The Media and Multiple forms of Racism

By William Gumede

It is in the media that South Africa’s race, equality and transformation debates are being waged and fought. How should the media transform to effectively report in a racially divided society? And what is the role of the media in a racially biased society?

Media organisations like most of South Africa’s formal institutions were infused by institutional racism during the apartheid-era. In many cases this is still unchanged. There has to be a greater acknowledgement of institutional racism in organisations.

The danger is for the media to reproduce the racial biases inherent in society; or for news priorities to be determined through “white privilege” lenses.

In 1968, a National Advisory Commission on Civil Orders established by then US President Lyndon Johnson to explain riots that engulfed US cities from the summer of 1964 concluded that in the US media, news media were racially skewed with “inaccuracies of fact, tone and mood”, the norm. Such racial prejudice in newsrooms and reporting are still too often prevalent in South Africa also.

Individual racial prejudices by those in control of newsrooms, combined with their control of institutional power, perpetuate not only institutional racism, but also racism in reporting.

Audits of organisational culture to measure the degree of institutional racism should be a start. Such audits must look at the organisational policies, practices and informal cultures. There must be regular monitoring, and the impact of, organisational policies, practices and customs. Managers should not retaliate against individuals pointing to racism in institutions.

Should media houses be organisationally totally black to shed their racial DNA? We are a diverse society, and our organisations must reflect that in terms of staff and ownership. Diverse ownership and staff help to make media coverage diverse.

Many of the big media houses have majority black shareholding. Like the rest of the economy, most of the transformation has been seen as appointing black editors or personnel, rather than changing values.

Nevertheless, black ownership or black boards or staffs do not automatically mean media houses will cover issues from a diverse perspective.

For another, such has been the devastating legacy of apartheid that even black South Africans, including black journalists may internalise white racial negativity about blackness, and report issues through that lens also.

‘Black’ owned media, practising sunshine journalism, uncritically reporting on the activities of the ‘black’ government, and marginalising black journalists or commentators perceived to be critical of a ‘black’ government reinforces racism.

Similarly, ‘white’ owned media who only appoint journalists into senior positions and quote only analysts who view the world from a ‘white privilege’ vantage perpetuate racism.

The challenge for South African journalists is to refrain from everyday racism or prejudice deeply ingrained in their socialisation.

South Africa is one of the world’s most unequal societies, with inequality running along racial lines. The less equal tends to be more ignored in the media – unless they turn to violence.

If a child victim of crime is white and nowadays black from a prominent family or one connected to ANC high-ups, he or she is are likely to get more newspaper coverage than a child from a poor area. At the same token an incident of black failure is also still more likely to be attributed more generally on racial reasons – rather than on individual incompetence or whatever other reason.

When the media brings in outsiders, whether marginalised because of race, gender or class, it will help to contribute to a social consensus that the injustices against them must be redressed.

Reporting on the lives of those who were previously marginalised, the media plays an important role in validating histories and memories of the formerly oppressed, which were dismissed during apartheid, by reporting on these.

Media scholar Daniel Lerner argued that the media can help develop ‘empathy’ towards others and different cultures. “It is only when individuals in the society began to open themselves up to the experiences of others outside of their own culture” that they can transform.

Lack of buy-in for social justice policies to overcome apartheid-induced inequalities for the historically disadvantaged, is often because of lack of empathy from those who were historically advantaged.

Black faces, opinion and ideas – the good and the bad – must be integrated into all news coverage.

For example, it would be crucial that the post-apartheid media, in its coverage, do not continue to cement in the “public mind a link” between criminality, violence or gangs and particular communities.

Tough questions must always be asked of official reports, whether public or private, rigorous standards must be applied to evaluate, prioritise and present the news. News judgements have to be more sophisticated, careful, yet sceptical.

Do the media give more coverage to corruption in the public sector, but private sector corruption gets a free pass? Is the executive that gets an R100m bonus, while retrenching most of his workers to secure a profit covered as a hero, while the black worker who demands a living wage is portrayed in the media as lazy?

Finally, the core values of journalism should be South Africa’s constitutional values.

This is an edited version of the presentation given at the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism (IAJ)’s Reporting Race Conference 18-19 October 2016, Johannesburg

Contributors

William Gumede

William Gumede is Associate Professor at the School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand. He is chairperson of the Democracy Works Foundation. He is also the author of a number of no.1 bestsellers including his most recent book Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg)

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