Dominant media reflects an elite bias
Julie Reid & Dale T. McKinley
The authors argue that we require a more inclusive and representative news media to address inequality in a post-pandemic world.
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to expose a range of acute inequalities across and within societies around the world. Nowhere is this clearer than in the disproportionately negative impact on the lives of the marginalised and poor. Public health systems are under heavy strain, unemployment is rising, access to online education alternatives for all scholars is unrealised, and opportunities to eke out even a meagre income in the informal sector are declining. Combined with over-crowded and highly polluted living conditions, which make social distancing and maintaining hygiene nigh impossible, the spread and impact of the pandemic in poorer communities is exponentially more virulent.
Responding to these realities, a small collection of social commentators have suggested that a post-pandemic world can and should be a better one. They point to the possibilities, as we emerge from this particular crisis (as we will eventually and inevitably do), of enacting deep and lasting structural reforms to address the systemic inequalities that the virus itself has so viciously exploited. One of those reforms must be how the dominant media listens to, represents and surfaces the voices and stories of the very same marginalised and poor.
Many media scholars have argued that the so-called ‘mainstream’ news media has a poor track record of representing the interests and stories of the most vulnerable including; the poor, the differently abled, women, minorities, migrants and first nation peoples. We prefer to use the term ‘dominant news media’. For us, the dominant media is understood less in terms of the formal structures of media ownership, but more in respect of the direction of a dominant societal narrative. It is identified in terms of its content, rather than according to ownership structures or market share.
The dominant media comprises the myriad collection of media reports, journalists, editors, articles, broadcasts and media outlets, which collectively direct the trajectory of public discourse on any particular issue towards the same or a similar cohesive understanding of events. It includes then, media outlets that may fall within the stable of privately owned, corporatised media conglomerates or public service media institutions, but which all behave in accordance with the dominant narrative.
That narrative emanates from the dominant news media’s habitual reflection of an ‘elite bias’, which privileges and foregrounds the interests of a small segment of society that possess political, social and economic power. In turn, the voices and stories of the vast majority (i.e. the marginalised and poor) are either ignored or made functional to the dominant narrative. There is much research that provides empirical confirmation.
We surfaced and confronted this critique by engaging deeply with different grassroots communities around South Africa. All of these communities have engaged in long-standing struggles, the associated events of which had been reported on in the country’s news media. For our research, we engaged with relevant organisations and activists who both work with and live in each of the communities. We conducted a range of in-depth interviews with community members in order to get the real, full, detailed and bottom-up versions of their respective stories. Further, we conducted a full-scale media content analysis in order to determine how the voices and stories relevant to each of these three communities were represented by the dominant media, as well as how these stories have been communicated by the relevant centres of power, including government.
We feature two of communities in this article – Xolobeni in the Eastern Cape and Thembelihle in Johannesburg.
Xolobeni, Eastern Cape
In Xolobeni/Amadiba history matters; everyone is clear that if you do not know the history then you cannot even hope to know and understand the content and character of the contemporary conflicts and struggles in the area. As was evident right from the start of each interview, that history is largely defined and shaped by the community’s struggle to maintain their own forms of ownership and control over their land and thus also to protect their chosen way of life. It is within and through this history that the present-day Xolobeni/Amadiba community defines itself and its relationships with those who would seek to change the ways of the community and their land.
Xalega Nobuhle puts it this way: ‘This land is [the] same like this house, if you can come and say get out of this house, I just say no because this is my house. As a woman I’m not fighting for this land for only myself…I want my child to own this land…I want my son to live this life as the same as I live here’. And, in the words of Nonhle Mbuthuma:
We are different than other communities in terms of culture…where there is no culture that’s where people destroy nature. Here people they just respect nature and secondly the way of living you can see people they know each other, you can walk from these five villages, they know all of them, but once you bring those kind of development … they don’t even know their neighbours [and] that means Ubuntu is dead. We [take] care of each other; that is so important. And also the agriculture that we practice because in other places people are dependent [on] the government, here they are not dependent [on] anybody. Sharing is so important, that is the difference, but once those values are disappeared, you see Ubuntu [has] disappeared as well.
It is within this larger historical tableau that the more contemporary stories of the community’s struggles against the proposed mining operations as well as the construction of the N2 highway are told. Thus, when MRC first tried to sell the mining idea to the community in the late 1990s and then again in the early 2000s on the basis that it would lift the community out of poverty, it was the community elders who reminded them that, ‘we are not poor…we have land, we have livestock, we have everything [so] please leave us alone, we don’t need your project here, it’s not good for us’.
Yet rather than just pack up and leave MRC began to engage in that favourite tactic of ‘outsiders’ with money and power; try to divide the community by co-opting and buying people off. As Luthiwe Dimane relates, MRC then organised a community meeting at Komkhulu (the community/tribal council hall) where they told residents that they needed to form a committee which would then ‘’work together’ with the MRC and ‘be a bridge from the community [to] that company. Even though the community went on to ‘elect that committee and have some meetings … we noticed that in this committee there [are] members that look like they earn something [and] it’s where the conflict was started. They form[ed] XOLCO in this way’.
Crucial to the overall story is what happened next. After MRC offered to take a community delegation to Richards Bay Minerals in order to see the benefits of a mining project about twenty community members were elected and proceeded to go on the trip sometime in 2003. Luthiwe Dimane picks up the story:
Mr Caruso (MRC boss) took those members [to] Port Shepstone to the expensive clothes shop to buy some suits, and after that they give them it’s about R500 pocket money and then they took them to Richards Bay. (One of the delegates) … a guy was called Scorpion said, no stop, this is not going to work in our community, because Scorpion thought that Mr Caruso [was] going to take them straight to that mine but [he took] them to the offices and play the projector [and also] didn’t allow him to go and talk to the community [or to see] the livestock. Those members … they came back with different views … [those] people [who had] already been bribed [and] those ones [who] were fighting. When the meeting started at Komkhulu Scorpion [took] that pocket money and [said] that “I cannot sell my land with R500”… It’s when [there was] a split of the community, as it is until now.
Unfortunately for the larger community some of the key people that chose to take the money, side with MRC and become part of XOLCO, were also the ones who had been put in charge of running what was becoming a successful community, eco-tourism project. At the time the project consisted of a camp, a lodge and a range of outdoor activities.
The people running the eco-tourism…the director was Mr Qunya…were the people who were pushing the mining issues. So the issue was to make sure that they…do away with eco-tourism. The office at Wild Coast Sun called Amadiba Adventure … was burned (in 2005/2006) by purpose … All the money … disappeared because they [were] trying by all means to finish the tourism project … We [tried] to open the case but the problem was that we didn’t have evidence because everything was burnt there.
These early examples of corrupt, violent and criminal behaviour were ‘topped off’ by the murder of community leader Madoda Ndovela who ‘was shot dead at his house … during the day. It was clear for us [that] the reason why he was been shot [was] because he was strongly, strongly opposing [the mining, more] than anyone else’ (X1 Interview). Also in an early sign of how government and the police would respond, there was neither any meaningful investigation into Ndovela’s murder nor any serious attempts by government to intervene and address any of the underlying issues.
No surprise then that a couple of years later in 2008, the government tried to unilaterally force the community to accept their granting of a mining license to MRC/Transworld/ XOLCO. Like the MRC earlier, they did so through a combined and crude attempt to intimidate and effectively bribe the community. Nonhle Mbuthuma again provides another part of the story that has to be told in detail:
We just saw a huge tent … it was pitched close to Xolobeni school. When [we] go to Komkhulu … we ask what’s that tent for?; And they said the tent is for the social grant, those people who are going to apply for social grants and the IDs and government is trying to bring the services where the people are. And then all of us were smiling and we [were] happy. I think the day after … I [got] a phone call from the journalist from Umhlobo Wenene … a radio at Mthatha. They said are … you aware that tomorrow the minister of minerals and energy is coming to your place to grant a licence? You can imagine … you just heard from the media that the minister is coming to grant, but as a community … you are not even aware that there is an application. And then we go to the venue and when we arrived there it was packed, you know thousands and thousands, but the people where the mining is going to happen were not even invited… not even one village was being transported to the venue, not even one.
When we enter we saw there was like police I never seen in my life, it was like Marikana. And there [were] helicopters … security was so tight. Then we go to the programme director as a crisis committee we ask that can we be on the programme … The executive mayor she said that if you are not on the programme you are not invited, finish and klaar. And then we just take a stand … and we said okay let’s make a chaos. We start singing, and when the minister tried to address the people … we start singing, we throw the apples to the minister to disturb and to make sure that nothing is happening. Then the executive mayor just go to the loudspeaker and tell the police, police please arrest all these people, put them in vans and just lock them there, we are busy here. And then the police they just become divided… because some are from here in Pondoland and … a station commander [who] said no I can’t arrest people when they [are] fighting for their own rights … The meeting was disrupted completely and the minister couldn’t continue; she just left [along with] the people who had been transported … from PE, Mthatha you know all the other towns.
It is these kinds of historical and contextual details that never make it onto the pages or broadcasts of the dominant media, regardless of the fact that they are absolutely essential to any understanding of what has transpired and why. As a classic example, when Nonhle Mbuthuma says that those who are on the ‘pro-mining side’ are ‘not the community’ but simply a ‘group of business people [who] are looking for money in this mining thing’, it is not just her personal opinion but a statement of fact, which can be supported by the historical record.
Likewise, she points out that the struggle over the N2 toll road has followed a similar path of using carrots and sticks and trying to sow division and confusion within the community. ‘It’s been so many years going back and forwards. If they see… it’s difficult to push the mining, they push the N2. If it’s difficult to push the N2, they just push the mining. The [initially] proposed road was not along the coast [but] far inland, and they change it to make sure it’s more along the coast … closer to the mine, that is why we totally oppose the N2 toll road’. And finally, when she notes that several powerfully connected people such as ex Director-General of the Department of Minerals and Energy Sandile Nogxina, high-flying ANC-allied lawyer Maxwell Boqwana and the daughter of Mbizana Municipality’s Executive Mayor, are directly involved with XOLCO the framing of the Xolobeni/Amadiba conflict and struggle becomes much clearer.
Thembelihle Community, Johannesburg
It never ceases to amaze me how much difference there is between perception/description and on-the-ground reality when it comes to a place like Thembelihle. Most often perceived and indeed described, including in the dominant media, as an ‘informal settlement’ and even sometimes a ‘squatter camp’ that is full of dangerous people and is a place to be avoided; Thembelihle and the vast majority of its inhabitants are anything but these things.
Besides visiting and spending some time in the community, the best antidote to such falsehoods is to sit and listen to the personal stories of residents and activists. Their telling includes many examples of incredible personal/family hardship and practical difficulties. But, they also tell a story of resilience and tenderness, enduring life skills, human connection, community spirit and relational warmth and love that puts those widely held perceptions and shared descriptions where they belong; in the rubbish bin…
History and context of the area/community alongside the conflict-struggle
Much like Xolobeni/Amadiba, although in very different historical, geographical and social/cultural settings, the core defining feature that has framed the life story of Thembelihle is the land. Indeed, the origins and subsequent growth of the community is a direct result of a general lack of available land for residential use by the poor in and around the Johannesburg metropolis that traverses both the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
Once the initial wave of people had erected their shacks, established a more permanent community presence and warded off the numerous attempts by the dying apartheid state to prevent the expansion of the settlement, there was an extended period of general peace (with the government of the day) and unimpeded growth that paralleled the early transition to democracy. However, this did not mean that the desire and practical need for more land as well as basic services receded; indeed, the opposite was the case.
While not representing a community-wide organisation, there were political party and civic activists in Thembelihle in the mid-late 1990s that organised the community and engaged in mobilisation around demands for additional land as well as basic services such as water. For example, a sizeable piece of land called ‘Extension 17’ which was close to Thembelihle on the back side of Lenasia was identified. ‘So they [the activists] said move us there across the road [but] it was a problem (for the authorities) … because [the land was] close to our Indian community … [the refusal] was class politics’.
When it came to services there was some early success in getting the new ANC-run Johannesburg municipality to install communal water taps. However, because the taps were few and far between, demands were then made to extend the water pipes so that there could be taps in each shack yard. The government refused and the local ANC branch and councillor also actively opposed the initiative. So, active members of the community, including two of the interviewees (Bhayiza Miya and Siphiwe Segodi) helped to mobilise the community to lay and install the pipes themselves.
This was a hugely important and more widely symbolic act, not only of popular initiative and defiance but one which sent a message that the people of Thembelihle were there to stay. While it was completely ignored by the dominant media, it galvanised many of the activists and new community organisations were soon formed; one of them was the Thembelihle Crisis Committee (TCC). But it also was clearly viewed as a direct challenge to the power and interests of the ruling ANC, the local government it was running and some of its influential and wealthy backers in neighbouring Lenasia.
Sure enough, by late 2001 the municipal and provincial authorities announced that the entire community would have to be moved from Thembelihle to Vlakfontein due to the dolomite problem. Not surprisingly, the community refused and invited the authorities to sit down and talk with them. Instead, the notorious private security firm, Wozani Securities (otherwise known as the Red Ants) was hired by the authorities to tear down shacks and thus forcibly remove the residents of Thembelihle, without any due process or legal sanction (McKinley 2002). In the event, the community successfully resisted, physically forcing the Red Ants to retreat and the authorities to abandon the eviction plan. In the words of Siphiwe Segodi:
They made a blunder which united the community behind the TCC because when they tried to dismantle the shacks illegally … everyone felt threatened within the community and managed to mobilise behind the TCC. We shut down SA block (home to the ANC offices) and declared Thembelihle a no-go area for the councillor; he didn’t come to Thembelihle for some time. I think [the successful mobilisation] also bolstered the community’s confidence.
What popularly became known as the ‘Battle of Thembelihle’, which did receive some media coverage even if almost wholly focused on the violent confrontations between residents and the Red Ants, kick-started what has now become a seventeen year-long ‘battle’ for security of tenure, infrastructural/housing upgrades and the delivery of basic services. At the centre of the consequent struggles has been the TCC which over the years has become the most popular, respected and effective organisation in the community.
As will be seen when it comes to the analysis of media coverage the TCC and the core struggles of the community which it has led, cannot be understood if the sole or main focus is on the numerous protests and ensuing conflict with the police. Indeed, one of the most impressive yet poorly captured and understood characteristics of Thembelihle’s struggle is the democratic, procedural lengths to which it has gone to try and engage the various levels of government alongside its official representatives and the politicians who ultimately ‘run the show’. As TCC leader Bhayiza Miya relates:
For us to go to the protest it’s not that we sleep and then we dream about the protest, no, it’s a continuation, it’s a frustration that leads us to protest. From the writing of letters, memorandums … we follow the procedures. We deliver the very same memorandums … the petition [but] there [is] no response, no response [to] all the memorandums. [They] have never heeded any response or any occasion to say yes we are busy with your call with your memorandum or whatever you have brought to us. A lot of the Thembelihle struggle has been about petitioning the state to deliver services in particular here, to formalise this place’.
Beyond the protests, mobilisations and engagements with authorities however, there is a very real and practical sense of community in Thembelihle that is underpinned by a broad, collective embracing of everyone’s right to dignity, equality and justice. This is one of the reasons why the TCC and the larger community have been able to wage a virtually uninterrupted struggle for such a long time. A long-time resident and TCC activist reminds us that ‘this thing of South Africa in diversity…we are practising that here because there are people here from all sides of South Africa [and] even from Malawi, Mozambique, Somalia, Ethiopia, Namibia [and] Zimbabwe. We might differ in talking languages but there’s love in this community.
Betty, one of the older members of the TCC speaks to this with strong emotion: ‘I love Thembelihle. People here they [have] wonderful souls, they [are] working together … [the] people of Thembelihle they’ve got good hearts … As Thembelihle we are a very strong community’. A much younger Trevor Ntlatseng is quick to note that although ‘Thembelihle, it means nice place, people don’t’ take it that way, they just [think] … people who are staying here are violent, [that] they like violence…people they treat us like that, but we are not like that’.
What we found fundamentally validated the critique of the dominant news media mentioned above. Our accumulated evidence exposes the gap between the actual/real stories of these communities and those told by the dominant media. In the process, the mistruths, myths and self-interested motivations behind the discourse and thought frame that characterises the storytelling, are laid bare. The dominant news media characteristically applied negative and stereotypical frames to the stories of these communities, as opposed to the often positive and always grounded stories told by the community residents and organisations themselves.
To ensure that a post-COVID world is a more just world, social and economic inequalities will have to be confronted and undone. The required structural reforms will necessarily be preceded by much debate and, in all probability, conflict. Until such time as there is no dominant media it will continue, even in a post-pandemic world, to be the main conduit for the dissemination of voices within those global/national debates and story-telling. What is absolutely crucial though is that the voices of the poor and marginalised must be a central part.
We cannot hope to build a more equal society, if we do not listen to the voices, experiences, and stories of the marginalised and poor. After all, it is they who are best placed to inform all of us of how inequality, and this virus which has super-charged it, continues to impact on and shape their lives.
Tell Our Story. Multiplying voices in the news media (2020) is published by Wits University Press.
About the Authors
Prof. Julie Reid is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Science at the University of South Africa.
Dr. Dale T McKinley is Research and Education Officer for the International Labour, Research and Information Group, and Senior Research Associate in the Department of Anthropology and Development Studies at the University of Johannesburg.