Journalists must get on the ground to tell the real, 360° story
So, I marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria last Friday, notebook and pen in bag, cellphone recorder in hand, hat on head, side by side with my friends. I was ready to catch the police in action mishandling reporters, grabbing their cameras and shoving them around.
In the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) we have had a number of such reports every month for a few years now.
But this time I didn’t see a single cop hindering a journalist from doing their job and so I had to change my narrative.
This means I am not writing a piece as part of my media freedom and diversity advocacy work, as I anticipated I would be doing.
I also joined the Union Buildings march for the same reason that everyone else did, which was: Zupta must fall; we need accountability for the endemic corruption in government.
The point here is that, for journalism to be credible, reporters must report from all gazes to form a 360° view. That some looked for people to interview who would fit into a particular line of thinking — for example, so that they could write stories that the anti-Zupta march was “a white middle-class thing” — is rather repugnant and antitherical to their professional codes of ethics.
How much does it matter that whites have seldom stood up against injustice before? Apparently, this was seen as a good reason for some not to support the march. But was it really a good reason, or rather a petty and immature one that missed the big picture?
If you are living in the parallel universe of social media, it’s easy to start believing that this protest was a white middle-class thing. It was not. But the Zuptas would like you to think that it was. If you only watch ANN7, you are going to be brainwashed into believing this.
It’s only when you are literally on the ground — where you can see, hear and talk about what’s going on, and learn new songs too — that you get to the facts.
When I heard labour federation Cosatu had pulled out of the march I was disappointed, only to find many Cosatu members there — in plain clothes. So, despite their leaders prevaricating and hedging bets over loyalty to the alliance and to President Jacob Zuma, some members decided to attend anyway to protest against corruption.
There were also many marchers with ANC, Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), South African Communist Party and Right2Know caps on. There were some from the Black Consciousness Movement carrying Steve Biko posters, as well as members of the Save South Africa campaign — which, by the way, is led not by white people but by businessperson Sipho Pityana.
What should journalists do at marches? They should talk to people to find out why they are there and estimate how many are taking part. Journalists have different methods for doing this. Counting a “block” of people and multiplying this number by the overall area occupied is the standard way, which becomes easier if you are able to get a drone picture.
It’s not easy to estimate numbers, but the turnout against “Zuptarisation” was enormous, probably more than 25 000 people in Pretoria alone.
Minority groups at the march identified with those in the ANC who are unhappy about the growing dictatorship of Zuma — who did not consult when he fired the finance minister, the deputy finance minister and others who he perceives to be against “radical economic transformation” but who have actually been closing the treasury to looting.
What happens if you don’t pull your head out of the parallel universe of social media — whether as a member of the public, an activist, a reporter or an editor? Your gaze is limited to the petty squabbles that exist among the Twitterati and the Facebookers. This does not represent South Africa’s entire 55‑million-strong population.
Had I not gone on the march, I would have missed out on the following observations:
• The marchers were black and white, young and old, and of all classes and political persuasions;
• The mood was jovial and celebratory;
• The one big message was that corruption in South Africa must stop and the first step is for Zuma to go;
• It was a symbolic march rather than a march that had the power to overthrow;
• White people attempted to toyi-toyi and sing without their usual self-consciousness, and black people encouraged them; and
• There was no aggression from the police. They merely watched from the sidelines and looked sad not to be part of it. Sometimes they smiled at the songs.
There is therefore nothing to report to Sanef’s media freedom committee about how terribly the police were treating journalists. I thought I was going to be busy, listing incidents and taking down police officers’ names.
Most of the songs were from the Fallist movement and the EFF, such as iYoh Solomon and Azania, as well as new anthems such as Voetsek, Fokof and The Contempt Song, which includes the lyric: Zuma only likes amabele [breasts] and geld [money].
I met a reporter afterwards who verbally attacked me, saying: “You’re not serious — you went on the white march?” I tackled this head on: “How do you know it was a white march? Who told you this? Were you there to see and hear?”
Apparently, I wasn’t on Facebook and Twitter to read how racialised, ugly and fraught with tension the whole issue was. I am so glad.
As much as everyone should stick their heads out of the parallel universe of social media every now and then, it’s particularly dangerous and irresponsible for reporters and editors to operate from there as if it represents the whole of South Africa.
If you don’t do real on-the-ground reporting you miss the camaraderie, the new songs that give meaning to the mood, and the full 360° gaze.
Glenda Daniels is a senior lecturer in the University of the Witwatersrand’s media studies department and chairs Sanef’s diversity and ethics subcommittee