Michael Bratt chats to William Bird, a pioneering maestro of the media monitoring game.
At a popular Rosebank patisserie, Bird reveals his love of journalism and news. And it all comes down to one phrase, “Media doesn’t tell you what to think, it tells you what to think about.” Bird got into the monitoring game part time when he was still a student doing research for Media Monitoring Africa (MMA). Within five years, he had become a director at the organisation.
The appeal of media monitoring for Bird came more than 20 years ago with South Africa’s transition to democracy. As the country changed so dramatically, entrenched media practices needed changing. But it went beyond that for Bird. It also included how citizens understood the new democracy and what the media’s role was in telling them what to think about. A major concern was the government’s policy around media, which Bird and MMA had a hand in shaping.
The watchdogs of journalists and media organisations, Bird and MMA are there to ensure quality journalism and media that is ethical and responsible. If an individual or company strays from this code, MMA engages with them and, if that doesn’t work, they pursue further action sometimes involving regulatory bodies and possibly even legal action.
“The whole media environment, not just in South Africa but also globally, is disruptive.”
“We’re not where we want to be with South African media and society as a whole, so people and organisations in media need to be disrupters to help change,” explains Bird. He firmly believes that media professionals and companies have to be provocateurs in order to help change society, propel it forward. And Bird has good news, “The whole media environment, not just in South Africa but also globally, is disruptive. In fact journalism and media is in its most disruptive period at the moment.”
Certainly media has moved into an unpredictable period, with newsrooms and journalists under fire from so many different factors. Bird adds that MMA goes against the status quo of simply pointing out things that the media has perceived to be doing wrong. “In as much as we highlight the poor things our media does, we also highlight things they do well.” Bird admits that there are great journalists and media in SA, but on the other hand there are those, “who don’t have a clue what they are doing and who don’t understand how democracy works”.
MMA is also shaking things up within the industry through its innovative use of technology. This has increased access to information for media players. The recent creation of Wazimap is a good example. An app that simplifies election and census data, it helps journalists get a better understanding of areas that they are reporting and working in and has seen interest from the South African government. The body has also created Dexter, an internal monitoring tool which provides reams of data.
Along with all this work, Bird also writes articles, expressing his often-times very strong views. They appear primarily in the Daily Maverick, known for publishing some radical opinions. “These articles are meant to promote debate which I hope will lead to change for the better,” says Bird.
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