Let's dismount from objectivity's high horse and start talking
The new year kicked off with one of those periodic convulsions that the world of journalism seems prone to.
It all began with the appearance of a selfie of two editors at the Independent Newspapers group, Vukani Mde and Karima Brown, wearing ANC colours after having attended the party’s 103rd birthday bash in Cape Town.
A furious row erupted about whether this constituted evidence of partisanship, and about objectivity, race and much else.
Many angry words were written, hand-wringing debates held, a columnist resigned – and then it was all over. It was like a Highveld thunderstorm, except that the air afterwards was not clear and fresh.
What was left hanging in the air was the growing sense that South African journalism is increasingly polarised, with different camps defined by politics, and all laying claim to sole ownership of professional values.
On rereading some of the key contributions to the debate a few weeks later, I was struck by how the debate turned on the hoary old notion of objectivity. Critics of the pair’s behaviour were accused of seeking this ideal in a classic case of a straw man being set up to knock it down.
For the record, I do believe journalists should avoid wearing party colours or doing anything else that could be seen as a gesture of support for a party.
I also think that if a journalist decides to move into politics, this means leaving journalism. That move should be done openly and carefully, and a return trip should be difficult. And I think newspapers should give up the practice of making a call to vote for or against a party in an election.
But I don’t think this has anything to do with objectivity. The notion that journalists need to divorce themselves from their backgrounds and beliefs to be able to report was demolished decades ago. Even the South African Press Code avoids the term.
This does not mean giving up on notions of fairness and even-handedness. That route would turn us into pamphleteers and propagandists. If we have any contribution to make to the quality of our democracy, it has to involve a respectful attitude towards our audiences, who are also citizens. Bombarding readers with spin, propaganda and bias is disrespectful. It is also profoundly irritating to any reader who has the smallest bit of self-respect. Nobody likes to be taken for a fool.
We need an idea of journalism that avoids the empty fiction of objectivity and the barren wasteland of pure subjectivity.
I’d like to propose a journalism of conversation, an approach that sees the media as a key participant in and enabler of the broader social discussion. The term has sometimes been used to encourage more direct engagement with audiences through social media platforms and other tools, but I’d like to suggest a broader use. We can use it to define our craft’s responsibility as being to enhance the quality and inclusiveness of the debates that ripple across society and shape consensus, policies and much else.
In practical terms, this means digging out the facts and insights that should inform discussion, but also calling out people when they lie or dissemble. It means challenging easy assumptions. It means seeking out marginalised voices and perspectives to balance out those of powerful groups.
This approach recognises that individual journalists and media organisations have a voice, which comes through in the choices they make, the style and look of a newspaper and the content of editorial comments.
That voice can adopt a range of tones: from the straight “here are the facts” approach to an analytical style and right through to impassioned and angry, as in columns and other forms. All are legitimate.
But this kind of journalism should never forget that it is just one voice among many, and retains a primary loyalty to the conversation as a whole. It should be conscious of its own preconceptions and avoid being their prisoner.
It is, if you like, the approach of a smart, engaged radio talk show host. As listeners, we know that the host has opinions and is not afraid to share them. But we also know that those opinions won’t be foisted on us and that there is space to argue and debate.
Always, the journalism of conversation needs to take care to maintain the trust of its audience or, rather, the people with whom it is in most direct conversation.
And that means being aware of the dangers of being pigeonholed or cast as a partisan hack whose work can be dismissed as being driven by an agenda.
The difficulty with journalists placing themselves visibly on a particular side is that it makes it harder for them to play their role.
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