On the beat makes all the dif­fer­ence

CityPress - - Voices - Janet Heard voices@city­press.co.za Fol­low me on Twit­ter @janet­heard

As a rookie reporter in The Star news­room in Joburg in the late 1980s, I found it was not the end of the world to be sent on an as­sign­ment out of town, only to find it was a non­story.

I re­call, on one oc­ca­sion, head­ing off with a pho­tog­ra­pher to cover a fire out in the sticks. We had been sent by deputy news ed­i­tor Mike Co­hen. We drove for about three hours in a com­pany-sup­plied car, only to re­turn many hours later with noth­ing to re­port. Co­hen non­cha­lantly shrugged his shoul­ders.

The main­stream me­dia was well-re­sourced and staffed then. In ad­di­tion to beats that still ex­ist, The Star em­ployed two labour re­porters, a high court reporter, a sep­a­rate in­ves­tiga­tive unit and a re­li­gion reporter, among oth­ers. You name it, we had it. These days, shift­ing business mod­els and re­lent­less cost-cut­ting have re­sulted in lean news­rooms.

Gutsy, in­no­va­tive, al­ter­na­tive me­dia ti­tles have sprung up. Do­ing more with even less, they are of­ten sup­ported by non­com­mer­cial fund­ing.

Time wasted on a non­story wreaks havoc in shrunken news­rooms, where re­porters multitask on var­i­ous me­dia plat­forms and jug­gle a num­ber of sto­ries. News ed­i­tors are forced to make de­ci­sions about what to cover on the ground and from livestream­ing or TV, and what to leave to a desk-bound “reporter” via in­di­rect sourc­ing, which can be ma­nip­u­lated by ped­dlers of dis­in­for­ma­tion and pub­lic re­la­tions spin.

When it comes to news re­port­ing, there is noth­ing like be­ing there to wit­ness first-hand what is un­fold­ing. But re­port­ing costs money; it takes time and re­sources.

It is pos­si­ble to cover a Con­sti­tu­tional Court rul­ing or a Na­tional Assem­bly sit­ting by watch­ing a flatscreen TV in the news­room, but re­port­ing will be ex­actly that – flat, with­out mul­ti­ple di­men­sions and side views.

A few years ago, News24 par­lia­men­tary reporter Jan Ger­ber pub­lished ar­ti­cles about Na­tional Assem­bly gath­er­ings that he watched from his press gallery perch. Writ­ing in Afrikaans for Netwerk24, he fo­cused on MPs’ an­tics un­der the ti­tle, “Wat jy nie op TV kon sien nie [What you can’t see on TV]”.

It had a lim­ited though ap­pre­cia­tive read­er­ship. Hu­man Set­tle­ments Min­is­ter Lindiwe Sisulu sent Ger­ber a let­ter, in Afrikaans, wel­com­ing him to her choco­late net­work­ing club af­ter he wrote about her sneaky Cad­bury bar dis­tri­bu­tion habits in the House.

While out­ing Sisulu for hav­ing a sweet tooth is triv­ial, Ger­ber’s ob­ser­va­tions demon­strate the power of be­ing there, which is es­sen­tial when the white-shirt bounc­ers are hauled in to deal with the Eco­nomic Free­dom Fight­ers and other dis­rup­tions.

This week, on­line start-up pub­li­ca­tion GroundUp re­ported that 14-year-old Ona Dubula was shot by po­lice at close range with rub­ber bul­lets dur­ing a protest in Hang­berg, Hout Bay. Be­cause he wit­nessed the in­ci­dent, reporter Ki­mon de Greef did not need to write that the po­lice “al­legedly” shot the boy.

You, the reader, can do your bit to safe­guard qual­ity re­port­ing. Do not can­cel your sub­scrip­tions to trust­wor­thy news­pa­pers. Buy a sub­scrip­tion for a friend. Click on dig­i­tal me­dia crowd-fund­ing icons, in­ter­act with news­rooms to call out shoddy re­port­ing and do not share fake, man­u­fac­tured news on­line.

This sup­port will help to safe­guard qual­ity re­port­ing and en­sure that when the sh*t hits the fan, re­porters – not ped­dlers of false­hoods – are on the ground to de­liver the first draft of his­tory.

Shift­ing business mod­els and re­lent­less cost-cut­ting have re­sulted in lean news­rooms

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