Making 'Em Care
You probably haven’t heard of these journalists and may never see their work. But they live in South Africa and tell billions of people around the globe about this country.
Meet the foreign press corps: more than 200 correspondents who cover southern Africa, from major TV network broadcasters to writers for small regional papers. They work in languages as varied as German and Japanese and it is through their eyes that the world gets its view of South Africa.
“We cover the same news as the local papers, but we’re much more interested in trends than day-to-day issues,” says Simon Robinson, Africa correspondent for Time magazine and newly-elected chair of the Foreign Correspondents’ Association of Southern Africa (FCA).
“One person found guilty of corruption in South Africa makes a good story in The Star or the Cape Times,” Robinson says, “but we¹re looking for the bigger picture: is South Africa becoming more or less corrupt, and why?”
BBC correspondent Barnaby Phillips believes that while the principles of good journalism are the same everywhere, different audiences demand different things.
Born in London and raised in Kenya, Phillips has worked as a BBC journalist in Africa since 1993, based in four different countries.
“I think we should all be looking for the same things: compelling and important stories which inform and entertain,” Phillips says. “To that extent, BBC and local journalists in southern Africa ought to be chasing the same stories. But there are differences, in style and approach.
“The recent elections are a good example. The South African media got much closer to the minutiae of the results than we did,” he says. “An international audience does not care whether the ANC’s vote in Mpumulanga rose by 2 percent, in fact they probably don’t even know where Mpumulanga is. Nor are they interested in hearing a long list of the new premiers, none of the names are likely to mean anything to them.
“But they are interested in knowing why so many people voted for the ANC, and whether South Africans feel that life has improved since the end of apartheid. So we would be looking for more analysis, and probably less detail,” Phillips says.
“We also have to be aware that our audience might not have heard any news from South Africa for some time, and so we cannot take a certain level of knowledge for granted. On radio I tend to refer to Afrikaners as ‘white Afrikaners’, just to jolt people’s memories, and ensure that I am being properly understood.”
Providing some point of reference is even more of a challenge when the news is going out on one of the big networks.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault is bureau chief for CNN in Johannesburg and a former board member of the FCA.
“It is imperative that we provide context for stories that we report,” she says, “because, at CNN, our viewers dip in and out rather than watching continuously, and they need to be reminded of where we, and our stories, are coming from.”
Language can also be a problem.
“When you’re interviewing for radio, it’s especially important to find people who are able to express themselves powerfully in English,” says Barnaby Phillips. “That doesn’t mean they must speak ‘correct’ English, but I know that if someone is listening in London or Delhi, the story has a stronger impact if I can put people’s voices directly on air, and not go through a translator.”
FCA members report in more than 20 languages, but Simon Robinson believes one common element must exist if the news is going to have impact.
“For a story to really work it is important to make the audience care about the issue,” he says, “and that’s not always easy when they’re in another country far away. You have to find something that people can connect with, something’s that universal.”
Jenkins Liu is South African correspondent for Taiwan’s Central News Agency (which has no link to the local firm of the same name). Although his company produces hundreds of stories a day back in Taiwan, he says it is not always easy to get South Africa issues to run.
“There is so much happening in Asia and among our neighbouring countries, especially in China. But what people do care about is stories that have a local connection,” Liu says.
“Four people of Taiwanese origin won seats in the South African parliament in the recent general election,” he says. “This did not make the news here, but it’s a good story for people in Taipei.”
For global publications, nationality is less of an issue, says Adam Roberts, who is deputy chair of the FCA and the southern Africa correspondent for The Economist.
“Our head office is in London, but we don’t pay special attention to British celebrities visiting South Africa, nor do we look for especially British angles for stories,” he says. “After all, the stories I write in Johannesburg are read in Bogota and Beijing as well as in Birmingham.”
The FCA was founded in the mid 1970s and represents foreign reporters working in South Africa.
“Our primary role is still to represent and serve the needs of our correspondents, and this ranges from issuing press cards to raising the alarm when journalists come under attack,” Robinson says. “We also do what we can to support local journalists who are under pressure from their governments because they are often more vulnerable than foreign correspondents, who may have some diplomatic protection.”
Last year the FCA began to take associate memberships from NGOs, embassies and PR firms working with the media. “It’s a way of raising our profile,” says Robinson.
“The FCA regularly holds briefings for its members. Last year, weeks before a crucial summit in Abuja, Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon briefed FCA members on how he thought the debate would go on Zimbabwe, which had been suspended from the organisation.”
FCA membership is currently at a record high, and some countries have a strong presence in South Africa: more than 30 German news organisations report from Johannesburg. Others, like Japan, have only five but with massive reach: the Asahi Shimbun newspaper in Tokyo is read by 21 million people every day.
Like diplomats, correspondents may get reposted every few years, but Charlayne Hunter-Gault says that, for her, this has been a special place to work.
“For all that is known about South Africa, due to the apartheid legacy, there is a lot that is not known and begs to be,” she says, “both for viewers watching us here and those tuning in around the world.
“For example: people working at a ceramic studio in rural KwaZulu-Natal are now earning big bucks at international auctions and sales and a young township girl pulled from the back row of the chorus has become the lead singer in the opera, Carmen.
“The South African story is unique, offering all the elements that capture the imagination of people everywhere.”
Geoff Hill is southern Africa correspondent for the Washington Times and a board member of the FCA. Associate membership of the FCA costs R500 per annum, and anyone interested in joining can contact secretary Martina Schwikowski on 083 260 4488.