Power and loss in journalism in SA

Glenda Daniels

The book Power and Loss in South African journalism by Glenda Daniels examines job losses in South African journalism, the powerful contribution of investigative journalism (but also losses of credibility), the demise of community media, anti-feminist backlashes and the hope presented by green shoots in the media.

In today’s era of Covid-19 and information disorder we need facts and reliable information more than ever. Yet, journalism is shedding an unprecedented number of jobs. It looks set to shed 3 000 jobs by the end of this year. Power and Loss in SA Journalism says: “The halcyon days of bustling newsrooms in traditional media are gone, forever. Digital disruption is characterised by the 24-hour cycle of news, algorithms and social media often filled with the unverified information and disinformation characteristic of growing political populism. The legacy or mainstream / traditional newsrooms in South Africa today are like leaky ships owing to the tsunamis of retrenchments resulting from declining circulations, with no revenue model that works.”

One of the problems with getting exact numbers of job losses is that the definition of what a journalist is and who is a journalist, has become fluid in the digital age of social media as citizen journalism, blogging, Facebooking, tweeting and opinion making (including disinformation, misinformation and propaganda, often referred to as ‘fake news’) have come to the fore.

Then Covid-19 entered the already complex cocktail described above, clashing with the information disorder of the day. Information disorder refers to the many ways in which our information environment is polluted (through politicians’ use of social media / falsehoods and propaganda, public sharing sensationalism on Facebook and divisive binary oppositions on Twitter). Research internationally, UNESCO Reuters Oxford Institute and locally, Media Monitoring Africa, have all found that misinformation is as much of a scourge as the Covid-19 virus.

Job losses started before Covid-19 then escalated

Ironically just when good journalism is needed, Covid-19 could not have arrived at a worse time for journalism.  The state of the newsroom from 2013 to 2019 shows that journalism steadily shed jobs over the past decade stemming from the economic downturn of 2008.  This year, SANEF commissioned independent researcher Reg Rumney to examine the impact of Covid-19 on job losses in journalism. The research report released in June 2020, found that more than 700 journalists were retrenched in the first few months of the pandemic. Hyper local news outfits were the most affected while 80 community newspapers under the Association of Independent Publishers closed down.

By July 2020 a new round of retrenchments was announced when Primedia, which includes 702, KFM, Cape Talk, Eye Witness News (EWN), declared job cuts.  The Primedia Group has 786 fulltime employees but has not given a job-cut figure. Also in July, Media 24 announced it would retrench about 510 employees. This followed an SABC announcement of about 600 SABC jobs to be cut. These figures add up to 1810, with Primedia additions and the 1200 freelance jobs the SABC is threatening to cut means that the figure would climb to over 3000. These losses in the newsroom signify losses for diversity of voice and therefore democracy.

The power of investigative journalism

The criticism of investigative journalism has always been that it only looks at the public sector. Yet if it wasn’t for journalism making the links with the private sector through the Gupta leaks and other reports, much of what is emerging in the Zondo Commission would not be seeing the light of day. Great investigative journalism, from 2008 to 2018, uncovered massive corruption in the private sector, including international companies’ nefarious dealings in SA: Bain, McKinsey, KPMG, Steinhoff and Bell Pottinger. Investigative journalism uncovered a stinky network of private and public corruption. It helped bring down the fall of a corrupt president.

The shaming of investigative journalism consisted of the following: you are only interested in uncovering public sector corruption, therefore you are racist. This bark appeared to have abated somewhat by the end of 2018, when the private sector was shown to be at the centre of the corruption, thieving as greedily at the trough as corrupt government and ruling party types. There were other changes, and some were positive, in the investigative journalism genre.

The trends in investigative journalism, as seen by ‘Zupta’ or state capture, were: collaboration among the teams of amaBhungane, News24, and Daily Maverick’s Scorpio in the Gupta leaks.  They supported each other rather than competed, then jointly won the Nat Nakasa award for bravery in 2018. The new trend will be cross-border collaborations, given that the companies that were exposed, for example, KPMG, McKinsey and Bell Pottinger, were international ones.

Sadly, some units of investigative journalism appear to have become involved in political factions, which enabled the loss of credibility for journalism as a whole. Investigative journalism in its entirety did not allow itself to become the captive of political power, but some sectors of journalism did, when they collaborated with the forces of corruption in former president Jacob Zuma’s defence as seen in the bogus SARS “Rogue Unit” stories in the Sunday Times.

The anti-feminist backlash, local loss of voice and decolonial greenshoots

Power and Loss in SA journalism also devotes a chapter to the terrible anti-feminist backlash against women journalists. The book records how these journalists were trolled online and even threatened with rape and murder when those who don’t like their corruption-busting stories act out.

In another chapter, the significant and sad loss of voice and diversity is calculated on local media/community media, and the implications of this for democracy. Over 500 community newspapers which existed six years ago now number under 200 at the time of writing. This is a crisis waiting for urgent funding intervention.

In a more optimistic chapter, the book deals with new ways of doing journalism, from the bottom up, rather than the top down, including diverse voices representing not just elites but also different ways of funding journalism outside of the profit-driven model.  This is an examination of the green shoots and how media can, and in many instances, are doing journalism differently, which ignites sparks of hope for the future.

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