Wadim Schreiner is unimpressed with newspapers prioritising sensation above relevant journalism.
Buying the newspaper is one of those nice Sunday morning routines. But recently I had reason to rethink this belief. A glance at the shelf in the shop and I was confused: only one newspaper? Actually, no. Sunday Times said: ‘Love affair rocks SARS’. City Press: ‘Sex, SARS and Rogue Spies’. And then Rapport: ‘Spioene, seks en Jan Taks’ with a circle next to it stating ‘Eksklusief: Agente se vuil spel’.
Clearly, not exclusive at all, if City Press, albeit the sister publication, and Sunday Times had the same story.
I still bought all three papers. The story was complicated, and involved a lot of people, agencies, egos, power play and corruption. The Sunday Times published details of a WhatsApp conversation between those implicated in the love affair at the South African Revenue Service.
It was the second week in a row that the Sunday Times had shared with us gripping short message news. Previously, we were witness to the SMS exchange between journalist Gareth van Onselen and ‘Dr’ Pallo Jordan. This confirms again what we have known since we began following the Oscar Pistorius trial: any form of written communication is permanent and can be used against you.
Rapport also decided to add a little bit of extra juice to the front page: Die sexy Delia het als begin with a story ‘from the bible’, involving a “slaapkamer-bekentenis, ‘heuning-lokaal en ‘n romanse wat op die rotse geloop het”. Quality journalism? The underlying issue, of course, is quite relevant, as many twitterati later pointed out when I vented on the platform. It involves the abuse of state resources and power, the misuse of government agencies and mafia links.
I was outraged, but only for a short moment, because it didn’t affect me directly. This is why I really got angry when I saw the opinion page of the Sunday Times: “African Bank’s plight could hurt pensions of many of us”, raising concern about the micro-lender going bust, potentially affecting millions of South Africans. Why was this not the front page lead? It started to sink in that I had been wrongly defending newspapers for 15 years.
“Lead stories were not selected for profit, but for relevance!” I had naïvely proclaimed. While the headline in all three papers should have been ‘African Bank demise threatens pensions’, the decision to run a sex-and-spy lead story could only have been to sell papers. I realised that we have crossed the Rubicon from quality journalism to sensationalism.
This is particularly sad as the story itself is really strong, and – so it seems – are its facts. But tabloidising trivialises the issue and, while perhaps it sells a few more copies, it impacts on the reputation of the publication. Personally, I have lost some respect for our large Sunday papers, not just about the way the story was put together, but because all three carried the same one and all three thought it was lead story material. What does this say about journalism in South Africa?
I realise that I am generalising. Many other Sundays are good, with relevant lead stories. And I did enjoy reading all three papers and will continue buying them. But I feel that the papers did themselves, and their readers, a disservice. They gave those pushing for greater control over the media even more ammunition, because it is easy to criticise the messenger when sensationalism is so obvious.
Guys, stick to the facts and drop the sales pitch. Tell us stories that impact on our lives. Leave the sleaze to others!
This story was first published in the October 2014 issue of The Media magazine.
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