This week, a grade seven scholar visited me with a notebook and 10 questions. She was completing an assignment and had decided to focus on “women in media”. As we fiddled with recorders and chairs, I smiled at her fascination with the newsroom beyond the walls of my office. She stole glances sideways, in apparent awe.
Although the Mail & Guardian newsroom is small, in people size — tiny when compared to some of its previous incarnations, and especially tiny compared to our colleagues on either side of Empire Road in Johannesburg — it is still a wondrous place. No matter the time of day, there is the quiet hum of drama lining the polished concrete floor. There is a palpable sense of something happening, something meaningful coming together. I watched her furtive glances and smiled.
Then she opened her notebook and asked me when I first knew I wanted to be a journalist.
She probed my motivation for being a journalist just as deftly she did my sense of self. In her questions, she slowly began to pick away at the experience of a woman being a journalist in South Africa. Without much hesitation, and with full faith in her curiosity, I felt myself opening up about some of my most private moments of anguish. In the 40 minutes we spent together, she was a journalist.
I’m determined to believe that it could not have been for the generous puffing of my ego alone that I enjoyed that interview.
And, when I learned that she and her brother ran their own family “newspaper” over Christmas in Kommetjie, I was persuaded that perhaps the future of journalism is not altogether doomed.
Because there are moments when it feels as if we will soon struggle to find people who even want to do this work.
Earlier this year, a group of Stellenbosch University journalism students joined our Friday morning review meeting. This is when we discuss what we’ve done well, what we could do better and what on earth is happening around us. When Sipho Kings, our intrepid news editor, invited the students to tell us why they were studying journalism, and where they hoped to work, we were left confused. Nearly all of them said they would prefer to seek a job in PR or communications.
The lesson of their newsroom tour — before they arrived at our door — was that journalists themselves would not recommend this work to young people. So they were surprised, they said, to find something like hope here at the M&G.
And that feeling of hope is really what makes the M&G special — its existence is founded on the idea that good journalism can contribute to a better world, a more just world. The M&G came to be on the back of a group of journalists who refused to be cowed by a violent regime. The very founding of the Weekly Mail, as it was named in 1985, was an act of courage.
And today, this institution continues to do this work because we believe the act of telling the news —of telling the true story of the world — holds meaning beyond ourselves. We recognise that in 2019, the most vulnerable people in South Africa continue to be women, and black. And we want to ensure that their experiences are never overlooked. Moreover, we want to ensure that the people elected to do right by them are held to account. This is why the M&G exists.
Make no mistake, it takes some degree of madness to work at the M&G. But it also takes courage. So we are heartened by the fact that, contrary to national circulation trends, we are somehow selling more newspapers than we were a year ago. We are encouraged that our digital audience is growing.
But all our efforts are for naught if we don’t have you, our readers, with us on this journey.
This year’s Digital News Report, published by Oxford University’s Reuters Institute, found that South African news media score a 49% on trust — one of the highest levels in their survey. The South African part of the report, authored by former M&G editor Chris Roper, notes that it is perhaps the news media’s role in uncovering state capture that has helped bolster that score. But the report also warns that trust between news media and their audiences is fast eroding.
And in a week in which a senior South African journalist is alleged to have benefited from a crime intelligence slush fund — an allegation that the journalist denies — that trust between you and us is particularly fragile. We recognise that. But it is the allegations that various pockets of crime intelligence and state security intentionally planted stories in the news media, setting one narrative against the other, that are even more worrying.
When we cannot guarantee that the undercurrents of the news are not governed by outside forces, then we have a problem. And if people don’t trust the media, then we have a problem that is greater than the broken business model of the news.
Some of the greatest criticisms we field — once you’ve combed through the hysterics of trolls armed with the word “Stratcom” — are about the focus of our reporting.
We can often rebut some of those criticisms with proof of reporting exactly what we are accused of ignoring — like this week when one ardent Twitter user argued that the M&G would never report on the struggles of University of Zululand students, while using pictures taken by M&G staff photographers on an assignment about that very university.
We must, however, be clear.
Our journalists do not exist in a vacuum. Each of us brings our lived experiences and our own prejudices to this office. And we do make judgments about what to cover and what to ignore, based on our values and our capacity.
But our commitment is to manage ourselves, and our biases, to do journalism that is independent; rather than holding ourselves in the chokehold of objectivity.
Rob Wijnberg, the founder of The Correspondent — a Dutch news startup that boldly seeks to “unbreak the news” — points out that the very idea of objectivity is a red herring. “Objectivity,” he wrote in 2017, “may be the most poorly understood, tenacious, dangerous illusion journalism has ever believed in. Misunderstood, because it’s confused with independence and impartiality. Tenacious, because it seems easy and it’s cheap. Dangerous, because it’s the biggest lie you can tell the public. And an illusion, because it doesn’t exist.”
We are not objective. But we are impartial. And we will not hesitate to tell the stories that make us look bad, or make our friends look bad.
This week’s Rica judgment proved that there are also few places in Africa — or the world — where it is better to be a journalist. The rights of journalists are enshrined in law. It is a far, far cry from Tanzania, where journalist Erick Kabendera has been jailed for who knows what.
We refuse to entertain any notion of policing the media.
We seek instead to ensure that our conduct is unimpeachable and our work excellent.
Back in the office, I told my 13-year-old interviewer that I first knew I wanted to be a journalist when my English teacher in what was then called standard four showed our class clippings from her time as a sports journalist in Cape Town.
The ability to put words to the world unravelling itself appeared to me like a kind of magic. I wanted to be able to do that, to be able to describe what was happening in the world and in so doing reach out to the world as well. I wanted to be part of an effort to make sense of the world. I wanted to be part of something meaningful.
A future without journalism, without independent journalism, would be intolerable.
It is for future generations — who will be thrust into a world where the line between truth and falsehood may be entirely blurred — that journalism must adapt, must survive its current challenges. It is for the future generations to know and understand the world, to recognise how power is exercised, that the practice of journalism must be guarded. But it is for us, right now, to better understand our world that we must ensure journalism continues. And for that to happen the bond between us and you must be secured. We need you on this journey with us.
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