Good civics education will improve understanding of role of newspapers

Picture: 123RF/DANIL CHEPKO
Picture: 123RF/DANIL CHEPKO

One of the myriad failures of SA’s education system — the post-1994 period — is a poor knowledge of civics and society.

This lack of knowledge is especially acute when it comes to understanding the role and place of newspapers, and in particular, the difference between news reportage and opinion, and of investigative journalism.

It does not help, also, that we have politicians with access to social media, and who make for good sound bites, and to whose words people tend to hold on religiously.

The basic point, which any elementary civics course would drive home, is that newspapers, and the news media, in general, are a cornerstone of a functional democracy — such as ours.

It serves both to keep those in power in check, and to provide the factual reportage, and considered and informed opinion that would help people make informed decisions about politics and society.

One outcome of this lack of understanding is that concepts like neutrality, objectivity, and intellectual honesty bleeds from the news to opinion pages in the public perception.  

It gets worse when individual editors or journalists are singled out (demonised and threatened with physical harm) for reporting on, or presenting opinions on politicians or public figures. This is probably the most dangerous misunderstanding.

Elected officials and office-bearers are held to a higher standard of scrutiny than that public — because they (ideally) play a formative role in our future.

And so, if a news reporter refers to, say, Andile Lungisa as a convicted criminal, it is the truth. If a commentary writer says Julius Malema and the EFF are a danger to society, that’s just his or her opinion, but the writer has to explain, and provide a logical and coherent basis for making the claim. There is a complete difference between day-to-day news reporting and opinion writing (columnists, like myself).

A couple of years ago, a study in the US, “Americans and the News Media: What they do — and don’t — understand about each other” established that at least 75% of the public said it was “very” or “somewhat” easy to distinguish news articles, from commentary of opinion pieces. Only 43% of those polled said they could tell the difference on social media like Facebook or Twitter. The conclusion was that very many people were simply “confused”.

The problem is compounded in SA, where readers first check whether the writer is black or white, and then make up their mind. In other words if a black person is critical of a white person, the black person is being divisive or a race-baiter. If a white journalist is critical of a black person, the white person is racist, opposed to “black excellence” and has a “colonial” or “apartheid mentality”.

The vituperation gets increasingly noisy and dangerous when investigative journalists focus on a particular politician or political party.

The go-to response is “whataboutism” (you are critical of a black politician, what about a white business person, or FW de Klerk) the next response, which is laughable, is that the journalist is “obsessed with” the politician (or political party).

The fact is that if a journalist, or a newspaper, focuses on a particular situation or state of affairs, they are simply being thorough, and doing their job thoroughly. Like researchers, they gather as many facts as possible, and may have to “sit on” a case for weeks, and even months. One response to investigative reports Ace Magashule, was something like “if journalists think that Magashule has done anything wrong, they should go and file a complaint with the police”. That is not how journalists work. Their job is to hold politicians (and powerful people in society) accountable, to expose ethical lapses, maladministration and corruption.

The columnist has the time to place all the above facts in some kind of context, draw comparisons, and reach his or her own conclusions — which may differ from one newspaper to the next. This is an important distinction.

The newsmedia in SA has shrunk considerably in terms of readership and, unfortunately, in terms of “political alignment”. There was a time, two or three decades ago, when the “mainstream” media were dominated by two companies, The Argus Group (now the Independent group), and South African Associated Newspapers, which has become Arena, publishers of The Herald.

We broke that stranglehold in the 1980s with the Weekly Mail, then came South, and the Vrye Weekblad. That was when the “alternative” newspapers were born; and we were a lot more critical of the status quo, to the extent that some of us, individual journalists, including myself, were banned, arrested, beaten up or detained.

As things stand, today, there are two or three groups of publications, one of which is an online platform, that continue to do outstanding work. As far as I know — and I have been in and out of this business since 1980 — not one of these “groups” support a political party.

Also, individual journalists (including columnists), often hold contending views. The biggest problem (of this miseducation), is that South Africans still throw around concepts like “sell-outs,” “revolution,” “whiteness”, “privilege”, and racial preference/marginalisation, as explanation for everything or anything they disagree with.

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