Media lured by down-market whirlpool

Anton Harber fears that South African journalism is threatened by trivialisation and declining standards.

Summary - A South African judge is arrested in India for allegedly raping a woman and our local media name him before he has pleaded in court. Most editors seem unaware of the ethical and legal issues involved in doing this. The husband of the judge’s accuser phones a talk radio programme to discuss the incident. Few filters exist in live broadcasting to prevent names and accusations from being blurted out, no matter how untrue or malicious they may be. What happened to the clean-up of the profession that was promised in late 2003 in the wake of the Hefer Commission’s exposure of unethical behaviour by certain prominent journalists, as well as the Bristow-Bovey and Vusi Mona incidents? Similar events are occurring worldwide (most notably at the New York Times, USA Today and the BBC), and they are all products of a global marketplace battle between the forces of cheap, entertainment-driven media and those still committed to offering solid, thoughtful reporting. The move to what Allister Sparks calls “microwave journalism” is being driven by the huge conglomerates that dominate the world’s media, the supreme example of which is Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. Twenty-four-hour live news coverage has contributed to the decline. In the non-stop rush to broadcast the news, stories are aired without undergoing the rigorous checking that used to occur. The “talking heads” who fill air time, expressing “expert” opinions on any subject and speculating loosely in a way that never happened in the past, are part of the problem. The most extraordinary development in the South African media industry last year, however, was not the scandals but the unexpected growth of newspapers and readership, much of it at the lower end of the market. Thus Gauteng now has seven daily newspapers – more than it can support – and this has meant drastic cost-cutting, which has taken a toll on quality. Business Day, for example, has 32 fewer journalists than two years ago. The good news is that many more papers are being sold, and a society that is reading has to be healthier in the long run. In the short term, however, the boom comes from papers that peddle celebrity gossip. With the exception of ThisDay, the move is overwhelmingly down-market. Surprisingly, there is still some very good journalism. The media has repeatedly nailed corruption in the ruling party and played a key role in challenging the president. And despite the pressure on the media to further “national interests”, a core of independent and sceptical journalists remains.

As I write, the newspapers and television screens are filled with the name of a South African judge arrested in India after allegations that he raped a fellow-member of a national delegation to a conference.

Most editors appear to be oblivious to the fact that there may be ethical and legal issues around the publication of the man's name before he has pleaded in court. Coming so soon after the country was shaken by a series of ethical crises among journalists, this is quite startling.

In fact, the husband of the woman who accused the judge of rape is reported to have phoned a talk radio station to discuss the matter immediately he heard about the incident - at 3am. The nature of such live broadcasting, especially in an hour when the producers are likely to be less than alert, is that there are few legal or ethical filters to prevent names and accusations being blurted out, however unfair or half-baked or malicious they may be.

What happened to the feast of self-examination, the promises to tighten up, the commitment to clean up the profession, which we heard in the last few months of 2003?

Faced with the Hefer Commission, and its exposure of the cheap, nasty and unethical behaviour of a bevy of prominent journalists (now former journalists); the outing of well-known columnist Darrel Bristow-Bovey as no more than a "well-paid copy typist", as Newsweek magazine put it; and the dismissal of City Press editor Vusi Mona for moonlighting as a public relations agent for political leaders under scrutiny in his own paper, there was hope and promise of a clean-up.

The fact is that what is happening in South African journalism is happening worldwide, with scandals having recently rocked three great institutions of world journalism: the New York Times, USA Today and the BBC. The New York Times - the pompous paragon of accuracy and ethical behaviour - faced the Jayson Blair scandal, where a young reporter was found to have systematically fabricated stories over a long period of time; USA Today has just parted ways with a senior reporter alleged to have played loose with the facts; and the BBC faced an official inquiry over its reporting on the war in Iraq. All three cases have rocked those institutions to the core.

This pattern is the outcome of a grand, global marketplace battle between the forces of cheap, entertainment-focused media and those still trying to defend the castles of solid, information and news-based journalism. As the pressure increases to produce cheaper, more popular and less challenging media, those who are trying to hold on to some notion of journalism as a noble profession, trying to ferret out facts and get as close to the truth as possible, find themselves under more and more strain.

The increasingly large conglomerates that dominate the global media drive the move to easier, entertainment-based coverage, "microwave journalism" as South African commentator Allister Sparks has called it. The supreme example of this is Rupert Murdoch, who has long predicted that entertainment will replace news as the driver of his media, and has revelled in the fact that it is cheaper, easier and less controversial to produce and sell than real, tough journalism.

The few bastions of reportage that are withstanding this with some success tend to be family-controlled newspapers like the New York Times or trust-controlled papers like The Guardian of London. There are fewer and fewer such institutions.

Also driving this process, according to two former-journalists-turned-media-critics, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, is the arrival of 24-hour live news coverage on television and the internet.

This non-stop rush to broadcast the news means there are fewer filters to prevent untested allegations or rumours getting on air - just as was the case on the South African radio station which first broadcast the rape allegations against the judge.

Traditionally, newspapers and conventional broadcasters would check, test and affirm stories before they went public; the demands of instant, 24/7 news is that it must go up as quickly as possible and there are fewer mechanisms - and less concern - to check the information.

Rumour is aired, repeated and picked up by other media; pundits quickly comment and elevate the story to something more serious; sooner or late it is all-pervasive and other media are saying (as they did in naming the South African judge) that they have to follow suit or look silly.

The best-known illustration of this was the leaking of the Monica Lewinsky scandal during the Clinton presidency in the United States. Newsweek magazine, which had been working on the story for some time but did not feel they have enough evidence to run it, were trumped by a well-known gossip site, the Matt Drudge Report, which prides itself on aiming for just 80 per cent accuracy. It seldom achieves this modest aim.

Kovach and Rosenstiel also argue that to fill 24-hour live television cost-effectively, you have to rely enormously on "talking heads", the "punditocracy" who are quick to give their "expert" advice on anything they are asked about. Some of these experts will make assertions and speculate loosely on air, while under time pressure, in a way that would never have seen the light of day in traditional media forms.

"There are no gatekeepers," they assert, because this live process means that these allegations and speculations go on air instantly, without recourse to any cross-checking.

Or as senior Washington Post editors Leonard Downie JR and Robert Kaiser wrote in their book, The News about the News: "Most (US) newspapers have shrunk their reporting staffs, along with the space they devote to news, to increase their owners' profits. Most owners and publishers have forced their editors to focus more on the bottom line than on good journalism. Papers have tried to attract readers and advertisers with light features and stories that please advertisers and by de-emphasizing serious reporting on business, government, the country and the world."
In South Africa, the enormous financial pressures on a media industry consumed by intensive competition have exacerbated this process.

The most extraordinary thing that happened in South African media last year was not the scandals, but the incredible growth of newspapers and readerships. This period is likely to be remembered as one in which an extraordinary number of newspapers were launched. These included the up-market ThisDay, the isiZulu-language daily Isolezwe, and a clutch of screaming tabloids, The Daily Sun, Die Kaapse Son and then Son. These came not long after the launch of the Sowetan Sunday World and the Sunday Sun.

It was an unpredictable burst of activity and the fact that much of the growth was centred on the lower end of the market, rather than the top end, turned expectations on their head. But the result is that Gauteng, for example, has seven daily newspapers - more than it can support.

This has meant drastic cost-cutting in most institutions, which has left newsrooms bereft of talent and resources - and this has to take a toll on the quality of journalism. The words of Downie and Kaiser describing the US media, could well be applied to South Africa. This has been most evident in the Independent Group, where they have faced the added pressure of having to deliver returns in Irish Pounds and suffer from the fluctuating local currency. But they are not alone: Business Day has an astounding 32 fewer journalists than it had two years ago - and this must have a profound affect on their capability to initiate real and rigorous first-hand reporting (as opposed to reactive journalism or the processing of agency material).

The Sunday Independent, however, is the prime example. Once touted as the flagship of the Independent Group and its commitment to quality journalism, it no longer has a full-time editor and runs with a reporting staff of only 2-3 people.

The good news is that across the country a total of about 160 000 more papers are being sold on an average weekday than a year earlier, and about 100 000 more on Sundays. And the evidence is that people who had not previously been reading newspapers are buying a good number of these papers.

This bucks international trends, which saw a continued loss of newspaper readers to other media, particularly those that require less demanding attention than the printed word.

And what a cause for celebration this new readership is! A society that is reading more has to be - in the long run - a healthier one. Is it too much to say that a better-read society is going to be one that can fight poverty, build houses and run schools effectively? And is it overly optimistic to say that this society is going to produce an electorate that is more aware and critical?

But this boom comes from papers like The Daily Sun and the Sunday World, peddling celebrity gossip and horror or freak stories as an alternative to serious journalism. The Sunday Times, with its rich mix of serious politics and sexy celebrities, finds itself for the first time competing with papers which are prepared to devote all their resources and space to the pursuit of celebrities - and sometimes with fewer scruples about its accuracy.

The Star of Johannesburg, having seen The Daily Sun overtake it as the country's biggest daily paper within 18 months of its launch, is having to dress itself up like a tabloid every day to fight off this challenge. With the exception of ThisDay, a bold but highly costly and risky venture, the move is overwhelmingly to go down-market and gather cheaper news.

So it is no great surprise that there has been so much scandal in our journalism world in the last few months. With a squeeze on resources, a circulation war, and more papers than the market can bear, the quality of reporting must suffer.

Perhaps more surprising is the fact that there has been some very good journalism under these circumstances. The Journalist of the Year Award last year was won for the Mail & Guardian's exposé of undeclared conflicts of interest by Mosiuoa Lekota, the minister of defence and national chairman of the ruling party. The media has nailed corruption in the ruling party repeatedly, and played a key role in challenging - and forcing a change in the policies of - a president who believed passionately in the dissident view of HIV/Aids. The Sunday Times produced a model of thorough investigative journalism in its exposé of Tony Yengeni and his exploits.

It is common dinner party practice to trash the quality of our country's journalism. Much of our work deserves this criticism, and more, but there is still enough challenging, provocative, independent reporting to stand out and bear witness to the extraordinary levels of media freedom we enjoy.

And, although there is constant pressure on journalists to fall in line with a half-baked notion of "national interest" and temper their criticism, there remains a core of independent and sceptical journalists who resist going along with this.

In many ways, we are caught in the frenzy of a new democracy, when media and journalism is still taking shape, and many are grappling with both the demands and obligations of freedom of expression. In this process, it is hard to avoid the global shift from news to entertainment, from diversity to agglomeration and the homogenisation this brings, and the overwhelming demands of 24-hour news coverage - with its emphasis on quantity rather than quality, and range of coverage rather than depth.