[intro]In the cut and thrust of the deadline dominated media world senior journalists take for granted events that are often puzzling for their less experienced colleagues. And, because young people lack the confidence to bring the whole process to a halt by asking too many questions, they fumble around in the dark. The Journalist is committed to training and mentorship as well as telling the South African story with fresh eyes. And so we encourage the questions and spend more time on the answers. [/intro]
During our story meetings and on-the-job training sessions many incidents have come up for vigorous discussion. There is the time someone wanted to pay tribute to a popular TV personality who died tragically. Then there was a story that resulted in glowing praise for those who compiled it. And the uproar over the UFS SRC President’s interview will not be easily forgotten.
We rejected the obituary idea and it was spiked. Sounds callous?
When some of our young journalists got a pat on the back for a story well done, we did not allow them to bask in the glow of that warm feeling for too long. Sounds cruel?
We did nothing to defuse the tensions that erupted from an interview with the University of the Free State (UFS) SRC President. Sounds right!
Let’s start with the obituary because it was a valuable on-the-job lesson that came about in an unassuming way. Early in February almost every major news outlet carried the story of the Top Billing presenter Simba Mbhere who died in a car crash. Here and there the name of his friend, Kady-Shay O’Bryan the mother of a four-year-old girl, was mentioned. She was with Simba in the car and was also killed. But she was soon lost in the outpouring of grief for the 26-year-old TV presenter.
The many tributes for the young Simba were fitting. But when one of our young journalists, let’s call him Sam, asked if he too could write a piece we sat him down and asked why. After all the eulogies had been said what was it that he wanted to add?
We told Sam he was free to write about the Simba legacy to South Africa. What was it that Simba had done for society other than anchor a lifestyle magazine show? We suggested he could write a piece about how we value people differently. About how Kady-Shay O’Bryan had left a little girl who would grow up without her mother.
After a while Sam saw the point and turned his attention to other stories. He understood that when good storytellers climb on the bandwagon it is not to add to the cacophony but to bring some sanity and clarity.
Then last week we ran a story on Lobola in our Kau Kauru Voices section. A wonderful team effort that focused on the various ways in which we honour this ancient tradition. At the tail end the piece examined a new online app that helped couples calculate, a bit tongue in cheek, the bride price.
“What a great article! Wow the best I’ve read regarding this topic,” stated a response from a reader.
The congratulatory message was sent to Linda by the Lobola app developer, Robert Matsaneng. Feeling a bit bad about raining on their parade I told Linda that the praise should be seen in the light of the fact that they had just given Matsaneng a massive plug for his product.
“I had not been comfortable with this part of the story but then I thought he’s a young guy, it’s not a huge commercial venture and it was a lighthearted end to the story. So I let it go,” I told Linda.
After a brief hesitation she said; “You have such a different way of looking at things.”
That took me by surprise. I can still hear the Argus Journalism Cadet School principal Les Dunn droning on about avoiding stories that end up being free advertising for commercial ventures.
PR Puff & Ethics
But I guess in the modern media training process there are so many things young people have to learn – things Les Dunn & Co would not have dreamed of in the 70s – that a lesson about free plugs could easily fall by the wayside. Or is it that we have not only become accustomed to using media releases from PR companies (verbatim sometimes) but we have also become reliant on these spin doctors for stories. When we’re overwhelmed with a laissez-faire situation that accepts puff pieces as journalistic content, I guess we don’t ask the ethical questions anymore.
Since the launch of the project in the second half of last year the learning opportunities have been coming thick and fast. But one that stands out for me above all others was an interview by Lerato Molisana.
The University of the Free State SRC had just chosen its very first black female President, Mosa Leteane. Lerato spent a long time doing her research and crafting her questions. She made good use of a two-part Master Class in The Craft section on Anima Interviewing.
And after a rigorous and extremely professional interview she sat down to write. As always happens with well-prepared, finely crafted stories, the interviewee had said some things she did not intend to disclose. Lerato managed to paint a well-rounded picture of Mosa Leteane in all her vulnerability and strengths. We gained intelligent insight into the complexity of her character.
Mosa had second thoughts about how she wanted to be seen. We decided to cut her much more slack than we normally would. So we made a few cuts on her recommendation. We thought at the time that a young woman in her position was bound to face enough adversity during her term. We did not want to add unnecessarily to the uphill that lay ahead for Mosa.
Then came the day of publication. And on the UFS campus all hell broke loose. Despite the changes, Mosa and her camp were still not happy. She felt exposed. Her supporters shouted loudly about how she had been wronged. Mosa’s critics homed in on her perceived weaknesses and called for tougher leadership. A few calm voices, always overshadowed by the chattering classes, congratulated Lerato on a job well done and admired Mosa for being courageous.
I was torn. My heart went out to the young woman who had just helped the UFS take a huge historic leap forward. She had learnt a very tough lesson about politics and had a shaky support structure to help her cope.
Lerato Molisana was reeling from equal amounts of praise and anger coming her way.
For a while a dynamic debate spilled over onto the social networks, especially The Journalist’s Facebook page. According to Google analytics, the story attracted our largest audience to date.
Mosa did not take up our offer to write a response to the frenzy that Lerato’s interview unleashed.
I have never really believed that journalists should be objective. It’s just not possible. But we have to be ethical and aim for fairness, accuracy and balance among other values. The Mosa story taught us how important basic humanity is when delivering on those values. The Lobola piece as well as the Simba Obituary idea reminded us that our ethical checklist is not confined to the big issues only.
If you are a young journalist and you need advice on a tricky situation or a problem you’ve encountered, use the form on our About Us page and let us know.