The Complexion of Newsrooms Changed: But old norms haunt us

A media freedom month special

October is media freedom month in South Africa. This is the second week of our series of articles by prominent journalists reflecting on the state of our profession. Can we claim to be developing a truly South African Journalism? And what exactly is that?

The post-apartheid journalism narrative is, in the main, one of doom and despair. Of a South Africa sinking under the weight of poverty and corruption. There appears to be no noteworthy social achievements. Even when it is difficult to ignore the positives, there is always the “yes, but..” rider.

In this instance the mainstream media in South Africa, follows the model assumed by the major western media houses when it comes to reporting on Africa – a negativity that does not inspire confidence.

From the earliest days of the commercial media in South Africa, it was the Anglo-American model that was held up as the standard. This has been the norm right through to the modern era. Apartheid apologists often pointed out that racial segregation in South Africa preceded 1948 and that racial segregation, and with it the notion of racially superiority, was just a way of life in South Africa.

Even the so-called liberal press fell in line with racially discriminatory practices. Journalists of colour were paid less than their white counterparts, canteens (where they existed) were segregated as were even the toilets.
In South Africa the picture started changing quite drastically in the early 1980s. There was a revolution sweeping through the land. From the major metropoles to the tiniest villages, there was a realisation amongst the oppressed that change was coming.

Whereas in the 1970s the mainstream media could, in the main, under report the mass protests that were brewing in the urban townships, the 80s was another story. Initially the apartheid security forces were able to restrict the protests to the townships and the rural villages. The events were poorly reported in the main newspapers and totally ignored by television. When asked why the newspapers were paying scant attention to what was going on in the surrounding townships, a prominent English speaking editor opined that it was important not to discourage foreign investment with scare stories. And although what was happening in the townships was unfortunate, the reality was that the security forces would soon have everything ‘under control’.

But when it started spilling over into the metropolitan areas and into the suburbs, the situation was difficult to ignore. Hundreds of lives were being lost through the actions of the police. Schooling in Black areas had practically come to a halt. Widespread strike action was the order of the day. And by the time a State of Emergency had been declared, hundreds of people were in detention, including an increasing number of black journalists.

It was at this time that history offered South African journalists the grand opportunity to step forward and take their place alongside those who were championing the cause of freedom and democracy. Sadly, only a few availed themselves. The vast majority of mainstream journalists hid behind that chestnut that dictated; “ The role of journalists is to report (objectively of course) and not to get involved.”

The failure of the mainstream media to report truthfully on what was happening in South Africa at the time, created an opportunity for an alternative media to emerge. A media committed to reporting the atrocities inflicted on the majority. A media committed to providing a voice for those silenced by the apartheid state. This was a media less concerned with the petty insecurities of middle class South Africa and more committed to telling the truth of what was really going on in the townships and villages across the country. These publications ranged from single sheet pamphlets to fairly sophisticated full blown newspapers. Many of the people who worked on these publications suffered enormous harassment from the apartheid state apparatus. Detention and imprisonment was the order of the day. But the media workers (as they referred to themselves) would not be deterred.

Post 1994 saw the demise of many of these publications as some members of the alternative media were sucked into office by the post apartheid government structures. Some others succumbed to the lure of the mainstream. The older established newspapers accepted that they had to demonstrate an acceptance of the new order. And so, the complexion of many of the newsrooms changed but not the prevailing norms and practices. The dominant Anglo American paradigm still holds sway. And it is this norm that is taught to our students in many of our tertiary institutions today.
A frequently published media tutor and commentator recently stated, and without the slightest hint of embarrassment; “Before all the hullabaloo, I had never read anything written by Nat Nakasa.”

And there lies the rub. It is what we teach our students that will determine whether the ethos of the future newsroom is going to be any different from that which prevails today. Will we see a journalism that reflects the aspirations of the majority? A journalism more in tune with reality and less concerned with the frailties of the middle-classes.

We can start by prescribing the works of Bloke Modisane and Can Themba, of Alex Le Guma and Ruth First, of Todd Matshikiza and Lewis Nkosi, of Bessie Head and Es’kia Mphalele. There is a whole body of work starting with Sol T Plaatjie and the early pioneers of South African journalism through to the modern era; writings that resonate with the true South African experience.

To change the dominant mindset, we need to seriously engage the media studies curricula of our teaching institutions. We must encourage our young people to seek out the histories of those who came before them.

Editor’s Note: The Pioneers section of our website is aimed at redressing the woeful neglect of our journalism pioneers. It is our contribution towards changing “the dominant mindset”.

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