In 2005, when parts of the United States were battered by Hurricane Katrina, two of the world’s prominent news agencies exposed through their reportage the extent to which race and racial profiling are used to advance certain narratives in society by the media. In one incident involving a black man, the Associated Press captioned its picture in these words, “A young man walks through chest-deep flood water after looting a grocery store in New Orleans”. In another similar incident the Agence France-Presse captioned its picture, “Two residents wade through chest-deep water after finding bread and soda from a local grocery store after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans”. In the latter case the people in the picture were both white, one man and the other a woman.
Both these depictions triggered debate about how black and white bodies are shown in the media to perpetuate certain racially held stereotypes. In South Africa it is important that we deal with this issue of racism and the media, how it manifests itself and what the red flags are. The media has the power to shape how individuals and groups are to be viewed by others. Construction of difference — othering — and the perpetuation of stereotypes are a daily reality in media production.
The issue of media conduct was again brought into sharp focus recently when a video surfaced on social media showing how a senior eNCA journalist related to her subjects while doing a story from the steps of parliament in Cape Town after the budget presented by Finance Minister Tito Mboweni. The journalist in question, Lindsay Dentlinger, had a number of politicians lined up to be interviewed. What was glaring and deeply worrying was her insistence that black people being interviewed wore their masks, but she allowed white people to be interviewed without their masks. Dentlinger can be heard instructing black interviewees to wear their masks and ensure compliance with Covid-19 regulations — a perfectly acceptable point given the public health crisis facing the nation.
Dentlinger has since apologised and has also said that the clips shown in the viral video were taken between October 2020 and last Wednesday and that an investigation into it was underway.
But why is it that Dentlinger’s employer appears to see no problem with her conduct? If the public could see that there was something horribly wrong with how black politicians were profiled as potential carriers of disease, how is it that eNCA defended her instead of taking responsibility and committing to correct the behaviour? Racism can be unthinking and unreflective and those guilty of it are sometimes unaware of the racist nature of their conduct and it is during being called out they have a moment to learn. How is it that a news entity as big and influential as eNCA squanders a learning opportunity in such a shameful manner?
The saga presented the channel with a chance to learn from the public outrage that followed the broadcast and to teach its viewing public about the evil of racism, but also extend the teaching moment to young reporters and would-be journalists in journalism schools. By denying that Dentlinger was wrong in how she handled her subjects, the news channel has placed itself in the same league as convicted racists such as Vicky Sparrow.
More significantly, eNCA has squandered a branding opportunity to communicate a clear message that they are purely a news platform that does not have “hidden” or malicious agendas as it claims. Its handling of the blunder has chipped away at the channel’s claim of integrity and its professional standing.
At an ANC picket outside the broadcaster’s offices in Hyde Park, Johannesburg on Tuesday, the party handed over a memorandum of demands, which included a retraction of the defence statement by eNCA, an apology to all South Africans for the pain caused, an acknowledgement of their history of racism and treating its black journalists unfairly and a commitment to human rights’ training for their staff.
Journalists are products of the societies they come from. They walk into newsrooms with perceptions, stereotypes, attitudes and views they have to contend with in the practice of their craft. It is the duty of each journalist to interrogate their own “truths”, subject it to the scrutiny of their peers and the public and find ways to use the power of their craft to question prejudices at the collective level of society. It becomes a problem when such prejudices are denied by those who report the news and instead become the news such as in the case of the Dentlinger-eNCA saga.
The reality in our country is race and racism still form a huge chunk of our national discourse. Racism is still embedded in many facets of our society, including in newsrooms, and it has to be confronted everywhere it makes its ugly appearance and the media has a civic duty to do its bit in this regard. Given South Africa’s history and the racial dynamics that still prevail post-1994, the media, if not guarded, will find itself reproducing the racism prevalent in society. As the AP and AFP examples illustrate, stories are being told through the power of the pen and the lens, stereotypes are entrenched and reproduced and it is the duty of those wielding power in the newsrooms to be on the lookout for these professional dangers.
Prejudice is one of the conditions of racist practices that allows those in power (including journalists) to abuse their power to entrench their bias in society. An incident such as this continues a narrative that black people are carriers of disease and caution has to be exercised when interacting with them. We have seen this happen before to people who have HIV and tuberculosis.
The power of the media lies in how it portrays society and its ability to influence how viewers and readers think about people and frame long-term perceptions about these people or frame new ones. Journalists have to be careful at all times about using this power. Used recklessly, it can deepen pre-existing cleavages in society, drive divisions and also undermine the integrity of the media as a whole.
The South African National Editors’ Forum must urgently reflect on its role if it is to be taken seriously as the protector of professional standards and ethics in journalism. They cannot afford to keep quiet when professional lines are crossed.
For those offended political parties, an opportunity still exists to shape new and meaningful interactions with the channel. Although done out of anger and hurt, cancelling any future engagements with the channel may not be a sustainable long-term position during this time when voters need the multiplicity of voices in the political arena.
To paraphrase economist, academic and former congressman Dave Brat, our nation’s in trouble if we cannot depend on journalistic ethics to defend our democracy and ensure that it flourishes.
This article was updated on 4 March to include a reference to Dentlinger’s statement about the video and the ANC’s memorandum to eNCA.v