Have we reached the end of Journalism?

Adapting in the face of rapid social and technological changes

The role of journalism and the news media is under scrutiny worldwide in the context of rapid social and technological changes. Today, during Media Freedom Month, we examine some of the complex issues.

Have we reached the end of journalism? No. In an era of new media platforms, the every-man/woman journalist and new forms of audience engagements, journalism in all its facets is probably needed more than ever and the new media landscape presents new and interesting challenges for the news media industry as a whole. While current debates around journalism have focused on how to re-invent journalism to secure its future, I argue that efforts should rather focus on the re-affirmation of the role of journalism in society, particularly on the context of a young democracy and post-colonial society such as South Africa, and many others in the global South.

Without a doubt journalism around the world has undergone tremendous changes in the last 20 years. In South Africa of course, these changes are coupled with the social, political, economic and cultural change that the country as a whole has undergone since the first democratic elections in 1994. Few other disciplines (and nations) have undergone such tremendous changes in the last 20 years.

The South African news media have certainly leap-frogged in terms of technology adoption and development. However, new business models for traditional news media ventures are yet to be developed. And there are other problems.

The news media have come under severe scrutiny in later years, and criticism has ranged from the lack of basic skills among journalists, to failing ethical standards and the loss of experienced journalists and the juniorisation of the newsroom. Critique has also come from Government focusing mainly on the news media’s seeming unwillingness to transform and meet the demands of the nascent democracy and a changing audience.

Ideas around transformation have penetrated much of the debates about the news media in the last 20 years. Issues have ranged from how to make the journalistic corps and news producers in general more equitable in terms of race and gender. News content has been criticised for, among other things, perpetuating racism and catering for a wealthy, urban elite.

As in many parts of the world, debates around the apparent dumbing down and trivialisation of news content are ever present. In our context this debate has been countered however by ideas of transformation and opening up the news media to groups in society previously neglected and cut off from many mainstream news media outlets through the growth in the tabloid market and an ever growing social media sector.

However, the news media in South Africa is fragmented and audiences divided by language and socio-economic factors that dictate access and ideas around what is considered news.

The role of the media are highly debated and highly contested all over the world, even more so in the context of political transition and in the wake of social and political upheaval. The need for quality information is even higher in the transition period and during the breakdown of the old political and social order. Equally, the role of the media as a key socialisation and ideological instrument in society is tested.

The apartheid regime successfully used the news media to further their aspirations to create a total pigmentocracy based on massive oppression and exploitation and as such the need for transformation and inclusivity, and the creation of a new ethos for the news media in the post-apartheid landscape is of absolute importance.

In an era of new media platforms, the every-man/woman journalist and new forms of audience engagements, increasing contestations over politics and ever increasing socio-economic rifts, journalism in all its facets is needed more than ever and the new media landscape presents new and interesting challenges for the news media industry as a whole and a post-colonial society such as ours in particular.

Current debates around journalism have focused on how to re-invent journalism to secure its future in the face of new technology that challenges modes of production, news dissemination and interaction with audiences. This requires that efforts should rather focus on the re-affirmation of the role of journalism in a democracy.

New forms of journalism have emerged under headings such as citizen journalism, civic journalism and participatory journalism all with varying degrees of editorial oversight and control. Journalism as a practice is challenged by the fact that anyone can now be a media producer with the common organising principle of side-tracking editorial control through publishing on various social media platforms.

The idea of the news production process has gone from mass to individual, from time lapse to immediacy and from editorial choice to multiplicity for the optimist and cacophony for the pessimist.

And whilst my own understanding of the world and that of previous generations was brought to us in digestible and selected chunks from a select few sources, later generations rely on seeking out and piecing together information from multiple sources.

This is not to say that previous generations were more informed or that they had access to more quality sources. Contemporary audiences have choices between summation, opinion and context to a higher degree than previous generations and are no longer just an audience to be served -but co-creators of meaning in an ever evolving societal formation process.

And while news and information, including education, used to be the privilege of a few, cheaper and more accessible technology has the potential of level the playing field.

This however is premised on access. Access not only to the news media itself and new media platforms, but technology facilitating both production and dissemination of information and foremost education.

Access to this new media sphere is premised on several ‘literacies’ – formal literacy as well as technological literacy. And while technology has become more accessible, formal education has not and has lagged behind in terms of facilitating new literacies.

This is in my mind somewhat of a catch 22, as on the one hand new technologies are becoming more accessible and cheaper, but on the other, they depend on literacies that can only be acquired through continuous engagement and skills gained from an equal education system.

What then are the implications of all of this for journalism?

The discipline of journalism cuts to the heart of democratic values and the realisation of a qualitative, deliberative and participatory democracy.

Media outlets and platforms that journalists work for are changing rapidly, the way in which journalism is produced no less so and the way in which audiences consume news is definitely changing in leaps and bounds. However, the fundamentals of journalism in terms of providing, contextualising and interpreting information (particular information that someone wants to keep out of the public realm) has not changed and is needed more than ever with the complexity of modern society and social organisation.

This new media sphere depends on journalism to re-affirming its role in democracy.

Journalists need technical skills linked to specific media platforms as well as sound language, writing and editing skills. Equally there is a need for journalists with solid analytical abilities and research skills, knowledge of ethics and an understanding of the world that goes beyond mere reporting of events and that dares to pose the hard and difficult questions to both local and global actors.

We need intellectual editors, journalists, writers and commentators.

The question is what kind of news media do we want, what kind of information do we want? And do we want to know about our society and do we feel a need for quality information?

Being in possession of information is everything. I do not simply want to wake up one day to find that I am being charged an e-toll tax, or that the municipal rates have been increased. I want this information to have been circulated well in advance as to be able to make an informed decision about the implications of new rules and policies.

I want a news media that explains, interprets and comments on the meaning of events and information provided.
I also want a news media that provides and gives support to established norms and even authority when credit is due.

A news media that expresses dominant cultural and established values and that upholds and enforces constitutional values and human rights (i.e. democracy rather than autocracy).

I also want a news media that campaigns for social change and that recognises sub-cultures and new cultural developments.

In the context of a transitional society, and in particular a post-colonial society such as ours, politics and societal organisation is contested and premised on the fact that the majority of the population for so long were excluded from any participation in the governance of their own country, the media have, and continue, to play a crucial role in this regard. And while we have always had a more differentiated print media sector, despite some segments having been decidedly controlled by political powers, we did have a vibrant alternative press under apartheid that continuously exposed the ills of the former regime.

This has continued to this day with a press that have exposed mal-administration and kept the pressure up on government to deliver on election promises. The Nkandla corruption saga is but one example, the exposes around Marikana another.

However, we continue to have severe problems of access to the news media and in this regard the public broadcaster plays a crucial role. During the years of apartheid the SABC was little else than a propaganda machine for the Apartheid regime and as such an entire population was kept in the dark about what was happening in the country.

This is a continuous problem. Big parts of the population still only have access to the main SABC channels and the now ‘public broadcaster’ has done a poor job at rectifying the information gap of the previous regime. For the segments of our population that still only have access to the SABC – the exposes of Nkandla, Marikana, and many service delivery protests are nowhere to be seen.

As such the interventions by our current leadership in the public broadcaster as with the old, has done little to educate the nation.

And as much as we can criticise the print media for being too removed from the realities of many marginalised and disempowered communities, without it we would have been completely in the dark as to many of the social ills that keep plaguing our society.

Access to a quality news media thus remain the most crucial aspect for standing a chance to execute social change and for people to make informed decisions about governance and reform.

And it does not matter how many news sources we have, or how few, as long as these provide us with quality information. After all, if we only had the SABC to rely on, and as long as they gave us the full truth of what is happening in our society, the good, the bad and the ugly, we could argue that we have the information we need to make informed decisions. Correspondingly, if we had a multitude of sources that only propagated one view of society we would still be in the dark.

If we cannot change the SABC we need to make sure that we continue to hold the print media accountable and for striving to be more accessible to a broader majority of the population, through keeping costs down, the creation of news media outlets in a multitude of languages and through a continuous engagement with us – the audience.

And if I have a choice between the select and the multitude, I would, and do, chose the multitude, provided there is diversity in the multitude. After all we can argue that one diverse source is better than several one-sided conformists ones, and vice versa. As such the new media through the Internet and the multitude of social media outlets have a role to play provided we also see a core of qualitative information that provides us with knowledge, analysis and support for constitutional and human rights.

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