The noise and personal attacks that characterised the recent debate about whether journalists should publicly nail their political colours to the mast have made it nearly impossible to reflect on the possible implications of it all.
This debate is neither new nor unique to SA or Africa. South Africa. In some African countries in particular of our continent it is the membership card of the ruling party that guarantees you space to practise as a journalist without harassment.
In the US the political leanings of radio hosts, columnists and even entire TV networks like Fox News are well known. What they broadcast or say is taken within that context and media culture.
What stirred the hornet’s nest here was the appearance of photographs where two senior editorial executives of the Independent Media wore ANC paraphernalia while attending the party’s 103rd birthday.
As much as we can have opinions on whether we agree with this or not, it is for journalists, their employers and their associations to decide if whether this is acceptable practice. What none of them is are immune from, is the perception the public develops based on their behaviour, and the reaction of their readers.
Frankly, I do not believe there is anything inherently wrong with journalists belonging to political parties. It is nearly impossible to find apolitical human beings anyway, and such affiliations, informal or formal, are part of our reality.
But flaunting such membership can lead to unnecessary difficulties. Once a journalist belongs to a political party, the problem is that once the consumers of news perceive, rightly or wrongly, that the journalist or their medium is politically aligned, then all sorts of assumptions come into play, and these can have adverse effects on brand reputation.
The first thing I learnt about reputation management, which and incidentally one I have been married to for nearly 20 years, is that it is nothing but perception management. If you have costumers to whom you provide a service or a product, you should always be concerned about the perceptions such customers have of you.
Perceptions can be fickle, develop fast, are often influenced by personal or professional prejudices, and can be lethal to your business. Once your consumers have negative perceptions about you, you have a very big problem. Arguing with them about whether or not their perceptions are stupid hardly helps, and is often the last thing anyone in such a position should be doing.
Most, if not all, journalists and their media have an ideological base to which their readers belong, including those that claim to be independent.
The question we should concern ourselves with about is whether they are fair in the coverage of news, especially when where there are opposing views.
Even when they scrupulously adhere to the tenets of excellent journalism, it is their duty to manage perceptions.
This is the limitation that few of those who are participating in the debate seemed to care about or recognise, which is unfortunate.
In 2010 I resigned from quit a radio station where I was a talk show host because I signed up as adviser to a cabinet minister. I was not required to resign and did not have to.
I just thought it best to step down from the radio station as I did not want perceptions to cloud my work with the minister or have the radio station’s independence questioned.
Consumers of news — read customers of the news media — want the assurance that they can trust their sources of news to be nonaligned so that the information they give can be taken at face value
Anything less than this is detrimental in the long run because once readers lose trust in your bona fides, they are likely to invest less in the product or service that you offer.
I do not believe nailing one’s political colours to the mast is a prerequisite to subscribing to one or the other ideology. The fact is that most discerning news consumers can detect this untold.
The reality is that any journalist who wants to voice an opinion always has space to do so. In that case, we all can distinguish between reporting and opinion making.
I hope the furore has triggered customer-focused soul searching in all newsrooms, or otherwise we could see further decline in the reputation of a fourth estate that is so crucial to our democracy.
The Kingmaker Rams Mabote is a PR coach, radio host, connector, businessman, lobbyist, propagandist, strategist and media trainer. Follow him on Twitter @RamsByTheHorns
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