Journalism is in a dangerous moment: our work is crucial as different forces vie for control over this country and the ability to turn the levers of patronage, but our ethics are being called into question, sometimes rightfully so.
We cannot ignore this and carry on as usual, expecting that people will understand that what we do, we do for the good of South Africa. We must confront our failings and be better.
And we need to tell you — the people who give us your time and attention — where we fail and what we are doing about it.
Our starting point must be the morass of grey areas that we’ve created. Right now, someone who does work for European-based aid agencies also writes about those agencies. An environmental reporter, who writes about the need to trade rhino horn, is also working for a company that trades in that horn. And people who worked on political campaigns, crafting a message to make people vote a certain way, can walk into media and assume the protected titles that come with the profession.
Little of this is disclosed to our readers. Instead, we publish and call it the “truth”.
The press code — which we sign up to — makes our responsibility pretty clear: “The media’s work is guided at all times by the public interest, understood to describe information of legitimate interest or importance to citizens.”
In South African law, the critical role of journalism means we are granted legal protections that are reserved for few professions. Our Constitution recognises that we must be able to question those in power. Without this, politicians and companies would be able to do so much more damage to all of us.
But rights come with responsibilities.
We too often fail to live up to those responsibilities. In PR work, for example, we justify this ethical breach because the broken economic model of journalism doesn’t allow people to support their families. This is the same argument that people in the now-broken parastatals use when asked how they stood aside and allowed our energy, school, water and health systems to be destroyed — job security above all else.
Actions like this allow politicians to dismiss exhaustive investigative work, because they know our ethical failings and can so easily question our credibility. Actions like this are why people don’t want to pay for information. And, if we don’t do better, these actions will allow people to muzzle the media, regulating us into silence.
Then everyone loses.