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Media-ting the debate: What is the role of responsible media?

By Dylan Stewart

The media plays a powerful role in driving public opinion, however media companies depend on the public’s readership for the income that will keep it in business. A responsible media needs to masterfully strike a fine balance to maintain its integrity and its consumer base.

This is an article responding to the numerous pieces on the role of this country’s media, including editor-in-chief of the New Age, Moegsien Williams, and Daily Maverick journalist Stephen Grootes.

The debate asks the question: what information should a responsible media publish? Williams says it should be constructive information geared towards nation-building. Grootes says the role of the responsible media in South Africa is simply to convey the truth. Grootes of course suggests that the truth is often contrary to Williams’ notion of nation-building.

It must be noted that both articles make good points; Grootes is totally correct to see through Williams’ ANC-friendly political agenda but Williams also has a gem of wisdom in realising that the media inadvertently plays a role in shaping the appetite of the public.

“Responsible media” is a crucial term that has been glossed over in the debate so far.

Barring the New Age I can’t think of any big news publisher that is not strongly motivated by profit — in terms of sales and advertising. We must not forget that the free media is the free-market media, which creates a particular set of constraints and coercions.

Therefore one of the questions we must ask is: How should a media firm remain responsible when its business model makes the information it produces amenable to profit?

To answer this question I must flesh out the dialectic that governs media content in a profit-driven media market like that of South Africa. The dialectic is between the discretion of media firms over what information is (and isn’t) published and the demand for certain information from the particular media company’s consumer base (a certain sector of the public).

It is dialectic because the one fuels the other. Public demand determines what the media needs to cover in order to make sales. At the same time the media plays a definitive role in shaping public demand. It does this by deeming certain information newsworthy or valuable, automatically sidelining other information.

Newspapers do not simply go about issuing arbitrary facts, they provide truths around topics that are demanded by the public and at the same time they also have a role in putting certain truths in the spotlight onto which the public latch and deem important.

This is why Grootes’ idea that the role of the media is simply to deliver the truth is rather naïve. You would expect the pedigreed Grootes to display more wisdom regarding the political nature of information and truth.

In a free market environment where media is solely published for the sake of profit, without any sense of ethics or regard for the inherent value of certain information over other information the media simply meets public demand without any self-awareness. This leads to a sensationalist media that is fuelled to the nth degree by a scandal-driven imaginaire.

Of course South Africa’s media is not devoid of responsible behaviour. Some of the figures within the media definitely do forego profit in the pursuit of a good story.

In addition journalists are typically not paid on a per-reader basis, something which might otherwise incentivise sensationalism.

South Africa’s civil society is also not an empty vessel and many ethically minded people in the public domain form a demand for good, meaningful content.

However, clearly it could be better.

A recent article by Alex Eliseev, published in the Daily Maverick, titled “Dear South Africa, I’m sorry” ran through a list of all things important which the South African media, at least partly, fails to cover.

Amongst this list Eliseev apologises to South Africa for the media failing to comprehensively expose corruption or to provide rural schools with the publicity they deserve.

To add to Eliseev’s list I have heard of two occasions this year when at least 40 shacks have burned down in Johannesburg townships which subsequently received no coverage from the Star and most likely all newspapers. It is not an ambitious claim to make that if 40 townhouses in Bedfordview burned down there would be extensive media coverage of the event.

The media’s coverage of American celebrities is meaningless and I believe it is irresponsible to make this sort of information appear to be important while there is such pressing information elsewhere of events affecting real lives that cause or relieve pain, curtail or promote freedom, etc.

Furthermore, perhaps Williams is right that the South African media has a tacit agenda to challenge the ANC’s political hegemony and their abuse of it. A media firm should not be afraid to overtly affirm that it wishes to challenge the lack of accountability that allowed Jacob Zuma to use state funds to make upgrades to his Nkandla home if they believe it ethically necessary (as they should).

Publishing houses that ignore their political clout, are likely to passively affirm systems of power including highly problematic trends of dominance such as patriarchy, whiteness and corporate dominance.

This is why certain magazines like the Economist or the Guardian, as mentioned by Grootes, have aptly chosen a political stance.

To take an ethical stance will often mean that a media house must forego profit to some extent. Most publishers would immediately agree that in a scenario where profit-maximisation entails masking the truth for a big bribe, the firm is ethically obliged to forego its profit.

But what if the entire business model of a particular publishing house is one which fosters, in the long term, a biased perspective or an unconstructive worldview? What if, for example, a media house like the Star makes its profits off of a paranoid consumer base by providing it with information that teases and entertains their paranoia? Surely concerted introspection and research is required by media firms to determine if their business model is one that nurtures a reasonable worldview on the part of the public.

The other issue is in terms of costs. The way in which a profit-driven news agency sources information is often in the least costly manner. It is easy to get hold of news about celebrities. Even regarding more serious issues, costs are absorbed by organisations that have the means to hire spokespeople or by speaking to people who have means for long-distance communication.

While covering the Marikana massacre the majority of the people interviewed were heads of organisations such as platinum miners Lonmin, the National Union of Mineworkers, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, the government and the South Africa Police Services. Hardly any mineworkers were actually interviewed.

Providing a voice mainly to the social and economic elite has an effect on whose voices a readership sees to be important. This is a reason why, for example, black-consciousness or feminist organisations criticise the systemic bias held by many publishers towards white male figures.

My suggestion is that media houses include in their ethical codes the role they wish to play in shaping public opinion.

Inarguably all media firms should aspire to presenting the truth. But owing to the political nature of truth a media firm’s ethical mandate should contain more than that.

A good ethical position will be one that is not so tight so as to encourage censorship but not so loose so as to generate unbalanced views or bolster unjust systems of power. It will be one that acknowledges a plurality of priorities such as truth and profit as well as the direction it wishes to steer public awareness.

So what of the claim that South Africa’s media is too negative? Is the media simply reflecting a broken society like it should? Or is the media, driven by profit motives, reporting mostly on negative events that fuel the paranoid South African imagination so that hundreds of thousands of copies filled with scandal and terror are sold every day? I would tend towards the latter.

A final challenge may be posted by free-marketeers who will say the predominantly negative media leaves a gap in the market for a more positive media firm to emerge.

But providing a balanced perspective on South African affairs should not be entrusted to the market. This is for two reasons. Firstly many readers are loyal to only one publication that will then provide them with the unbalanced perspective that I worry about. Secondly because as I noted it might be more market-friendly to present negative news.

As a journalist I believe the South African media to be one of the significant successes of our democracy. Through thorough ethical awareness and action the industry can positively respond to the debate that is currently being had to further enhance its integrity and South Africa’s democracy.

Dylan Stewart is currently a journalist at Creamer Media but, at heart, a student of philosophy and economics.