If only stories had just two sides

The New Age is a prophetically named newspaper. We are indeed about to smack up against a new age of journalism, the age of the media tribunal. And the New Age‘s ad campaign nicely sums up its avowed editorial standpoint, as well as the sadly limited philosophy of its de facto master, the South African government. And that standpoint, not to put too fine a point on it, appears to be that of a petulant baby in the corner of a dingy tent at the ANC national general council, demanding to know why he can’t have his dummy back.

I say avowed, because the newspaper hasn’t launched yet, so I can’t judge the finished product. It’s a month late, because of an “unflinching commitment to quality”. As editor-in-chief Vuyo Movoko puts it, in what is, tellingly, the top-read story on the website: “This delay, while unfortunate, is necessary and will help us deliver a newspaper worthy of our potential readers.” Fair enough. But what that does mean is that the brand-building accomplished by the advertising campaign is all we have to go on at the moment.

And what an ad campaign. Apparently, the world has no greys, no shades, everything is either black or white, a Manichaean dichotomy that might be a valuable brand attribute in a washing powder, but makes me a little wary when I see it in a newspaper.

So one ad features a picture of a bunch of people waving sticks and placards, with the caption: “Protest or freedom of expression?” Well, the sad truth of journalism is that it can be at least both, but it’s never one or the other. One person’s protest is another person’s riot, although obviously you generally need more than one person for a riot.

Another ad, captioned “half full or half empty”, shows what is clearly a glass that’s three-quarters full of water. And that’s the problem, really. If you aren’t writing a story according to the available evidence, but rather out of some misguided belief that there’s always a positive side to everything — every corrupt politician has a silver lining, if you will — then you’re not going to be practising very good journalism.

If only stories had just two sides
And that’s the brand statement that the New Age advertising makes, illustrated by a happy smile and an unhappy grimace: “We see both sides of the story.” Ah, if only stories had just two sides. If only Julius Malema was either a ranting loon or a fiery man of the people, it would make choosing sides so much simpler. As it is, he’s way more than that, at times making rational points about poverty alleviation, at other times screeching bloody agent at pale foreigners, and more often than not a confusing mass of contradictions.

If only Jacob Zuma was just a consummate politician, or just a bumbling polygamist, it would make life at the electoral coalface so much easier. But we don’t live in a country where we can afford to simply be for or against anymore. We need nuance to make sense of where we are, and where we’re headed (how do you fit into a handbasket, anyway?).

It’s the same logic that demands a media tribunal, a court of appeal where grey areas can be unequivocally pronounced black or white. It’s no accident that the New Age‘s acronym is TNA — if the ads are anything to go by, this is going to be the Tits ‘n Ass of political journalism, a landscape where we’re invited to ogle two component parts that, together, don’t make up anything like the full body.

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Chris Roper
Chris Roper

Chris Roper was editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian from July 2013 - July 2015.

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