WHAT is the role and responsibility of the media in reporting on conflict situations such as we have had in Marikana, and more recently on the Cape wine farms?
This is the question Joseph Mukonde from Venda posed to me. He believes that the media is contributing to the escalation of the violence, and says that we should be dealing with these issues in a "more sensitive" manner.
The role of the media is more easily definable. Our role is to seek the truth, and to report it fairly, in a balanced manner. The reader wants from us – demands of us – a product which informs and entertains and is professionally prepared. They want information which they might not otherwise have been exposed to. They keep watch over those in power and powerful business interests, and have to be courageous enough to challenge any abuse of power, expose corruption, and defend the rights of citizens. I do not believe that the old-fashioned blood and guts journalism, the publish and be damned attitude, still exists in most of our media. But I would concede that there are still elements of striving to be first with the news, getting the best angle, and the bloodier the better it will look on the blazing headlines of our newspapers, and getting it wrong.
The relationship between the media and our readers has always been fragile, and it is perhaps good that this is so. Editors, I am sure, are sensitive to this, and it therefore serves as a great filter in our news selection and determination.
We also accept, as media practitioners, that there is a confidence gap between ourselves and our reading public. But there is a certain level of ambivalence, as well. When all else has failed for the public, they turn to the media to help them get matters resolved, or to rally support for their cause.
Are we succeeding in this role? Mostly, yes. We also acknowledge that sometimes we get it wrong, and mostly, we acknowledge this. We are only human, and like any human being, frailties will sometimes emerge.
The business of newspapers is a tough and competitive one. If you get things wrong too often, readers do have recourse – they stop buying your product. Readers are not passive observers who accept anything dished out to them. They might tolerate the frivolous, but they judge harshly those who hold them in contempt. We understand the frustrations of the public about the media and, for that reason, we have ongoing initiatives to make our products better.
We take our readers seriously, and the information revolution that is going on will keep us on our toes. We need to constantly improve our products in order to meet the changing needs of our readers and the public generally.
Should we ignore conflicts around us – the current example of the farm workers strike? Should we just report superficially and ignore the underlying issues around this? Does press reporting stimulate passions and spark fires – literally? How seriously do we debate stories as they come through from the field to determine the truth of claims made by – particularly – the strike leaders and community members? Do the strikers still care about the law, or are we, as society, submitting ourselves to anarchy? It is easy to fan the flames in an environment where anarchy rules.
Most of the reporting is about the violence. There are often hints that the violence and looting are by people who are not actually farm workers, but people who are happy to join the fray and get from the situation whatever they can. The danger of keeping the lid on such information is that if you deny the public knowledge, it multiplies the chance of wrong responses – not only from those directly affected, but those who depend on us to keep them informed.
Conflict reporting is emotional for journalists. It involves adversaries – workers versus bosses, in this case. It escalates from there to poor black exploited workers versus the exploitative white farmer. If the worker leaders call for boycotts and threaten to drive the farms into the ground, we do not adequately analyse this and report on the consequences – as has happened in the mining industry where workers are suddenly shocked by potential job losses – and threaten to go on strike again.
We do not question those who advocate a scorched earth policy with the hope that their opponents will cave in on the basis of the threat only. It is often said that freedom and irresponsibility are incompatible. The workers might argue that their actions are the only way they can make their voice heard.
As the media, we need to question more. We need to probe deeper. And we need to unpack information, analyse better so that our readers make informed decisions.
Freedom and democracy disappear into mist when suspicion and distrust proliferate. Irrationalism sets in when violence takes over. Opposing forces lead to a divided society, and our government will also do well to temper their response to situations like Marikana, the strife on the mines, and the violence in the Cape.
Readers can contact the Public Editor with concerns about the content of The Herald and other Times Media publications at e-mail email@example.com
fax (011) 280-5151 or tel (011) 280-5112