Wadim Schreiner doesn’t believe journalists can be unemotional about government. He explains why.
I have participated in a number of public discussions around ‘the state of the media’ recently. There is a real concern about the direction the media is taking, particularly with regard to its reporting on government. Also, my civil servant friends are puzzled over what they perceive to be the media’s negativity towards government, particularly in its reporting on the achievements of the past 20 years.
This antagonistic feeling towards government seems to be a general concern. I have come across a growing number of articles in newspapers over the last few months that speak of the deteriorating relationship between government and business. At the recent Daily Maverick event, The Gathering, members of civil society also bemoaned the lack of communication with government. So it is perhaps not surprising that those in the media feel similarly.
Media freedom is entrenched in the South African constitution, and has been practised more freely than in many other countries around the world. Some of the opinion pieces and satirical cartoons published in our newspapers would receive the harshest of responses in many Western societies. But not in South Africa, although Zapiro must have panicked a little until President Jacob Zuma withdrew all those court applications.
We have had a seemingly good discourse over the past decade, one where government participated using similar channels to speak as analysts and journalists. Editors and government met frequently to talk things through. The two agreed to disagree, but a way forward was paved. Lately, however, there have not been many such engagements.
In their book ‘Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing’, authors Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharp unpack the Aristotelian concept of ‘constantly having a choice’. “[Aristotle] thought that our fundamental social practices constantly demanded choices – like when to be loyal to a friend, or how to be fair, or how to confront risk, or when and how to be angry,” according to the authors.
Journalists in essence are storytellers.And at the heart of storytelling is the ability to contemplate various choices and discern the best course of action under the circumstances. To do that, journalists rely on ‘framing’ the situation, telling relevant stories about it, often enlisting empathy to grasp the full dimensions of the situation. This clashes with what many institutions believe: that rationality is more important than emotions, which can blur sound judgement.
There is a paradox here. As journalists, we rely on statistics given to us by international institutions, market research companies and opinion polling firms. We report on them as a statement of fact. But add government to the equation, and emotions seem to take over. Goldman Sachs released a report a few months ago on two decades of freedom, and even the most subtle push by government sources to point journalists to it unleashes the most critical debate of its findings.
As far as the media is concerned, we have lost the ability to look at government unemotionally. If this is because journalists have not seen the majority of citizens’ lives improve, or because they represent a proportion of the population that simply had enough of spin, is difficult to say. We seem to have reached a plateau where it is almost impossible to trust government any more. It seems we have lost the ability to make choices.
Only real dialogue will help this stalemate. Business has been bemoaning the reduced platforms of engagement between government and the private sector since 2009. The same can be said for the media. Who will blink first?
This story was first published in the June 2014 issue of The Media magazine.
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