Australian journalist and scholar Jake Lynch and his colleague Annabel McGoldrick are known for their practical approach to ‘peace journalism’, looking at improving the way broadcasters report on issues, particularly conflict. They have recently conducted an experiment, including South Africa, in which a television news item was re-recorded, with the same presenters telling the story in a different way, and with different sources.
The aim was to follow the definition of peace journalism coined by Johan Galtung in 1998: focusing on the background and context of conflict formation; presenting options and causes for each side; giving voice to all rival parties, not merely the leaders of two antagonistic sides; focusing on ideas of how to solve the conflict; focusing on the suffering inflicted and paying attention to developments.
Sounds pretty easy – but it isn’t. Both broadcasts were shown to two different groups and their emotions and attitudes were measured. The particular story discussed dealt with the rape of a young woman in Soweto. Those watching the ‘traditional’ news broadcast felt a strong sense of pessimism and blame towards an individual (usually the perpetrator). Those watching the reworked version felt optimistic, with a strong sense of potential remedies available, while criticising the structural factors of the issue, rather than an individual. The overall conclusion of the experiment: “Viewers of peace journalism are more likely to explain problems in terms of structural and/or systemic failings, and perceive potential for solutions to be applied by exertion of political agency on various levels.”
If it is so easy to make a story positive, offering solutions and giving the audience hope, why is it not done? The usual reasons crop up: deadlines, juniorisation of the newsroom, poor management and budget cuts. I looked at both versions of the broadcast again, and it struck me why I preferred the ‘new’ version: the total absence of government and political agenda. No member of government telling the viewer about the ‘progress’ government has made and that the perpetrators will be caught and brought to justice.
No member of the opposition accusing the ruling party of being corrupt ‘fat cats’ and that the next election would bring change. The story was about rape, social stigma, the work of non-governmental organisations, what the community can do, how to prevent things. It was about the issue, the people and not about political leaders.
The reason why I find South African TV news so horrible is because it does not focus on issues, and even less on causes, but on those who abuse the issues for their own personal or political gain. We seem to expect that the solutions for the many issues we have in this country can only be found by political leaders. And we seem to be oblivious that the answers are often within the communities that are experiencing them.
There are leaders in the community in their own right who have ideas on how to solve things. But they get little to no airtime because they are considered to lack authority. When news does not focus on the ‘talking heads’, it focuses on the perpetrators. Crime committed, prosecuted, sent to jail – case closed. The news story moves on to the next criminal. No remedy, no solution, no hope.
In the coming weeks, if not months, the media’s attention will be on the Oscar Pistorius case. Every detail of the proceedings will be debated and analysed. Meanwhile, women and children will continue to be abused and raped, crimes committed, foreign-owned businesses burnt. But most journalism in South Africa is so entrenched in the blame game that those who have ideas about how to change our actual behaviour simply don’t have the means to break this news cycle. It does not need to be that way. But it’s up to the media to make that call.
IMAGE: Wikimedia Creative Commons