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What has changed in SA journalism?

Kwaito song Sika Lekhekhe is in the media as a news item … and precisely because it is no longer played as music on the airwaves. The item has been pulled off Ukhozi FM, the South African Broadcasting Corporation’s biggest radio station, pending a probe into ”promiscuous” lyrics.

Literally, the title means ”cut the cake” — so what’s the fuss? The answer: in township slang, the phrase suggests sexual penetration configured as male consumerism.

You have to know the lingo if you want to understand the furore. The incident reminds me when, as editor of the now-defunct South weekly, I once wrote a poster board advertising a special section. It read:

Women

in sport:

”Tough

cookies”

I was later educated that the words in quotes would be read on the Cape Flats in adverse sexual terms. Whether South‘s sales rose or fell that week I can’t recall, but what I did learn is that cultural diversity can catch you out.

These issues came to mind as I set about reviewing a new book on South African journalism launched last week by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC).

While selling the book in the shops, the HSRC also allows free downloads from its website. A contradiction? Not so. Its editor, Adrian Hadland, told me: ”Book sales have gone up dramatically following the decision to make all HSRC books free for download.”

It’s a new model of business, and one example of the book’s title, Changing the Fourth Estate: Essays on South African Journalism. But it is also an example too few.

To explore this argument, consider the converse of the title: Conserving the Fourth Estate.

That angle would mean that the country’s media need to be maintained — in the face of unwelcome threats.

In fact, and of relevance to the cultural diversity question, the book covers both preservation and transformation. In a disturbing dichotomy.

Conservation issues are found in the bulk of the chapters dealing with the craft. They are written by the top professionals of one generation passing on what they regard as excellence — that is, as practices that are worth continuing. Tackling ”change” is a handful of specialist chapters (including one by myself), dealing with the big-picture challenges.

The disjuncture and disproportion between the two realms in the book mirror the on-the-ground difficulties of bridging daily duties and underlying fundamental issues.

An analysis of the contributors shows up the problem in the gulf between the dominant, conservation-angled ”how” and the smaller, change-oriented ”why”.

Of 22 contributors, 18 live as ”white people” in South Africa — including myself. Of us, two-thirds are male and most are English-speaking.

Hadland says he tried unsuccessfully to get more black contributors, and I believe him. The inescapable problem, however, is that the resulting book has constrained utility.

The point is that it is inherently limiting to have the writers, attributed the status of pontificating on the profession, coming mainly from one sector of the society.

It is because of this that the perspectives and priorities, the anecdotes and advice, do not necessarily speak to those with different lives. Thus, for example:

  • The book does not reflect the (bitterly) important experience of second-language speakers about what it means to do journalism in and with English, and for a multilingual South Africa.
  • There is a fascinating account of how cartoonist Zapiro works, but there is no elaboration of a theme he briefly mentions, about the need for readers to understand motifs ”whether they’re drawn from literature, the Bible, myths and legends or popular culture”. There is, therefore, no interrogation of cross-cultural communication in South Africa.
  • Daily News editor Dennis Pather approvingly quotes Dave Mullany, former editor of Scope magazine, saying that a newspaper exists to make money and, accordingly, serving the market’s needs and desires should come before carrying ”weighty issues”.
  • Journalists who come from a different life experience might have a different take on what exactly is interpreted as the market’s ”needs and desires”. Their views on what’s ”weighty” and what’s not would be important to hear.

    The absence of alternative perspectives in the book is a pity because, according to Hadland, the publication’s purpose was ”to provide a guide to best practice”. This outcome, in turn, he says, was to emanate from ”the experiences and knowledge of people who have developed ‘sapiential authority’ in their areas over many years”.

    Because the ”authorities” are who they (we) are, the book does not give guidance on how to align the media with such a fast-changing and perplexing country — not to mention the rest of the continent and the globe.

    Not in the book is analysis of why sizeable audiences seem not share the critical media line on Jacob Zuma, for instance, nor why acres of safe-sex content seem so powerless. Left undiscussed is why tabloid journalism is proving so popular.

    Digesting the book, I still felt hungry for something to ”take away” — like new thoughts about practice and the big picture, about the ”is” and the ”ought”, and about constancy and change.

    The book is not without new information. And yet, if the published voices who comment on South African journalism are still confined to a minority, then one has to ask what really has changed in South African journalism.

    In my view, there has actually been enormous change in the media — but notwithstanding the title of the HSRC book, this still remains to be captured.

    Fortunately, there are plans for a follow-up book. That will be an opportunity to integrate the craft experience and the continuing challenges better — and precisely because it is better representative of current contributors to our media.

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