Reader Blog
Reader Blog

Do you trust the media?

By Sipho McDermott

It’s a scary moment when you cross the barbed wire. You leave the relative safety of armoured vehicles and police protection for an angry, swirling crowd. Anyone in their right mind wouldn’t do it. But you are a journalist, and this kind of situation comes with the territory. You have to report the news from the “perspective of those who are most affected”. And you can’t do that from the safe side of the barricade.

So there you are: a young journo full of idealism, dodging flying bottles and bricks in your quest to discover the unheard voices. There’s just one problem. Nobody wants to talk to you.

At first you feel angry. Misunderstood. But then your anger turns to introspection as you realise that members of your own profession are to blame for the suspicion and silence of the “ordinary people” whose views you seek.

My moment of revelation came while I was covering the ANC Youth League’s pro-Malema demonstration outside Luthuli House. In the name of a “colour piece” a colleague and I negotiated the barbed wire and walked around Beyers Naude Square. Our objective was simple: find out who the demonstrators were, why they were there, and how they felt.

“No, you will twist our words.”

This often-repeated phrase became the soundtrack to my dreams that night. At first I dismissed it. What else could be expected from an organisation not known for its love of journalists?

But curiosity got the better of me. I wanted to understand why the protestors felt this way. Very hesitantly, one young man related his experience. He had spoken to a reporter and agreed to have his photograph taken. The photo appeared in a newspaper — along with a contentious comment that he had never made. His local youth league branch was enraged.

Suddenly the small knot of people around the young man wanted to share their experiences too. As they described how they had been misquoted, or had fictitious comments created in their name, I began to feel ashamed to be a journalist.

We’re supposed to serve the public, but what if the public isn’t behind us, I wondered?

“As long as people themselves mistrust the media, they will never invest their energy defending it,” veteran journalism trainer, Hugh Lewin, told Zimbabwean editors last year.

His words have never been more relevant than now. The Protection of Information Bill is almost a reality. So is the Media Appeals Tribunal. Media activists and practitioners are fighting for their rights on all fronts. And so they should. But shouldn’t they also be striving to prove that the media deserve the public’s trust?

It won’t be easy. We have already taken that trust for granted — and trampled all over it.

Sipho McDermott is an M&G intern.

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    • A. Sevillano

      Dave Harris will even lend you his wife for a while just for writing this!

    • fraud

      Shame. Naïve intern. Still thinks the media is there to uncover the truth and inform the public. Soon you’ll find out that mainstream media houses all over the world have political agendas. In SA their agenda is to fuel the paranoia of the minority by painting a false picture that blacks are inherently incapable of anything good. This sentiment will make them feel better about themselves that they were right all along about these “monkeys”. The question is, what are you gonna do when your editor or some senior person tells you to twist the facts and create suggestive undertones? Are you gonna expose them or enjoy your salary?

    • isabella van der westhuizen

      Well I give the first poster full marks for humor but unfortunately what has been written here is true. Our so called free media is not free at all. It is owned by a particular market group.

    • T-Man

      Spot on.Its a tragedy because if the media was doing its job honourable, we wouldn’t have a problem of media tribunal or info. bill, the media would have been a powerful tool for the ordinary people to address or give their voice. Instead the media in their quest to pull down the Government or weaken the ANC, they have done every thing to the extreme and to the extent that they have become baised and even the simple minded can see that this is a plot, consequently, achieving the exact opposite of what they want to achieve. This deprive the people of South Africa the choice in democracy. Remember, if you rubbish everything that they do even if there are numerous achievements the country has achieved, the flops they do will not get prominence because you are crying wolfe all the time (You know the story). What happened to the power of suggestion instead of the media becoming outright the first opposition. DA doesn’t have to do anything the media is totally on their side. I would love to see DA making in serious roads with Black people because this will pese a serious challenge to the Government to perform well but the DA seems to be playing on racial predudes and fears of the minority groups and overtly so at that, which is tragic. If you go about painting everything that is done by Blacks as being corrupt or incompetent and you wonder why the ANC remains strong inspite of the total onslaught.

    • robbo

      It’s true that news stories have to be read with healthy scepticism. But my distrust of the media is more related my distrust of journalists competence rather than any suspicion that they are biased.

      My total and absolute scepticism of anything the ANCYL has to say is much more related to my distrust of their basic honesty.

      So there’s a big difference. Politicians lie for a living; journalists get it wrong because they’re incompetent.

    • Psalm

      Sipho, this is a sobbering article. To borrow a french phrase: chapeau! (hat off to you!).

      The basic premise regarding press freedom is that the media actually serves a public interest of, inter alia, informing the public and informing it accurately. When accuracy is questioned, trust in the media eroded. When trust is eroded, freedom of the press is viewed as a liability to society – not an asset.

      I think the SA media has spent too much time trumpeting “press freedom” and shrilling against dangers to this freedom, while failing dismally to convince many South Africans that they are, in fact, trustworthy.

      I, personally, do not trust the SA mainstream media. Not one bit. Not even if you paid me. Inaccurate reporting is so common, it is actually quite disgusting.

      We wish to not only be informed, but to be informed accurately. If not, then there is zero need for journalists and their sensationalist nonsense. Give us truth and accuracy or lose your press freedom, for without truth and accuracy, it is being ABUSED.

    • Peter Joffe

      Yes it is a sad when journalists fabricate stories but it is going to be a worse case when true stories are no longer allowed.
      There is fault on both sides but muzzling the press is not the answer as the ANC seems to think.
      I see things changing in that as it is now possible with Zuma’s puppy in the Constitutional Court, the gagging bill will become law and older travesties of justice will be erased, such as the Arms Deal and all tender fraud.
      BUT stories will be fed to the Internet for all to see and no one to know where they came from. How the journalists will get paid for their work is another issue so perhaps we will all become free contributors to save our nation from the rape that it is now on going, as Zapiro so aptly notes in his cartoon “Zuma is having a democracy closing down sale”. During the World War 2 Germans faced execution if they listened to the BBC or any other out of country broadcasts, but listen they did to get the ‘true’ story. If the ruling party is all that you can listen to then very soon you begin to doubt what they are saying as evidence on the ground shows otherwise. Democracy does not work in Africa as Africans in general beleive in it so long as it expresses their views and needs. If not then it has to be silenced to the loss of all. Does an overwhelming vote for the ANC include the right to loot the coffers of the State? The ANC thinks so and will continue to do it but now, in the dark. Perhaps the media will move offshore to safety.

    • Kwame

      @ Sipho, perhaps you trust yourself as you go on with your proffessional duties. But the fact is as a journalist you are part of an establishment that has many levels of controls. Some of those controls are deliberately hidden from even the journalist that operates within the environment. I don’t think any journo would be in any position to say that they know what the true motivations of editor’s are or what criteria was used to appoint them by shareholders.

      Just as an example, you probably are aware that some of our maintream newspapers were initiated by the intelligence arm of the Apartheid regime, and they are still alive and kicking today. So why would the public trust such an institution that can’t protect itself from bad elements to begin with? Would you even say that the media industry is transperent and transformed?

    • Gersie Dee

      I agree with fraud. You can watch any of John Pilger’s documentaries, he bravely exposes the media’s political agendas. If you want a South African example check out the one called “Apartheid didn’t die” also made by him.

    • peter

      This is the age old problem and it is probably a good idea to apply the following ideas.1. It maybe wise to always try to make up ones own mind about issues of contention and not be led by the opinion of others. 2. Perhaps not trust anyone until they have earned the right to be trusted and 3. Understand that respect needs to be earned and cannot be demanded. One can learn from anyone else, regardless of their stature in life, their gender or their colour.
      Wisdom has no colour, looks one gets for nothing and poor upbringing together with bad manners always shows.
      These faults and attributes are present or absent in all of us, to be used either to our advantage or our detriment, but when we use them to the detriment of others then we are treading on treacherous ground. Perhaps this is where folks who sell their souls to the highest bidder ( the main stream media ) have gone wrong, but they have made the choice and have to live with it. If they take any note of the 3 ideas proposed above then maybe they would think differently. Who knows? Just some thoughts from a confused mind that has lost faith in much of humanity and their misguided intentions in general, understanding well that those who claim to represent others are actually just representing themselves and doing neither themselves nor their followers any justice in the process.

    • Sipho

      The opposition to the media appeals tribunal is mainly about defending the right of journalists to offend without being called to atone. I can’t figure why would media houses be concerned if they report honestly and factually.

    • dimwit

      Judging by the way current global issues are reported on by the mainstream media compared with the facts (easily gleaned if you’re even slightly internet savvy) the answer is negative. However you journos work for these machines and it really is up to you as the very first point of contact to get it right and ensure it goes out with absolute integrity. As for the ANC youth’s accusation that the media “twist words” there are legal and civil avenues he can take if the media house itself refuses to correct and apologize for any misquotes and you told him this? Taking this type of remark at face value from one person is not good journalism.

    • Dave Harris

      @A. Sevillano
      Unlike Sevillano’s family, wife swapping isn’t part of my family tradition, however Sipho, me “love you long time” 😉 for having the intelligence, courage and foresight to speak out against our media mafia.

      Unfortunately, as I mentioned numerous times in the past, media tribunals are the only way to compensate for the Rupert Murdoch style media conglomerate that now places our entire fledgling democracy at risk.

    • MLH

      The world is going through a period of general decay and lack of common ethics. It does this from time to time and few governments, businesses or individuals are immune to the temptation to allow standards to fall. It is very clear in South Africa and is the reason so many people who acknowledge the presence of evil are so concerned.
      What should concern us more is whether we allow it to continue or we will all speak out on every front. If we leave things until we have hit rock bottom we will have so much farther to climb out of the pit we dig ourselves. We can reverse the process at any stage, but not unless each of us takes a firm stand for right and demands transparent dealings in all matters, from the media as much as from government.
      Make your choice. We can either say that we can’t beat them, so we’ll join them, or we can choose that all good people stand together to fight wrong.
      This may seem dramatic, but the rot infects all levels, from top down, and all areas of our society, from the state, to the common criminal and church members. It has absolutely nothing to do with any particular colour or creed.

    • A. Sevillano

      Dave Harris- You’re like a watch spring. Unwind dude! Even Isabella saw the humour and that’s really something!

    • jack sparrow

      So Sipho, who should we trust? We should have an unbiased unhindered, uncensored flow of information from every and any source available to us in print, TV, internet and radio. Freely available. We should be sufficiently educated to evaluate this information.Then we can trust ourselves. Now go back, if you dare, and tell us who is interfering in this free flow of accurate information. Everyone, without fear or favour. Then you may be a Thought Leader, otherwise you are just a blogger.