Living in South Africa is exhausting. We are always one small step away from mass hysteria. Or that, at least, is the impression you’d get if you based your knowledge entirely on the news media, Tuesday being the most recent and vivid example.

Now, it’s understandable that if big political events take place the media should report on them as rapidly as possible. Thus when the presidency announced the resignation of 10 ministers, along with the beloved Trevor Manuel, it was fair for every website and radio station to get that news out to the country.

However – and it’s a big however – don’t we expect more of the media than to simply broadcast the most inflammatory version of the information at their disposal without any thought of the consequences? Some investigation. Some interrogation. Some thought. At the very least.

Within three seconds of hearing the news the most obvious question to me, the layperson, was: well, is this a resignation or a formality? Is this in the spirit of the establishment of a new cabinet, or a radical change in position from a week ago when Manuel quite clearly stated he was available to stay?

Why was THIS not the headline, then? “Manual resigns, but it may just be a procedural formality”.

The obvious reason is simply the news media want drama, want a frenzy, want chaos. Nothing draws more attention in an economy than devastation, collapse, madness and terror. The media hungers after larger-than-life events and we, the readers and viewers, cheer them on with our eyeballs.

We also, these days, cheer them on with our comments. From the staid and managed radio call-in shows of the past we have moved to online discussion boards and forums where the filters to the hysteria are all but invisible. Within minutes of the news being posted on sites like Moneyweb, dozens of misspelt and frankly ridiculous comments had arrived. The most infuriating being the endless variations of “it’s been fun, see you in Aus”.

It was instructive to watch how the comments evolved as the news about Trevor Manual cleared itself up like an outbreak of bronchitis. The early commentators vanished as fast as they had appeared, with no way to take back their extremist drivel. And the later ones turned to assaults against Manto Tshabalala-Msimang for not being included on the list.

Here’s the thing: the ‘general public’ such as we are cannot be relied upon to offer up anything more than predictable, emotional and knee-jerk responses. To be honest one can learn just about nothing from reading the comments on these kinds of forums, other than that people tend to behave just as you’d expect them to.

This is why blogs (TL excluded, since it is both edited and moderated) are a fundamentally poor source of news and only a slighter better source of analysis. They provide reaction. And they have their place.

But the professional news media have a different kind of role and a greater responsibility. They need to moderate themselves because there is no one who will do it for them. So when the markets plunge and the streets are filled with blood, yes it is the politicians who are ultimately to blame. But the media must own their role: they might just be the messenger, but a messenger of the most dangerous kind; one whose own agenda is to provoke the biggest possible reaction.

To say it clearly: the reporting of the entire saga around Zuma and Mbeki over the past months, and especially the last week, has, on the whole, been appalling, irresponsible, alarmist and destructive. You, the media, should be ashamed of yourselves.

I only wish the applicability of the above sentence ended now. But there is more coming, of that we can have little doubt.


  • Jarred Cinman is software director at Cambrient, South Africa's leading developer of web applications. He co-founded Johannesburg's first professional web development company and was one of the founders of VWV Interactive, for many years the premier creative web business in the country, winning numerous Loeries and various international awards. In 2001, Jarred co-founded Cambrient, which has, in its six-year history, built the leading local content management system and serviced an impressive list of corporate customers. Cambrient Contentsuite is also the engine behind Moneyweb.


Jarred Cinman

Jarred Cinman is software director at Cambrient, South Africa's leading developer of web applications. He co-founded Johannesburg's first professional web development company and was one of the founders...

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