SA’s tabloids rise in the ranks of journalism

After strong debate, South African editors last week embraced the rise of tabloid journalism in the South African newspaper industry.

This unusual step came at the annual general meeting in Cape Town of the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef). A press statement described the tabloids as ”a vibrant element of the changing media landscape”.

But in a partial balancing of its welcoming stance, Sanef also reaffirmed its commitment to journalistic integrity, tolerance and accountability.

This two-handed, and potentially contradictory, position reflects the controversy within the organisation — which includes two editors who feel they are unfairly looked down upon as tabloid practitioners.

One is Phalane Motale, editor of the Sunday Sun, who complained that ”we are seen as pirate taxis”. At the same time, he said, critics of the tabloids are sometimes seen as speaking on behalf of Sanef. Yet, he said, all his staff have signed up to a journalistic code of conduct.

”The rules are the same for us [as for the mainstream],” he maintained.

Describing the Sunday Sun as the mother of current tabloids — it marks its fourth birthday at the end of this month — Motale said the paper has never lost a court case during its lifespan, which illustrates the care it takes in checking its stories.

The difference between a publication like his and other newspapers, he continued, lies mainly in the fact that his is personality driven. It cannot rely on press releases, but instead has to dig out the stories that celebrities do not want told.

The second Sanef editor seeking recognition for tabloids was Thabo Leshilo, who heads up the Sowetan. But he distanced his publication from the most successful tabloid to date, the Daily Sun — a sister to Motale’s paper but which has not yet taken part in Sanef.

For Leshilo, the difference lies in the Sowetan‘s respect for the press ombudsman’s code of conduct. In his view, Sanef should draw the line at publications that do not subscribe to these standards. He echoed an appeal by Motale that not all tabloids should be tarred with the same brush.

Other voices in Sanef went further than the two editors most affected, and celebrated all the tabloids.

”This is the revolution we have been waiting for,” said Moegsien Williams, editor of The Star.

He praised the Daily Sun for following up stories — something he said his own paper does not adequately do. New people are now reading newspapers, thanks to the Daily Sun‘s success.

Paddi Clay, who is responsible for training at media company Johnnic Communications, celebrated the tabloids for giving people something to talk about and for being refreshingly not politically correct. Ann Donald, outgoing editor of Fair Lady, noted that the excitement around the tabloids contrasts with the subdued mood in mainstream newsrooms.

Veteran journalist Mathatha Tsedu, who now heads up City Press, pointed out that many people with social problems call the Daily Sun before they call the police. Sanef should not start from a negative standpoint about the tabloids, he cautioned.

Media academic Francois Nel said tabloid readers ”are telling us what journalism is”.

Questioning voices came from several quarters. Journalism educator Arrie de Beer dismissed the argument that tabloid readers would ”graduate” or ”migrate” to the quality press, pointing out that this has not happened in the British experience.

Cape Times deputy editor Tyrone August said, in reference to tabloid style, that presentation is a secondary issue. The matter of factuality is critical to whether tabloidism still counts as journalism.

Other editors also vouched for the importance of facts, but several defended the tabloids as simply reporting honestly perceived people’s beliefs in the same way that the mainstream press carries astrology columns and stories of the bizarre.

The Sunday Sun‘s Motale said the tabloids report stories such as ”Gorilla raped me” because people are genuinely superstitious. He added: ”Readers are the customers, the kings; we give them what they want”.

The counter-thrust to this view is that journalists have a responsibility to promote realism, not ignorance, and that they should balance myths with comments from professionals and scientists.

One editor told me he fears that stories about witchcraft could end up with fatal consequences in the form of communities feeling legitimised about lynching suspects.

Taking a very different tack, Tsedu proposed that neither the staff of the Daily Sun nor the readers actually believe much of the tabloid’s journalism. Likewise, Mondli Makhanya, editor of the Sunday Times, said he does not believe that readers believe the Daily Sun.

The import of such a position is that tabloidism amounts to harmless fantasy and fun. This is possibly true in part, but begs the question of a missed opportunity to contribute to communications in South African society.

My intervention in the Sanef debate was to ask whether selling more than 400 000 copies of an ”incredible” Daily Sun is as significant for South Africa as the 38 000 sales of the influential Mail & Guardian.

I further argued that the popularity of tabloid newspapering should not be at the expense of credible journalism or the promotion of values that are in line with the South African Constitution.

My call was to integrate the ”progressive” with the ”popular”, else an opportunity for meaningful print journalism catering to the masses would continue to be missed.

Joe Thloloe, re-elected as Sanef chairperson, summed up the challenge facing the organisation. Sanef is bound to respect freedom of expression and choice, and therefore cannot reject the tabloids; yet it also stands for the quality and ethics of journalism.

It is in line with the spirit of this comment that the meeting developed its qualified welcoming position.

The challenge for Sanef now lies ahead: whether a point will come when tabloid members should be censured for fabrications, unwarranted invasions of privacy, or other ethical lapses. Two years back, the forum criticised Ranjeni Munusamy’s journalistic conduct; now it has bound itself to account for tabloid journalism.

In this regard, one of the early issues Sanef may have to deal with is the negative racial representation implicit in some tabloid journalism. Leshilo warned the meeting against tabloid journalism operating with a racist paradigm whereby black people are presented as primitive, lust-driven and credulous.

He had expected that such a negative image would catch up with circulations and manifest over time in declining sales. Yet the opposite has happened.

”Clearly, the Daily Sun understands some of the black mind, but which black mind?” he asked.

This, indeed, is a lingering question that will continue to trouble Sanef editors. It goes to the heart not only of how newspapers — like politicians — navigate popular appeal, but also of what constitutes racism in the media.

Sanef’s meeting in Cape Town agreed a focus for 2006, which will mark five years since the Human Rights Commission’s investigation and final report on media racism. The result: tabloid journalism will once again occupy the controversy limelight.

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