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Zuma’s positive reporting call is ‘plain bad news’

President Jacob Zuma did himself no favours in the public-relations department this week when he questioned the media's role in society and called for more "patriotic reporting".

Speaking to a group of journalism students from the Tshwane University of Technology who were visiting Parliament on Tuesday, Zuma said the media was not a watchdog as it claimed, but a business. "When I had a discussion with [media] owners, it was clear to me that their interest is to make [a] profit, no matter how you report."

Zuma said the media was overly negative and had failed to tell the story of how the government had turned the country around since the end of apartheid.

He called for more "patriotic news", something he said he had learned during a visit to Mexico, where the media did not report on crime because it would reflect negatively on the country and scare off investors.

Anton Harber, Caxton professor of journalism at Wits University, said Zuma could not be more wrong about what constituted patriotic journalism.

"A reporter who hides the dirty linen, who writes only positive news, is not patriotic," he said. "He, or she, is a spineless toad, doing harm to the ­country by encouraging poor governance, and [is] unlikely to command professional respect."

Instead, said Harber, a patriot was a reporter who helped the government to find, expose and prevent corruption (even when it was the spending of R200-million of state money on a presidential homestead); who probed and informed people about crime, or exposed terrible conditions in Eastern Cape hospitals or schools; and who opened public debate and forced authorities to address the issues promptly and effectively.

"The point about good journalism is not whether the news is good or bad, but whether it is accurate, useful and insightful," Harber said.

 "Sometimes it is about cheerful things, and sometimes about dreadful things, but what people want to know is whether it has veracity, credibility and impact."

Zuma's comments echoed those made recently by SABC chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng, who called for 70% "positive news" at the national broadcaster.

And they came just days after Zuma met editors and journalists in an apparent bid to smooth relationships with the fourth estate and praised media initiatives such as the Lead SA campaign.

Jane Duncan, the Highway Africa chair of media and information society at Rhodes University, said she read Zuma's comments as a call for an "unacceptable form of sunshine journalism".

She said the press did not ignore stories about positive developments in the country. There had been s­everal articles in recent months that had conducted long-term assessments of where the country was compared with where it had been under apartheid.

"That kind of reporting does ­happen and it generally happens in relation to special, commemorative days, which people use as a time to reflect on how far the country has come. But I don't think it's appropriate for that to happen all day, every day, because that isn't news. What is news is what's happening in the country there and then."

However, Duncan said there were legitimate questions about the impact of money on news values. A series of reports had shown that the voices of women and youth were underrepresented in the media. After  Marikana, for example, press reports failed to ensure that workers' voices were sufficiently represented.

"These groups tend to be marginalised because economically marginalised people receive less status than more economically powerful groups. Social inequalities in society reproduce themselves in the media."

Zuma's mention of Mexico as a model for responsible journalism was disturbing for many in the media, given that it is known to be a hotbed of crime and corruption and one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists.

According to Reporters Without Borders, a nongovernmental organisation that promotes freedom of information and of the press, journalists in Mexico are "threatened and murdered by organised crime or corrupt officials with impunity" and the resulting climate of fear "leads to self-censorship and undermines freedom of information".

No less than 87 journalists have been killed in Mexico in the past decade and the country has dropped to 153rd out of 179 countries in the annual Press Freedom Index. South Africa is ranked 52nd.

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Faranaaz Parker
Faranaaz Parker is a reporter for the Mail & Guardian. She writes on everything from pop science to public health, and believes South Africa needs carbon taxes and more raging feminists. When she isn't instagramming pictures of her toddler or obsessively checking her Twitter, she plays third-person shooters on Xbox Live.

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