Miriam Mannak
Miriam Mannak

Confessions of a journalist

When I studied journalism, I was taught, among other things, that in order to call yourself a competent journalist you should have the ability to remain a fly on the wall at all times. “Your job is to observe, not to interfere, and to switch off your emotions in order to be as objective as possible” was one of the many things I was told by my professors. I never thought that that would be a problem, realising that there is no such thing as ‘pure objectivity’. So far, I have always managed to provide my editors with news stories and features without letting my feelings interfere.* Remaining a quiet fly on the wall has never really been an issue. Up until now, that is.

Over the past weeks, practically everything — both my work and private life — revolved around the wave of xenophobia that swept through our country. It has hit me hard, I must say, as this is sort to speak happening in my own backyard. Visiting the townships subjected to the violence, and talking to people (both victims as well as perpetrators and supporters of the acts) has made a lasting impression on me. How do you react when people blatantly say that, if foreigners do not want to leave by themselves, that they will clean the ‘hood themselves?

Visiting the various shelters, as both a journalist and an individual to drop off goods, has hit me even harder. Hearing people’s stories and experiences, seeing how they struggle, reading the reports in the newspapers, seeing South Africans doing all they can to help out strangers. Over and over and over again. It has all been overwhelming, just like being surrounded by displaced individuals who ask you for help. What do you say or do when a woman without shoes asks you for assistance? What do you say when someone’s blanket has been stolen? Do you write down their statements, take their pictures and leave, or do you put down you pen and paper, wave your middle finger to your editor, and help out?

And if you decide to help out, how do you do that? Emptying your wallet might bring relief to a few for a couple of days, but that is far from sustainable.

This all and more is hampering me in my opinion from looking at the situation from a fly’s perspective. The horrific pictures that have appeared in the newspapers of people maimed, burnt to death, assaulted, hurt, and traumatised do not help. They are etched in my memory.

I am wondering if I am the only journalist at the moment who is not 100% certain of the level of objectivity in his or her news reports?

Nevertheless, my editor is happy with what I write and the way I write it. “Excellent piece”, I was told a few days ago. ” I expected more of your emotions coming to play. It must be hard to remain objective in that situation.”

If he’d only knew.

* That obviously does not count for the pieces I have posted on Thought leader so far, which are entitled to revolve more around one’s ideas and opinions compared to your straightforward news story.

  • Alisdair Budd

    On the topic of standards of journalism, perhaps someone in SA would like to notice that ZANU is now using the Herald to claim that the MDC leader should be charged with treason, because he caused the racist violence in SA because he is supported by the west:

    http://www.herald.co.zw/inside.aspx?sectid=34701&cat=10

    Any ime you can find a competent journalist in SA that isn’t taken by surprise by Black racists, do a bit of research into the reason 3-4 million Zims are in SA and finally start writing some criticisms of Mebeki and the ANC allowing another counry to decide their foreign policy for them whilst they cause societal collapse for their own poolitical purposes feel free.

    Let alone finally get off the Unicorn and show any knowledge of the last forty years of the history of Independent countries in Africa, because SA society is that out of touch, and try to learn from their mistakes before it is too late.

  • Monde Nkasawe

    Thinking that you could ever be objective was an illussion. Even when you thought you were objective, before the xenophobic violence, I suspect you were in fact in a comfort zone about your own world than in a state of objectivity. I’m not a journalist, but I do believe that there is no such a thing as ‘objectivity’. Events will always be seen, presented and interpreted from a subjective perspective. What gives us the knowledge that we are doing the right thing is strict adherence to agreed proffesional standards, norms and rules, depending on our chosen occupations. A historian can never be objective, precisely because there is a difference between history and the past

  • Consulting Engineer

    When has their ever been an unbiased journalist? Mostly they are leftists and always write with that slant. For example, you would never agree that getting rid of the foreigners is correct. Its not PC to say that. So you persist with the PC liberal view, clouded with your emotions, like this rant.

    When I was in the army I was taught to never speak to a journalist. They will twist anything you say around to make it appear ‘anti-apartheid’ and they are the ears of the enemy.

    I was taught when I see a fly on the wall to swat it.

    Besides flies and journalists feed of the samething and spread the same thing.

    They can also be compared to vultures. Whenever there is a carcass they fall over themselves to get there and feed off a good story and pics. Then they run back and celebrate their ‘success’. They make their living off spreading the misfortune of others.

  • Consulting Engineer

    And of course you would never sympathise with the xenophobist and think how he feels living in poverty, homes and services given to aliens, having to share his land and jobs with them etc. The government wont do anything about so he is forced to respond the only way he can, and in return hs own police force and army shoot at him.

    Nice isnt it? But in your unbiased view, you would never for a second consider his perspective would you?

    Of course not. Its not PC and would not win you journalistic kudos.

  • http://mydigitallife.co.za/hlakile hlakile

    In a perfect world, journalism is handled by journalism robots. We live in an emotional ocean that is life. To distance yourself from the things you report, you have to become dead inside little by little.

    Be proud that you are human and also that you are in touch with your humanity.

  • amused reader

    @ Miriam

    As a fellow immigrant, also white and from Europe, and about the same time as you, i to was deeply affected by the very same events. I think it is just something we did not grow up with, so our frame of reference is very different from those that lived through the worst of Apartheid.

    Two schools of thought are fighting this one out in the back of my mind, and i suspect that, if you are entirely honest, maybe you share at least some of the same thoughts.

    The good ‘me’ wants desperately to help, feels crippling compassion for the sufferers, as well as as increasingly a good degree of sympathy for the perpetrators (although their actions disgust me). I see that maybe the silver lining of this thunder cloud is a dawning realisation that the ANC is fatally flawed, and that those with true power are finally awakening to this reality.

    The bad ‘me’ recognises with every day that passes, that the likes of you and I judged SA from afar, and made judgments that we were not best qualified to make. That black Africans were and are a ‘simple’ folk, and that they have not arrived at a level of civilisation where they are sufficiently capable of self rule, which accounts for the fact that Africa is such a stuff up. Maybe Africa was better off under the colonial powers all along.

  • amused reader

    I am not usually a great fan of the Americans, but this quote was spot on.

    “South Africa remains an example of freedom – while devaluing and undermining the freedom of others. It is the product of a conscience it does not display,” Gerson said.

  • Peu

    Thank you for exploring this story with a measure of self doubt. The problem with this tragedy has been the rush to name it. The country’s leaders thought that if they spoke of some “third force”, they could walk off from the tragedy – self satisfied that they have somehow made some contribution, when all they have done is to throw a mere word in. But the most destructive name for this tragedy has been calling it Xenophobia. This is a tragedy that has been playing itself out for a long time now. It started before foreigners streamed across our border. It was only a matter of time before the “structural violence” that afflicts these communities exteriorized and acquired a name. I find it difficult to join in the chorus against a tragedy that has been misnamed. Anyone who has driven past men standing at street corners begging for jobs; seen the squalor and poverty. Anyone who has skipped over sewerage and filth, and heard women speak of the gangs that terrorize people in these communities – would have simply reached the conclusion that one day this life of “violence” will find an outlet. What a pity it has been misnamed. We have short memories. I choose to call this a tragedy!

  • Pieter Grobler

    Consulting Engineer has some anger issues, but this is a difficult one. I have sympathy for South Africa’s poor that bears the brunt of a government that does not govern and keep the basics up and running, but merely dreams of grand schemes.

    However bad and frustrating this situation is, you never can be excused for attacking another human being or burning them alive. That is why we go to the voting stations and vote for somebody to change the situation. We don’t fight each other.

    Perhaps South Africa’s problems (which are in fact not SO impossible to solve) only seem so serious because there is no way to solve it under the ANC’s current ideology, but also tradition of democracy to ensure change.

  • Siobhan

    The issue is not ‘objectivity’, Miriam, it is professional IMPARTIALITY in reporting the events themselves. Interpreting or evaluating the meaning of events is for the news analysis team in the editorial office AND for journalists’ contributions to such vehicles as Thought Leader.

    You would be less than human if you did not respond with compassion to human suffering, Miriam. You will have met your professional responsibilities as a servant of accurate and unbiased reporting if you reserve your EXPRESSION of your emotions for your blog and of course, in sharing them with trusted friends and/or family.
    In unburdening yourself of the conflict that you feel in your work, you honour both those you report on in the press and those of us who read your blog. As people, we all experience the conflicting emotions engendered by civic violence; there is no shame in that. Your awareness of the difficulty of rendering a fair and impartial account of what you observe as a journalist does you credit. Thank you, Miriam.

  • http://blogs.thetimes.co.za/size10 carls

    Its a hard balance – I work at the times and have spent more time the past 2 weeks running a collection for the red cross than anything else – i know its important to write about the situation and take the pictures so show the world what is going on – but i feel its not enough! so the world knows why – we need to do something!
    I agree with hlakile – u are a better journo for the way you feel! thanks for sharing these thoughts – i think a lot of us feel the same way

  • anton kleinschmidt

    On the subject of competent journalism and “excellent pieces” have a look at……

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/05/27/AR2008052702556.html

  • Tash Joseph

    I think the trick is to remind yourself that you AREN’T objective; that you do have feelings and opinions – and then to put those aside. For example, I’m pro-abortion – but when I write stories about abortion legislation, it is necessary to phone both pro-abortion and anti-abortion groups. It’s vital not to let your prejudices get in the way of a story – but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t HAVE those prejudices, you know?

    As for the SAfrican in Europe commenting on a journalist who stood there “like a fly on the wall”, that is an oft-debated ethical issue among journalists. Read “The Bang-Bang Club” by Marinovich and Silva for excellent insight into how Kevin Carter’s decision not to “interfere” with a picture by moving a little girl who was starving to death in…Ethiopia?…to a feeding centre was one of the catalysts that pushed him to suicide. It’s a really tough, emotional issue: when do you stand aside, and when do you get involved? Is your work an involvement? Is telling the story enough? I think all journalists will have different views on this.

  • Actual Engineer

    “They make their living off spreading the misfortune of others” – This is a extremely simple minded view. The tannies that write the huisgenoot are journalist – and they write some pretty cool stuff. And what about the people reporting on the recent food and wine show? Nice to see on TV as I could not make it, but I did not notice any misfortune? Except maybe if somehad had to eat raw mushrooms… Ever read the national geographic… enough said.
    Journalist are the eyes and ears of the public and have to convey that so that the people can respond. If all journalist put their pens down and helped the Mkwerakweras, how would we hear their plight and have the opportunity to help. Remember – everyone can choose if they want to read the news or not. Furthermore you can also decide to act on what you hear or see.

  • Seroto

    Am bothered that no one seems to be interested in finding out the causes of this Xenophobia, and ways of addressing it. All we hear and read about, to a sickening point, is condemnation without providing solutions. Sub-consciuosly, we all know that the perpetrators are themselves victims, and their action it’s merely a cry for help. Just to open a can of worms, an illegal immigrant is in the coutry and within some weeks he fraudulently owns a South African ID book and RDP house, yet we have fellow South Africans who have been on a waiting list for those houses ever since 2001 till today. How does government explain this? Surely something is wrong somewhere. To rub salt on an open wound, that illegal fellow walks around bragging about it and how lazy are South Africans.

  • Michael

    I’ve read several replies to several article on this site, from “Consulting Engineer”.
    I’ve noticed a lot of thought-provoking, some good ideas & a hang of a lot of simmering anger/skepticism.
    This is the first article response in which I think I understand why… I see your piece “when I was in the army”.
    I believe that the RSA army did a hell of a job in very difficult times. The young men involved were put in very nasty situations – sometimes right, often wrong – & went through hell & back.
    It’s not arrogance to note that in the 80’s, the Israeli military referred to RSA as having some of the most respected soldiers.
    Sadly, I don’t have one friend who was in the army during the conflict years (I refer to the 80’s specifically) – who doesn’t have huge issues/problems/struggles/anger/sadness in their lives.
    I barely missed going to war for my country – for which I eternally grateful; not that I wouldn’t have gone – but just that I have seen what it’s done to the lives of people I care about.

    My comments above can be a whole separate story, I suppose – & a bit off the topic.
    I just wonder if we can all try that little bit harder to let go of the past (emotions) – only learning from it.

  • To Consulting Engineer

    You’re is right that journos sometimes get the detail wrong, but generally the get the “big picture” right. As watchdogs they generally sniff out the “smoke” – fuzzy, hazy, shifting as it is – way before the “fire” becomes an inferno. The matter you accuse them of feeding and spreading [lovely metaphor] also makes the ground more fertile when applied correctly. 😉

    For example, the attacks on Mbeki as “aloof” have been vindicated in his JannieSmuts-like bestriding the world instead of walking about amongst the (smelly) masses.
    Then too, journos do shape public opinon – hence the faction fight for control over the SANC. How different is this than the lumpens fighting over scraps and crumbs? Hint: the cronies are not at the lowest level of Mazlow’s hierarchy.

    To Miriam: why not take up CE’s gauntlet and compare and contrast the current ethnic cleansing with apartheid? The same victim-perpetrator, underclass desperation, lost hope, and “indifferent” bystanders and beneficiaries. Surely every SAfrican who escaped that underclass (B&W) has benefitted from the labour of countless migrants.

  • Cader

    Hello Miriam

    While I apppreciate your objectivity,and candidness, your piece clearly reflects basic naivety of the history and situation in South Africa. I suggest you seriously read an article titled ” Only complete reform of economy can defuse tensions” published on page 13 of the Cape Times (28 May 2008) by Drucilla Cornell, Mahmood Mamdani and Sampie Terblance.
    Cheers

  • http://ivo.co.za/ Ivo Vegter

    I’m afraid Cader’s comment “clearly reflects basic naivety of history”, since he suggests you read communists about how to reform the economy. (A copy of the editorial he mentions can be found here.)

    To answer Seroto, I have written about both the causes and the solutions to the problem, inter alia on ThoughtLeader. Not everyone agrees with my take, of course, but I don’t simply denounce the violence. In fact, I empathise to some extent. It may be misguided, it may make scapegoats of foreigners for government’s failures, and it may betray a profound misunderstanding of economics, but I understand where the backlash comes from.

    And to Miriam, hang in there. Nice to see someone grasp the importance of objectivity in journalism. At times, it is very hard to achieve, and very tempting to get involved, rather than serve a higher good by observing and reporting the facts to a wider audience which is not on the scene.

    Commentary is a different animal, but all good commentary in the end relies not just on sound reason and well-read argument, but relies heavily on the hard work, accuracy and detachment of good reporters.

    May your pencil always stay sharp.

  • http://thoughtleader.co.za/miriammannak Miriam Mannak

    @ Hlakile – Thanks a lot for your words. Thanks a million.

    @ Ivo – Thanks for the support and the understanding (you clearly know what I am talking about here)

  • Juri

    Africa is not for sissies…

  • http://letpeoplespeak.amagama.com Lyndall Beddy

    Tash

    Nice that someone else also appreciates “The Bang Bang Club”

    But did not Kevin Carter only get stressed after he won the award for that photo and got asked what he had done about the child after he had taken the shot – and he COULD NOT REMEMBER!