/ 3 December 2007

When the media’s voice is misheard

What is the voice of the media? The question was sparked by a recent complaint about a report on service delivery protests, as well as some elements of the current debate around the media.

Dale McKinley, of the Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF), wrote that a report entitled ”The travelling protesters” (September 14) was ”one-sided, politically biased, factually incorrect and lazy”.

The article had reported the view of some government officials that recent protests were being used as a tool to ”advance a political agenda”. In a way strongly reminiscent of the rationalisations of the apartheid government when confronted with civil protest, the officials were quoted as claiming that there were groups of people travelling from one community to the next to stoke the fires of discontent.

McKinley complained that no evidence for this view had been produced, and that the paper had not sought out the views of the communities affected or the AFP.

I felt that the point of interest was that government officials were taking refuge in these kinds of explanations to hide the unpalatable fact that there is significant discontent with service delivery in many communities. An opinion was being reported, not a fact.

I would have liked to see a more sceptical tone to the report and its headline, but the text clearly attributed the views to a couple of officials. The paper has made its own view pretty clear. A June 6 editorial stated: ”Service delivery protests are a seismograph charting the anger of desperate people whose government is failing them.”

The complaint made the fundamental mistake of taking a view reported in the paper as the view of the paper itself.

In a similar way, I’m told that a report on the death of former Rhodesian leader Ian Smith drew a furious response from a reader because it said he was a racist. It did so not in its own right, but quoting the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation.

Much current discussion about the media makes the same mistake.

Many attacks on newspapers for alleged hostility to the new order see a reactionary agenda that simply isn’t there. When a paper reports on a housing protest, it doesn’t mean it is taking a view in support of the demonstrators. When a senior official is exposed as having had her hand in the cookie jar, it wasn’t the editor who put it there. When a columnist launches a bitter attack on the government’s Zimbabwe policy, that’s not the paper speaking.

But that doesn’t mean the media have no voice at all. It’s just much more subtle than these kinds of criticisms allow for. Editors make choices on what and how to report. Headlines can reflect an attitude, and so can a simple head-and-shoulders picture of a minister. Of late, some newspapers have quite systematically deployed the most ridiculous images available of Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang in a clear attempt to cement a view of her as simply crazy.

I don’t hold a brief for her — much of the criticism is fully deserved. But we in the media should be clear that this is a way to give voice. It’s no longer simply reporting facts ”out there”. Because most readers don’t see the technique being deployed, it is underhand. And it does feed directly into the generalised anger that some in the new elite direct at the media.

In terms of McKinley’s complaint, he said in a second email that I had not dealt with the core of his argument, which was that the Mail & Guardian was deliberately ignoring the APF and the community groups it represents. In the general clamour for a newspaper’s attention, this is an argument that sometimes pops up. But I’m out of space, and it will have to wait for another column.


A recent Body Language column, ”’Hookahs’, Hunters and holy days” drew an angry reaction from several readers. The column dealt with

Among the complainants was the mother of one of the young women mentioned and pictured, who said the provocative tone of the piece was disrespectful of her community.

I pointed out that the Body Language column was by nature provocative. I did feel that an unfortunate impression might have been created that the particular young people mentioned were straying from traditional morality, and suggested the paper runs a clarification to that effect.

n A recent robbery deprived the ombud of his laptop, including an electronic file containing some pending matters. If you have written to him and have not yet received a response, please resend your letter.

The M&G’s ombud provides an independent view of the paper’s journalism. If you have any complaints you would like addressed, you can contact Franz Krüger at [email protected] or you can phone the paper on 011 250 7300 and leave a message