​What should journalists be writing?

It is tremendously difficult to write about the needs and the centrality of the spirit in our experience of being human — ­­for a newspaper. I imagine most readers come here to feed the hunger of their egos; to keep up with the latest indicators of human folly and achievement; to rehearse for doomsday in the weekly recitals of Who Not to Trust This Week, It’s the Government’s Fault and As A Taxpayer…

This idea of waiting for something bad to happen is well established in the imagination of the people who built this and other newspapers.It is the membrane that held South African whiteness together, which has today been transmitted to the rest of us.This waiting. This fantasy has the self-fulfilling prophecy that is Donald Trump as its ultimate manifestation. And the wearers of Cape Union Mart clothing, as its waiting, grinning, quotidian liberals.

As journalists we trade on this fear and doom. Under the auspices of informing, we’ve come to hold a lot of power. A power to shape how people interpret and participate in reality.

During apartheid, it was the newspapers and radio stations who facilitated the state’s mission to separate us, to ensure the borders between us and to secure ignorance. Censorship was real and from it, publications such as The Weekly Mail emerged as the noisemakers against the government imposed silences.

But ultimately the role that the media has played in South Africa has always bolstered the notion that things are getting worse and somebody else is responsible for your pain. A quick analysis of the Mail & Guardian’s covers over the past 10 years points to how relaxed we are in the trade of distrust, the psychology of profiling and the scapegoating of our issues on the new baddies —the people who work as government agents.


A lot of the time, as is the case with state capture, we are right to target the politicians who do not act in the interest of the people. But by focusing so much of our resources and news coverage on reactionary and responsive journalism, we end up doing the work of the politicians for them. We end up aiding confusion, obfuscation, fear, distrust and a consciousness that somebody else is responsible for my life and thus my needs.

To what end do we tell stories? We will always be indispensable to the formulations and implementations of policy, law, justice and democracy. We fulfil an important role when it comes to how citizens understand their relationship with the state. As journalists we pride ourselves on being the brokers of relations between the big people and their deputies up there and the people down there. But does an average publication help me better understand, my other quotidian needs as a person outside of my intellectual desire to be on top of “current affairs”?

Who is speaking to this overwhelming sense that you are stranded in this tender yet violent place and you don’t know why or what it’s for? The pain of change and letting go? The anxiety that your teenager feels? The anxiety that you feel? The fear of being poor again? The pain of not belonging?The fear of irrelevance? The pain of being ill.The listlessness that often comes with the humdrum of the everyday in a world where the thing we value the most is money and the acquisition of it. The pain of not knowing what to do in the face of the human condition. How do the news stories we work so hard on speak to the very things we suffer as writers?What do we have to say to the indicators that tell us our reader numbers are dwindling?

I am sincerely nonplussed by how little we, in our positions of power, cater to the other needs of human beings. How comfortable we are in the fear of ourselves, each other and of life itself. In the age of churnalism, file or die is the mantra that keeps our jobs secure, for now at least.

As journalists, what is our intention in these positions to shape how people think and respond to reality? What are we informing readers about and why? What are our readers going through? What do they really need and how are we providing it?

We are in an incredible moment in our national history. We’ve come from a long time of being legally disallowed from knowing and understanding each other.We went through a historic rupture of the laws that rendered us ignorant, fearful and hateful of each other but that did not necessarily change people’s hearts.In the same way that white people didn’t ask for forgiveness, black people do not forgive apartheid.

Although curiosity about “the other”exists on the same platter of national conditions as indifference, for 20 years we performed a knowledge of and interest in each other in a sort of post-traumatic memory lapse of sorts, all the while still fearing and loathing, though curious about each other.Today, we are in an age of remembering that hey, something happened here, to all of us.We are feeling it the most in our bodies and taking it out the most on our bodies. It takes up the space between our unconscious greetings and conversations and our conscious examinations of what happened here. We are finally allowed to feel. And this is why things seem so insurmountable.

What am I doing in my everyday as a writer to speak to this moment? Is a journalist required to ask and answer this question for themselves? Now that we are seasoned at telling readers how monumentally fucked we are, now that the think pieces of analysis are as automated as they are, the apologies as swift as they are, the writing as clear as it is on the wall —what else should we be doing? What happens after the naming of our pathologies and what is our role in that?

Would I be too naive to want to pick up a newspaper that would better help me understand myself? That would help me identify the traits of my ego versus the traits of my spirit, my true form and self? Am I asking too much of this fraternity to help me figure out how I am going to face my enemy? And how I am going to heal myself?

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

‘Elusive Spring’ reveals South Africa today

Mike van Graan’s 2012 political thriller comes to life again ― and its themes are more relevant than ever

Thank you for supporting our journalism

Thank you for buying our newspaper. Siyabonga, re a leboga, enkosi, dankie. You are why our newsroom can keep doing good journalism

‘Killing the chicken to scare the monkey’: what Jimmy Lai’s arrest means for Hong Kong’s independent media

Although self-censorship has long been a concern, Hong Kong has traditionally enjoyed a vibrant free press

How to report on humanitarian crises: A guide for Western journalists

The world has become a more complicated place — that doesn’t mean your reporting has to be.

After a 55-year struggle, a major victory for press freedom in Sierra Leone

A law used to harass and intimidate journalists has been repealed

On Hodan Nalayeh’s brave legacy, and what it means to be Somali

Hodan Nalayeh was a Somali journalist famous for telling uplifting, positive stories about her country. She was killed in a terrorist attack in Kismayo in July 2019. A year later, the writer Ifrah Udgoon remembers how Nalayeh’s life and work shaped her own
Advertising

Subscribers only

SAA bailout raises more questions

As the government continues to grapple with the troubles facing the airline, it would do well to keep on eye on the impending Denel implosion

ANC’s rogue deployees revealed

Despite 6 300 ANC cadres working in government, the party’s integrity committee has done little to deal with its accused members

More top stories

Hawks swoop down with more arrests in R1.4-billion corruption blitz

The spate of arrests for corruption continues apace in Gauteng and the Eastern Cape.

Catholic NGO boss accused of racism and abuse in Sudan

The aid worker allegedly called his security guard a ‘slave’

Agrizzi too ill to be treated at Bara?

The alleged crook’s “health emergency” — if that is what it is — shows up the flaws, either in our health system or in our leadership as a whole

SANDF hid R200m expenditure on ‘Covid’ drug it can’t use

Military health officials are puzzled by the defence department importing a drug that has not been approved for treating coronavirus symptoms from Cuba
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday