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.