In the last couple of months I have had the great pleasure to interact with journalists from around the continent through a range of conferences and workshops. This has given me an opportunity to reflect on some of the challenges currently facing journalism worldwide, but also in the particular context of the African continent.
Challenges that at once cannot be divorced from global trends and forces currently facing journalism worldwide. But that also come with their own particularities and influences in the context of our own continent. And importantly with huge variations in and of itself, due to the diversity of political, socio-economic, cultural and religious diversity of the nations and contexts in which journalism is practiced on the continent, where liberal democracies such as South Africa exist (quite literally) alongside monarchic dictatorship such as eSwatini.
And while state formation and politics is often emphasised and fairly well documented with regards to how this shapes the news media and either opens up for the freedom of press or serves as a structural impediment to constrain it, news cultures, individual agency and individual and contextual negotiations around the role of the news media and journalism is less documented.
This is good news for media and journalism scholars as research into journalism cultures in different contexts will be key to understanding the roles that journalism can play amidst churn whether from traditional or social media, political spin doctoring, or fake news.
Here are some of my observations from the encounters and discussions I have had with journalist colleagues from around the continent.
Journalists are acutely aware of the legal, political, cultural and socio-economic contexts that they form part of and in which journalism is practiced. In this regard, the often quoted ideas and ideals of the ‘Western’ normative liberal model of the news media is not necessarily enforced, neither desired.
This said, objectivity is more and more being queried as a central tenet of ‘good’ journalism in liberal frameworks. The idea and ideal of objectivity has almost become a dirty word in journalism and even more so critical studies of journalism. Instead, balance and fairness are seen as guarantors of good journalism, less so however in our own context.
This balance and fairness might be hard to obtain in contexts where socio-economic disparities dictate readership and access to sources, where gender equality is not commonly accepted as desired and where powerful governments and more or less one party states, whether democratic or authoritarian, call for either conformity or outright opposition.
Journalism is a contested practice, not only from people in positions of power position, but also from the audience and hence audience are considered from more perspectives than one and tastes, cultures, political and religious contexts and expressions considered. And where constraint to news coverage are posed as much by governments, powerful business interest as from the audience, objectivity might be the only means to assure any media coverage at all of some issues.
And where, objectivity might be criticised for not being able to question hegemonic power or bring about radical social change, however, balance and fairness might fail equally in this regard. This as balance might be interpreted in favour of either hegemonic powers or the marginalised, and fairness equally so. In some context for example, fairness criteria in the news media have given equal space for right-wing extremists to express their views as at the detriment of a broader debate about human rights as freedom from hurt and pain enmeshed in continuous legacies of racism for example.
This also talks to ideas of the media as a watchdog of powerful interest in society and a journalism divorced from political loyalities, religious, cultural or ethnic. Here journalists cite the need to understand themselves in relation to a professional journalistic identity as opposed to adopting a professional identity divorced from ones own. This is not to say that identities are static, far from. The journalists I have interacted with are well aware of the constantly and rapidly changing forces shaping societies, and in the extension identities and ideas of belonging, across the continent. This is what guarantees a vibrant and exciting African news media.
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