The lifeblood of the political beat

SONA in the media and the #SPHERE

In an era of contested politics and amidst a rapidly growing industry of fake news, YLVA RODNY-GUMEDE argues that news media plays an essential role and journalists need to go back to basics. Moving forward, the crucial function of journalism will be to provide access to original sources in full without threats of securitization, cut news feed and signal jamming, so that the public can make up their own minds about the state of the state.

Elections are widely held to be at the very core of a healthy democracy, with the news media acting as vital intermediaries and interpreters of news dissemination to the wider public. This should enable citizens to make informed choices about political party programmes, agendas and viewpoints before casting their ballots.

Central to this mediating and interpreting function of the news media is the coverage of election campaigns and political debates, typically intensified in the lead up to election day.

However, equally important, if not more important, is the ongoing political coverage, ideally spanning local, regional and national political discussions and developments. Running commentary, reporting of emerging issues as well as investigative reporting is the lifeblood of the political and current affairs beat. With fair, balanced and ethical coverage as the overarching principle for qualitative reporting in the purported public interest.

Now, the State of the Nation Address (SONA), occupies an important space on the agenda for political coverage. It is not a political campaign (as much as the ruling party might see this as an opportunity for beating themselves on the chest over successes in the last year), neither is it a political debate, in essence it is a report back of the work done by the executive in the preceding year. Opposition parties are only allowed to interrogate issues during the SONA debate the following week.

This is where the news media play an important role, not only is the address disseminated to the public via live news feeds, it is also supported by live feeds from locations other than the house itself.

This year, not only could we follow the SONA and the violence that ensued as the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) voiced their concerns with regards to the current Head of State, President Jacob Zuma, and the subsequent forceful removal of the same opposition party, we also saw the largest opposition party in Parliament, the Democratic Alliance (DA) walk out in protest over much the same issue. And of course, we also had access to live news coverage from outside Parliament where opposition parties were addressing the news media.

Last year, we saw the live news feed cut off through the jamming of the air waves during the 2016 SONA. This year however we could follow the address word by word, and the matters the opposition raised, blow by blow, as it were.

The news media here fulfilled a function that can but be described as a true public service role. Without the direct mediating role of screening the address and the opposition raised, the South African public would not have had the benefit of, not only following the address, but also making up their own minds about what was said, how the Head of State conducted himself, including the conduct of the parliamentary representatives of the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC) as well as opposition parties such as the EFF and the DA.

Political coverage is tough, hard to get right and raises much criticism for not being fair, balanced or even ethical. However, the idea of screening events live, with news feeds cut in from ensuing and developing events and stories often gets us as close to the ‘truth’ as we will ever get. What follows in the days and weeks after SONA is another story entirely. This said, we will have the live feed from Parliament clear in our minds and importantly, as a record to go back on.

In a sense this is reporting 101, however, dependent on a fair spread of access to various broadcasters and media houses. It starts at the source, verbatim recordings and the assurance of the inclusiveness of as wide an audience as possible. And as far as political reporting goes, this is as good as it gets.

In an era of contested politics and amidst a rapidly growing industry of fake news, a crucial function of journalism will be to provide access to original sources in full. And crucially we will have to put renewed emphasis on very basic reporting skills that talk to accurate recording, as well as verification, of information. This to ensure a core of qualitative information in the public domain that is trustworthy, provides facts and that importantly, supports constitutional values and human rights.

Other commentary of course was provided through various social media outlets. However, the live news feeds are a guarantor of what actually took place inside the house of Parliament as well as outside. And until time has been given by both the news media and opposition parties to interrogate the essence of the address and the ensuing events, interpretation and running commentary from whatever quarter can be provided through the broader media and #SPHERE.

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