Unpacking the poverty of journalism

Both Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma profess themselves to be “pro-poor”, and usually these presentations escape scrutiny in the media.

But last year, a challenge to Mbeki’s claim was instituted by the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR), which declared that the numbers of poor people had actually doubled under his presidency.

Specifically, the institute maintained that the 1,9-million people who got by on less than $1 a day in 1996 had risen to 4,2-million by 2005. If true, this would be a major indictment of Mbeki’s actual practice regarding the poor. Predictably, the government rejected the finding.

Media coverage often divides into reports that refer explicitly to “poverty” (usually as a broad policy issue) and human interest stories about jobless, homeless and/or hungry individuals (not directly labelled as “poverty”).

But, as in the SAIRR case, Mbeki’s track record can only be contested, or championed, by the protagonists having to spell out what they mean by “poverty” in the first place.

In a recent analysis I made of that coverage, it emerges that the two sides never reached accord on what concretely constitutes “poverty”.

For the government, you can’t only talk in narrow terms about monetary income like a dollar a day, because people also have the “social wage” of subsidised water, clinics and schooling.
For the SAIRR, it’s critical to look at hard cash in poor households.

And even in regard to the cash component, precisely what sum it takes to define a person as “poor” is also differently defined by the contestants. A dollar a day was the SAIRR’s standard; government people cited both R3 000 a year and R354 a month.

In short, each side used different definitions and standards to make its case. And they also resorted to less salubrious tactics to boost their arguments:

  • Mbeki “dissed” the SAIRR as being driven by an anti-transformation agenda; the institute said he was dodging an unpleasant truth in the build-up to the ANC’s Polokwane conference.

  • The president’s supporters said the SAIRR position was a minority one, not shared by other economists. The SAIRR people implied—partly in subtext—that it was Mbeki who was (once again) a dissident and in denial about reality.
Participants also adopted an attitude to statistics that suited their position. The government’s Joel Netshitenzhe said the SAIRR figures were manipulated. Another government person said that the statistics the SAIRR relied upon were unusable.

According to one SAIRR commentator, both sides were right in their figures. A newspaper editorial said that whatever the facts, it seemed likely that poverty had diminished.

This summary of the debate points to a welter of confusion for anyone trying to follow the discussion as it unfolded.

On issues like this, the role of the press as a trusted guide ought to come to the fore in terms of assessing the merits of the cases being made.

Instead, journalists mainly stood aside while the contenders slugged it out. The lack of journalistic value-add is evident in the fact that of 25 articles about the debate, eight were letters from readers, and nine were opinion pieces by non-journalists.

Another shortcoming of the press coverage was the absence of key voices beyond those of the SAIRR and government. There was no participation by trade unions, NGOs working with the poor, or even business.

And, seemingly, no editor saw fit to canvass poor people on whether they thought their numbers had doubled in a decade.

Some of these excluded voices did eventually, and indirectly, have their say. This was not in the SAIRR debate as such, but at the Polokwane ANC conference where Mbeki lost control of the ruling party.

Just months later, other voices among the poor also emerged in public discourse—in the reports of violence against their peers who happened to hail from other lands.

No one in the SAIRR debate had foreseen how nationality issues needed to be considered in analysing the poor in this country. Had journalists lifted their act and engaged in the debate, this omission might perhaps have been avoided.

Instead, reporters stuck to easy news, and failed to help readers make informed and disinterested sense of a complex and politicised controversy.

Today, although the issues remain, the debate itself has faded away without being resolved. The result is that it is still hard to say whether the SAIRR was right.

Looking ahead, what South Africa desperately needs is a press that will help educate us about fundamental trends in this troubled society.

Without this, how will we ever know whether a person like Jacob Zuma will prove, in practice, to be more pro-poor than Thabo Mbeki?

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