equated good news to being “kind to government”.
Of course this is nonsensical and dishonest. Many stories stand the test of news on their own merit and cannot be discarded only because the source is government. Besides, who said government should not enjoy good news?
I believe that a good media must continue to play a watchdog role and keep government in check. Power tends to corrupt, remember. And if no one keeps those in power on their toes, it is most likely to corrupt the powerful even further.
Yet, I think it is a major disservice to readers, viewers and listeners for the media not to cover good news only on the pretext that they are watchdogs and not lapdogs of government.
I do not subscribe to the 70% good news concept of Hlaudi Motsoeneng of the SABC. I do not even believe that it should be 50-50. I couldn’t care about quotas. I also do not believe in other media that cover government blindly, ignoring mistakes, corruption and lies.
News should excite the consumer. It should be true. And it should reflect reality without interference from those that produce it.
I still do not believe that the media collectively or individually have an agenda against government or to besmirch the image of South Africa. But I sure believe that they need to have a new agenda to listen to the crying voices out there before it is too late.
A media that tells lies, misinforms and is unethical plays in the dirty hands of fascists and haters of freedom of the media and expression.
Rams Mabote is a journalist, spin doctor, connector, author and MC. He owns the consultancy, The Kingmaker. Follow him on Twitter @ramsmabote.
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