/ 21 June 2024

Editorial | We will need the media in democracy’s next phase

Atmosphere At The National Results Operations Centre At Gallagher Estate On Day 03 In South Africa
South Africa’s newsrooms are being hollowed out right when we need them the most. (Photo by Sydney Seshibedi/Gallo Images via Getty Images)

We have entered another era in the life of our nation. This is how President Cyril Ramaphosa described this next phase of South Africa’s democracy during his inauguration this week.

While some are celebrating what they view as a win for centrism and an all-too-narrow sidestepping of right-wing populism, there is still a lot to feel uneasy about. South Africa’s politics is still sliding towards the right. Economic policies that squeeze the public sector could accelerate this. 

Meanwhile, South African newsrooms — tasked with making sense of all this, hopefully helping the public avoid further chaos — are being hollowed out. 

Earlier this week Media24 confirmed reports about its restructuring, announcing that it is considering closing the print editions of five newspapers — Beeld, Rapport, City Press, Daily Sun and Soccer Laduma. The restructuring could result in 400 people losing their jobs.

While the transition away from print has been a long time coming, one can’t help but feel that we are ill-prepared to deal with the internet’s onslaught and what it means for the quality of the information we have access to. 

The Reuters Institute’s 2024 Digital News Reportt, released earlier this week, suggests that South Africans are more worried than most about distinguishing fake news on the internet. According to the report, 81% of South African respondents said they were concerned about misinformation. The average proportion of anxious respondents across all surveyed markets was 59%.

On a positive note, the foreword to the report points out that trust in South African media is holding steady. With 57% of respondents saying they trust “most news most of the time” (an improvement on the 49% in 2019) there is room to do better. 

Newsroom job losses, which often start with cuts to production and sub-editing staff — our defence against editorial lapses — will make this harder to achieve. 

Many are hoping that Ramaphosa’s government of national unity will usher in a new era of accountability. No matter how benevolent you believe your party’s leaders to be, we cannot expect them to always stay true to this cause — especially when another fallen axe threatens their already waning electoral support. We still need the fourth estate to hold their feet to the fire. 

And so, just as we ought to treat this new period of coalition politics seriously — understanding our collective responsibility towards upholding our democracy and aiding inclusivity — we should do the same as we enter the media’s next phase. 

Newsrooms and their investors will have to do better to ensure good journalism pierces through the chaos. The state will have to help guard against the harmful impulses of big tech. And you, our readers, have an important job too — to vote, through articles read and subscriptions.