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Strengthen grassroots press at community Ground Zero

Resource type: News

Business Day (South Africa) |

Original Source By Graeme Addison CRITICISM has been levelled at sections of the press – notably the Daily Sun and Sapa – for racially tinged reporting that allegedly fanned the fires of xenophobia. The accusation rests on the semantic bias of terms such as aliens and the actual content of reports stating or insinuating that foreigners are gangsters, drug-pushers, job-stealers and rapists. Another broader criticism of the media is that the press, broadcasting and web services failed, one and all, to alert the public to the outburst that was coming and that would embarrass SA in the eyes of the world. In this context, national shame is closely tied to the fear of losing support from investors abroad, who have staked their money on the rainbow nation. The question being asked of the media, as it is asked of government intelligence services, is why there was so little forewarning of SA’s worst civic violence since the days of apartheid. The signs were misread, even by newspapers that had their fingers on the pulse of community rage against the lack of service delivery. The sudden transition to ethnic cleansing – with foreigners being made the scapegoats for community frustrations – took most mainstream media commentators by surprise. Researchers had been warning for years that something ugly was brewing and likely to erupt against the makwerekwere, or perceived illegal immigrants. Media stood accused of complicity in fomenting xenophobic feelings, being nonanalytical, perpetuating myths about millions of foreign invaders, and doing nothing to correct bias. In 2005 the Institute for Democracy in SA (Idasa) produced a content analysis of 950 press reports on immigration showing that more than half of articles used at least one negative reference to foreigners and 22% of the coverage associated migrants with crime. The study commented that the new mass tabloid press was exploiting reactionary and sensational issues and attitudes. Is this generalised picture fair to our media or is it just another academically loaded critique? And what should editors and publishers, and the media industry, do about it? Sapa editor Mark van der Velden has rejected the Idasa contention that Sapa was the worst offender, with 38% of the usage of the derogatory term job stealers in its press sample. The researchers could not produce the evidence, Van der Velden said, and besides, Sapa had specifically cautioned on such usage. The semantic battle is reminiscent of the apartheid-era tussle over newspaper usage of the terms terrorists (to describe black insurgents) versus guerillas (neutral) or the alternative freedom fighters (pro insurgents). Then, the white nationalist government used the terror tag as a propaganda tool. The difference today is that no one in authority is forcing the media to adopt biased terms. Instead, a general level of rhetoric hostile to immigrants prevails in official and public discourse, which journalists pick up and use uncritically. It leads to the construction of stereotypes, hate speech, and ultimately what we have seen – incipient genocide. Editorial guidelines for reporters and subeditors will help, but in the long run this is not going to remove xenophobia from news columns and broadcasts. The causes of biased coverage in our media lie far deeper. Our press and broadcasting system does not, and probably never will, mirror the country’s language groups, races, genders, religions, disabled people, age cohorts or, for that matter, foreign residents, or any other social categories one cares to mention. Media do aim to mirror society with coverage of news and issues. However, the reality is that they construct an agenda around interest groups who are either powerful, or vociferous, or share in the media themselves. It is a giveaway, for example, to see obituaries printed about journalists, when the same column space is not given to the dozens of other worthy citizens who might have died on the same day. The lack of representativeness of the media is a point often made by critics and usually conceded by sensible defenders. When newly elected ANC president Jacob Zuma wrote a blog attacking mainstream media for failing to reflect the concerns of the masses, Jane Duncan of the Freedom of Expression Institute both countered this argument and made an admission about it. She wrote in Business Day that SA was a 50% society in which only the top 50% enjoys unparalleled diversity of media owing to their participation in the mainstream economy. The big press groups had delivered admirably to their limited readerships, said Duncan. However, she said that they had a tendency to prioritise the world view of political and economic elites. This translates into a huge gap in media coverage on the ground – specifically of those marginal peri-urban communities that have been the focus of xenophobic outbreaks. One mass newspaper that has been providing coverage and is reaching these readers with a portrayal of themselves is the Daily Sun – the very organ being slated for its reactionary reportage. When is representation not representation? It is maybe when a newspaper fails to follow the politically correct line which is endorsed by the elites who rule in the mainstream. Or perhaps it is when the voice of the people is commercially driven to capitalise on seething anger, building circulation in the time-honoured fashion of tabloid journalism. The domination of the lower end of the market by one or two mass populist rags surely limits the play of ideas. The problem is that other press voices at community Ground Zero have struggled to grow against market monopoly forces, so today we have a very limited grassroots press in the places needing it most. This is not to say there are no grassroots papers. In a study I did of this press sector for the Media Development and Diversity Agency in 2006, I estimated that there were perhaps 7 million readers, maybe more, amounting to several readers a copy of a couple of hundred such papers. This equates to nearly a third of roughly 23 million readers of mainstream weekly papers in the country. Grassroots publishers often lack entrepreneurial skills. Their journalists are untrained; localised corruption and intimidation drives out the truth; few national big-money advertisers support papers aimed at the less well-off; and larger press interests are colonising those areas where people are moving up to middle-class status. Authentic grassroots publications battle to survive and reflect their communities, and often go out of business. The basic problem is that SA’s media system remains a top-heavy structure that privileges the minority. Urgent intervention is required to finance, train and enable the grassroots press to compete in the marketplace and gain proper recognition as a media subsector. That is no guarantee xenophobia would be eliminated. The price a country pays for democratic media is that they can and will express politically incorrect views. Yet newspapers governed by codes of ethics would convey a sense of community identity and respect for others. The absence of these values contributed to the anarchy and looting in the slum areas, and not all the victims were foreign nationals. Mainstream media are unlikely to be able to correct their elitist focus without grassroots input. With competent reporters on the ground, whose copy can be syndicated through news agencies, a far clearer picture would emerge of the developments on the dangerous fringes of our society. Addison is a former professor of communication and trainer of journalists. The grassroots press study can be found at