The media exclude young voices
I once interviewed a matric student in Manenberg who hoped to study and become a journalist. She ended matric with distinctions, and an acceptance letter into one of South Africa’s top journalism schools. But already the odds were stacked against her – despite the need for more young women to get published in media, the support isn’t there.
My first job in the media was with an arts and culture magazine in Cape Town. It was an internship for which I was paid nothing but was expected to come equipped with my own recording devices and transport, and deliver content despite the resource constraints. I was fortunate, because my parents paid for the roof over my head and the food on my plate. But for too many young aspiring journalists, a job is almost impossible because of the price they have to pay.
We know that newsrooms have become more representative, and we have accepted that publishing content that reflects South Africa and our black majority needs to happen, although it “will just take time”.
Still, who are we writing news for? Is it the people who drive to work from pretty suburbs, or do we write for the guy treading between the cars at the robot, hoping that he will sell all the newspapers he has that morning?
Five years ago, I attended my first media lectures, and became inspired by the passionate, rousing lecturers who stripped racist media reports apart, drilled into us the idea that the print media were at risk even as the digital media flourished, and that media ownership desperately needed to transform.
Two years later, at that first internship, my editor was a white European man, whose passion was to create a publication that put local art and culture on the media agenda. But he was complicit in publishing stories that sexualised women, and, in my time there, commissioned me to do more stories on international acts or white South African artists than on local, young, black talent.
Time has passed. Media ownership hasn’t changed much, but maybe the onus is on us as journalists and fresh young reporters to take a bigger stand to cover stories that are more reflective of the country’s majority.
If people are serious about making our newsrooms more inclusive, then why aren’t we supporting young talent with paid internships and inviting their ideas? Yes, some media houses provide a stipend, but it’s not a living income. We write articles that 63% of our youth are unemployed, but why haven’t we placed young people on the agenda when it comes to our own hiring policies?
Young interns, or even junior reporters, usually don’t get benefits. If you get hit by a rubber bullet or a rock while covering a protest, medical expenses are yours to pay. Data costs are another burden to pay – that’s if you make it through the job selection process, where the job ad expects you to come ready with a smartphone, and where the applicant with a driver’s licence and car will have an advantage over those who don’t.
Through something as simple as a list of requirements, media companies are safeguarding the status quo, building newsrooms that take on people who can afford to be there, and excluding those whose ideas, experiences and knowledge could push us towards thinking differently about news.
I entered journalism fully knowing I wouldn’t be paid much. Journalism wasn’t something I chose to become rich, but I didn’t choose it to be complicit in a system where young employees are taken advantage of either.
The exclusion happens on so many levels: it’s in the way media houses wouldn’t hesitate to pay some columnists well, but would ask a black female writer to send in an opinion piece without expecting payment. I have seen many media outlets poke fun at the University of Cape Town’s failure to hire a black female professor, but I have yet to see anyone publish what black female academics have to write on the matter. There’s no shortage of male academic writers, however.
The problems the media face are structural: the way some media are financed by the government, advertisers and grant-givers leaves us in a state of reliance. Until we somehow find a new way to fund ourselves, to become self-reliant, we will never have enough resources, and our independence will always be shaky.
Aspiring young journalists will always absorb much of the risk, grinning at their by-line for the first few stories that get published, but getting ever wearier by the exploitation until they reach the point where they may even start looking at better-paying jobs in sectors such as public relations.
A student from gang-ridden, impoverished Manenberg has a dream to get her journalism degree and report on the violence in her community. Surely she and all youths who want tell stories that are neglected should receive support instead of a facing mammoth list of requirements for things they probably don’t have.