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.