New press standards should inspire journalists to excellence

No pun necessarily intended, although there are more severe punishments in store now for transgressors.

But could the occupants of newsrooms be running too frantically on the deadline treadmill to notice the opportunity?

October 19 was the 35th commemoration of Black Wednesday, the day in 1977 when black newspapers in South Africa were banned and editors arrested by the apartheid state.

Earlier this month, at a Press Council event in the Constitutional Court precinct, a new regulatory regime for the press was announced, giving us an opportunity to make our journalism truly excellent.

Rather than go into the details of how independent co-regulation replaces self-regulation, or how there will be more members of the public on the Press Council, or how sanctions and space fines will be implemented against recalcitrant newspapers, or that a public advocate and a retired judge will now be involved in the new regulatory gig, I want to ask whether we can grasp this opportunity.

It can only be embraced if all of us in the industry become au fait with the new code. We should be seeing copies of the code on the walls and notice boards of media offices so that internalisation can take place.

The new code is a code of ethics, a code of honour, a code of integrity; it is a code that comes from within the profession and it should be abided by. It is a code that should make journalists feel proud to be in the profession.

Joe Thloloe, the respected press ombudsman, pointed out that the number of complaints against the press had increased this year. But as he observed: "We never get letters praising journalists for their work – only the complaints. And these, 255 last year and close to 300 this year, are a minute [increase] when one considers the millions of words churned out by publications daily."

The chairperson of the South African National Editors' Forum, Mondli Makhanya, says the increase in complaints is because more people are getting to know the system.

Thloloe and Makhanya are correct. My disquiet lies with newsrooms. I have had to think back hard to imagine where and when, in any newsroom, I have ever seen the press code on a wall.

I have worked at all the main media houses – including Caxton and I cannot recall seeing the code displayed. I could not have missed it: I am not a tweeter, my head is usually up, not down.

Ignorance of the press code and carelessness – and, sometimes, journalists being misled by leaks that promise a front-page story – lead to inaccuracies.

What we do not have is the four "S" words – sensational, shallow, shabby and shoddy journalism. This is the ruling elite's charge. The ANC has used these terms to describe the press. We do have a rather sensational, shoddy and shabby political leadership, however. The stories in the press reflect this. But what the press could have is more excellence.

If only journalists and editors would get off the treadmill to pause, reflect and perhaps have a discussion in their newsrooms about the new code. This would be a good start at grasping this historic opportunity.

Glenda Daniels is a senior researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand's journalism school and heads the State of the Newsroom in South Africa project. She is also the author of Fight for Democracy: The ANC and the Media in South Africa

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Glenda Daniels
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