Between journalist and activist

By Prof. Ylva Rodny-Gumede

In the current context of upheaval in the higher education landscape as well as the broader social and political landscape in South Africa, it is legitimate to ask what the role of academics should and could be. For journalism scholars, these questions are also coupled to questions of the role of journalism and journalism education.

The role of the news media is highly debated and highly contested all over the world, even more so in the context of societies undergoing social and political transitions. Equally so, the role of higher education is often under the spotlight.

In the current South African context and amidst renewed and amplified calls for addressing colonialism head on, the news media as well as institutions of higher education institutions will have to take seriously their role as change agents.

Crucially, then is the role of journalism scholars who straddle both spheres as academics articulating both new theory and practice with regards to the role of journalism, and as practitioners engaged in facilitating public discourse formation as well as contributors to such discourses in the public realm.

The news media is thought to play a crucial role in building a new democratic society; in giving people a platform to voice diverse opinions; in informing citizens of their rights and responsibilities, and in increasing people’s knowledge about ways for them to participate in government processes. Some scholars even talk of a new age of realism where people’s need for reliable information and quality journalism on issues of society, economy and the environment is increasing rather than decreasing. This seems particularly pertinent with regards to the emergence of new media platforms, and social media in particular.

And while the news media is often considered a vital part of the public sphere, the link between media and democracy and the role that the news media is thought to play in the public sphere is not uncontested. Questions can be asked as to what information is being circulated in the public sphere characterised by an information ‘glut’ and ever more contestation over hegemonic discourses and politics of push rather than pull.

In this context, journalists will have an important role to play, not only to dissect the ‘glut’ but, also increasingly as socially engaged journalists and activists acting as counter forces to increasingly dominant and hegemonic discourses within both the news media and the academy.

However, for journalism scholars this is often thought of as somewhat of a catch 22 situation. While educating a new generation of journalists, they are beholden to thread the line between enforcing established media practices that talk less to advocacy roles shrouded in ideas of political bias, than maintaining fairness and balance in reporting, thought of as at odds with more politically stratified viewpoints.

To overcome this, journalism scholars will have to take on a role that goes beyond educating ‘reporters’ but also thinkers and intellectuals that with integrity and bravery can marry the roles of journalists and activists. And, equally, media and journalism scholars will have to find ways of marrying and developing their own roles of academics, journalists and activists.

The idea of fostering active citizenship within the academy as well as in the journalistic profession must as such extend beyond the role we play as teachers and become part and parcel of how we look upon our own role as academics and journalists and encompass the role of activists.

This also extends to our own research. In an African context scholars have to be cognisant of both global, as well as local disciplinary debates and research agendas and how best to facilitate and foster participatory and politically engaged methodologies that extensively bridge paradigms of critical and administrative research.

It is time that journalism scholars reflect upon the dominant themes that have made journalism research an increasingly important element of political, social and cultural enquiry. This to set out a research agenda for the discipline that not only talks to the local or African context but increasingly to what African media and communications research contributes to the growth of the discipline as a whole.

And finally, what the role of journalism scholars should be in this context as academics, journalists and activists.

Contributors

Prof. Ylva Rodny-Gumede

Ylva Rodny-Gumede is Professor in the Department of Journalism, Film and Television at the University of Johannesburg. Ylva is a former journalist and her current research includes investigating journalism practices in the post-colony, the transformation of communications and media studies curriculum, including the broader transformation of higher education in South Africa.

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