Editorial: Our power rests on the truth

Why do we do what we do? In short, it’s to hold power to account and to question how the status quo affects your life. Trustworthy information is a vital part of a healthy democracy. 

Information allows citizens to make informed decisions at the ballot box, and ask questions on every other day.

As the Fourth Estate, ours is an immense power. We help to shape narratives about who we are as a country. We expose people who do wrong. The Constitution recognises this and grants journalists far-reaching rights. These allow us to dig into the world around us. Few countries give their media such leeway.

You place your trust in us to exercise this power with caution. This has allowed us to tear away repeatedly at the facade that the corrupt and powerful seek to wrap around their dodgy actions. 

From reporting on the reality of the arms deal to Nkandla and South Africa’s sewage crisis, it is the work of journalists that shines a light on how things work.

Doing this is an expensive and draining task. Our reporters travel thousands of kilometres to speak to people who are overlooked. Days are spent in offices, finding good people who will share information, and cold nights can mean sneaking around security to find out what is happening at polluting factories that poison the air you breathe.

Our sole agenda is to find the truth.

But the tools and rights that allow us to do that come with responsibilities. And we are in danger of allowing our failings to destroy this industry.

We can see what happens if we allow this to happen by looking to the West, where the most serious allegations against United States President Donald Trump are dismissed with the moniker #FakeNews.

It is not a stretch to say that we are close to a point where political parties will dismiss our reporting in the lead-up to the 2019 elections with a similar utterance.

This is our fault. Our industry is in the throes of a crisis. Since the 2008 global economic crash, newsrooms have shrunk and skilled reporters retrenched. Even big media companies are struggling to keep their publications printing. People don’t want to pay for stories online, and newspaper sales continue to drop.

We have responded with panic. We regularly copy and paste press releases and publish them under a journalist’s name, or as the work of “staff reporter”. Do not trust this work. Punish us for doing this. We then rush to cover things that are trending on social media, even if only a fraction of the population is on a platform like Twitter. Instead of reporters who are invested in a topic, we ask reporters to know a little bit about everything.

And then there are times when we completely fail to respect the immense power that we are entrusted with. As the Sunday Times apology this week showed, there are stories that have been published that are incorrect. These have damaged institutions and wrecked people’s lives.

Our press ombud, which we voluntarily sign up to, gives little in the way of recourse for this. We regularly fail to investigate each other. Instead, we leave it to other people to talk about our industry and our dirty laundry.

If we don’t arrest this industry-wide slide, we will be easily dismissed by those with things to hide. Worse, you will dismiss us, and rightfully so. That’s why we have to focus on our own ethical codes and on reporting on the reality of the world around us.

Maybe it is time for some sort of platform where media and citizens can discuss this, hosted by the Press Council or the South African National Editors’ Forum.

Our sole agenda must be to find the truth.

PW Botha wagged his finger and banned us in 1988 but we stood firm. We built a reputation for fearless journalism, then, and now. Through these last 35 years, the Mail & Guardian has always been on the right side of history.

These days, we are on the trail of the merry band of corporates and politicians robbing South Africa of its own potential.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

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