M&G left the door wide open for critics

The Mail & Guardian incited outrage from the ANC with an insinuating headline. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

The Mail & Guardian incited outrage from the ANC with an insinuating headline. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

  The Mail & Guardian received very little love for a recent report that the ANC was telling the SABC to give President Jacob Zuma “more love”.

  The story, about a party communications workshop, prompted an angry letter (see below) from communications consultant Chris Vick, who said it was “crap journalism”, an outpouring of anger on his Facebook page and elsewhere and a statement from the ANC declaring that the paper is a “propaganda pamphlet not only in opposition to the ANC but [also] the democratic state”.

Vick’s complaint was that the story bore “no resemblance” to the workshop he attended. The only claim that was accurate was the venue – even the list of attendees was wrong, he said.

The editor, Angela Quintal, then asked me to look at the story and formulate a response.

It is hard to deal with a complaint that is framed so widely. In trying to understand a little more specifically what made the responses so angry, a few things emerged.
For one thing, it turns out that Vick’s claim about the attendees was incorrect.

He has since told me he was only contesting the presence of Edna Molewa, the environmental affairs minister, and has conceded that she may have attended the first day of the workshop, when he wasn’t present.

Other elements are less easily dismissed. He argues that various sentiments expressed about the SABC, a government newspaper, communications “own goals” and others were never made. It is clear that it was the story’s focus on a call for the SABC to show Zuma more love that was the focus of most anger.

The story’s difficulty is that it quotes three anonymous sources, as against the direct and explicit denials from named people who attended the event. Unnamed sources are always less likely to be believed than those on the record.

Unfortunately, anonymous sources are a fact of political reporting: the official version of internal party debates will always be a sanitised one. But using them comes with risks, as is so dramatically illustrated in this case. It is not clear whether the story was important enough for this kind of treatment, as the University of the Witwatersrand’s Anton Harber has said.

I was given a detailed account of how the reporting unfolded and shown notes of the interviews that were conducted. It seems clear to me that the account is generally based on what the reporters were told.

That’s not the end of the matter, though.

The later parts of the article show a range of different perspectives on how the party should best interact with the media. Alongside the more controlling view that is highlighted at the top of the story, we hear voices that say the SABC’s editorial autonomy should be respected and that it would be wrong to block coverage of the Economic Freedom Fighters.

In fact, this account of a more nuanced discussion is more interesting than the reported plan for further manipulation of the SABC.

The real problem with the report, to my mind, is the impression created of a party position based on a few snippets of views that may or may not have been aired at the workshop. It was apparently a wide-ranging workshop that included a number of commissions, which reported back to the plenary. The whole was to be brought together into a discussion document, I’m told, which will be sent through various party channels to inform policy-making.

At the best of times, it would be difficult to sum up a discussion of this kind that went on for two days, taking place partly in plenary sessions and partly in smaller groups.

And doing so at second hand, relying on the testimony of a few people, where there is the danger that they may be reflecting their own views rather than the meeting’s, is a risky undertaking.

Although the report as a whole presents various perspectives, it makes the alleged intention to intervene in the SABC its main focus. The beginning makes it reasonably clear that this was just a suggestion, but the headline takes a step further and claims that the ANC “wants SABC to show JZ more love” as if this were a party decision.

And the front page goes further still, claiming: “ANC tells SABC to show Zuma more love”. What started as an opinion turns quickly into a decision and then into an action.

  I think the M&G was clearly in the wrong here, in its presentation of what was, even according to its own evidence, no more than a suggestion. Headlines, the press code says, should reflect the content of an article. In this case, the headline didn’t.

  There is also the use of the phrase “more love”. The reporting team say they never claimed this phrase was used at the workshop – it was their own choice of words to sum up the proposal. At the very least, it would be good for the M&G to clarify this point.

In summary, I think the paper was at fault for turning a suggestion into a party decision, and should withdraw that impression. It should also clarify that the phrase about showing Zuma more love was its own interpretation and does not represent the meeting’s views.

What has made the issue so difficult is the fact that it comes against a broader background of conflict between party and media. I have tried here to stick simply to the specifics of the article and the complaint.

However, it seems clear that the tone of many responses has been determined by deep-seated animosity to the media. Most of the angry critics are party communicators, not exactly neutral witnesses, and it is striking how quickly suggestions for more control of the media have resurfaced.

Where journalists make mistakes, they must be prepared for these to be used against them. The best answer to the critics who say the media are incorrigible except through state control is to fix mistakes when they are made.

The Mail & Guardian‘s ombud provides an independent view of the paper’s journalism. If you have any complaints you would like addressed, email ombud@mg.co.za. You can also phone the paper on 011?250?7300 and leave a message.

If it’s report-worthy, it’s correction-worthy

 The Mail & Guardian accepts the findings of its independent ombud, Franz Krüger.

We believe that there is an even more important reason why errors need to be corrected promptly: our readers expect a high standard from the M&G, because credibility, accountability and excellence define our journalism.

  Emerson Stone, the former vice-president of news practices at CBS News, was quoted in a NewsLab online article a few years ago as saying: “If it’s important to report, it’s important enough to correct when you get it wrong. Those who hear, see, or read the news and, out of their own knowledge, perceive a small mistake that goes uncorrected must ask themselves: ‘What larger errors do they make that go uncorrected? Can I trust anything they report?’”

This is an ethos the M&G subscribes to.

We have made the necessary corrections and clarifications as suggested by Krüger on Page 2 of the March 13 edition and online. – The Editor

‘This is just crap journalism’

Thank you for your coverage of the ANC’s communications workshop last weekend, which was an important step in finalising the movement’s position on transformation of the South African media landscape.

Unfortunately, the only thing you got right in your coverage of the workshop was the venue. Even your list of attendees was wrong: there was no sign of Minister Edna Molewa at Sunday’s session, for example.

The rest of the article bears absolutely no resemblance to the workshop I and about 70 other people attended last Sunday.

I was there as a guest speaker for the entire day, and listened to all the presentations and all the report-backs from the commissions. I did not hear a single reference to the SABC having to “show love” to President Jacob Zuma, or any suggestion of interference with the SABC’s editorial content.

  Nor was there any mention of an ANC newspaper that is supposedly going to be born out of disillusionment with The New Age.

Nor was there any reference to the appointment of Hlaudi Motsoeneng as some sort of “own goal” (although there was lots of discussion about other “own goals”, which your sources seem to have forgotten).

I could continue but my rebuttal would end up being longer than your original article.

I honestly have to question whether the “three sources” you so liberally quote in your article actually exist, never mind actually attended the meeting or listened to the proceedings.

Your article, sadly, is the kind of unreliable fabrication that makes it very difficult for professional communicators like myself to convince ANC decision-makers that there is not a disinformation “agenda” against the ruling party, and to make them believe that political journalists should be taken seriously.

  And putting politics aside, as a former Weekly Mail employee, I have to say that your article is simply crap journalism. – Chris Vick

Franz Krüger

Franz Krüger

Franz Krüger is adjunct professor and director of the Wits Radio Academy. He is also the ombud for the Mail & Guardian, a member of the South African Press Appeals Panel and the editor of www.journalism.co.za.His book Black, white and grey: journalism ethics in South Africa was published in 2004, while a second title, The Radio Journalism Toolkit, was published in 2006.He is a journalist of some 25 years’ experience and has worked in print and broadcasting in South Africa, Namibia and the UK. Krüger set up the alternative East Cape News Agencies in the 80s and was part of the first management team of the democratic era at the SABC.   Read more from Franz Krüger

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