Maintaining credibility and trust
WHAT’S the big deal, you might ask, dear reader?
What fetters could there possibly be on the press in South Africa in this glorious age of “democracy”?
Is Press Freedom Day just an attention-seeking concept devised by those who are tired of waiting backstage (read computer hacks) and desirous for a moment in the spotlight (read headlines) themselves?
After all, the bad old apartheid days when government used to play their favourite game of “disappearing journalists” are over, right?
Weeeeeelll … the answer is not the straightforward NO you might expect, I’m afraid.
Journalists disappear a different way now and the culprits are not the most obvious.
But I’ll get to that in a few paragraphs, let me not get ahead of myself.
Press Freedom is not a concept only reserved for war zones.
What readers and viewers in “safe” South Africa need to be aware of is that there are many chains restraining the press as they strive to deliver on their mandate (and our expectations) to provide important, useful and relevant information that can assist us with making informed decisions about which companies to invest in, which political (and/ or religious) leaders to believe in, which pandemic data interpretations to trust and more.
It is not easy going for journalists in South Africa as they strive every day to research, investigate, and get clear answers from the powers that be in both the public and private sectors regarding how our taxes are being allocated and/or (mis)spent, how big manufacturers are dumping chemical waste directly into rivers and contaminating our communities’ water supplies, how our waters are being overfished by commercial players while small subsistence fishermen are hauled before the courts for minor licence violations, how wide the gap really is between the skills requirements of the country’s future and what our education infrastructure at all levels is able to produce every year, what is the true status of children in the country (are they all eating? Are they all safe? Are they all in school?)
How inefficient operations in our key ports are strangling growth for users and thereby constraining revenue collection for the national coffers, what is really behind Eskom’s performance (or lack thereof) that is killing the country’s growth prospects, and the biggest mystery of all, why Banyana Banyana still don’t get paid as much as Bafana Bafana despite their patently superior performance over many years.
Standing between us and our right to know and understand all the factors surrounding these developments, dear reader, are not mere guns.
Oh no. Rather, there are powerful company public relations teams propping up weak shares with highly engineered one-dimensional blog posts supported by aggressive search engine optimisation tactics and paid-for content masquerading as business news.
There are spin doctors running double and triple disinfection cycles on festering political reputations, by using virtue-signalling hashtags and deploying lethally adorable baby kissing and family-posing social media posts of ne’er-do-wells holding public office.
(It cannot have escaped your observation that it’s a full-time occupation keeping naked photos of important people out of the news these days).
When push comes to shove and the story investigation become too persistent, there are always corporate recruiters on standby to scout the best and brightest, entice them from the journalistic fray and neutralise them with a fat pay packet.
This is the disappearing tactic I referred to earlier, which, on second thought, I will not go too deeply into at this point as it deserves its own full column with substantiating detail.
And then, of course, there is our orange friend’s favourite – “fake news”.
How does this threaten press freedom, you ask?
Well, the blurring of boundaries between what is true and what is fake threatens the credibility of the press by association. For instance, at the beginning of the lockdown, content shared via Whatsapp almost undid the World Health Organization’s critical pandemic communications, courtesy of home-brewed, unfettered, unfiltered and unedited panic mongering.
This is how powerful fake news is. Some was sheer mischief.
Some was painful ignorance.
And, of course, an alarming amount was intentional and deliberate misinformation.
The important question for the public is no longer just “what information do I trust?”, but “whose information do I trust?”.
In this regard, the press corps still represents society’s best shot at getting to the facts, if not the truth itself.
Of course, it would be hypocritical to speak about press freedom without mentioning the corresponding press ethics.
To maintain (and in some cases, regain) credibility and the trust of readers and viewers, adherence to and enforcement of editorial policies is now more important than ever for media houses.
So too, highly visible and readily available publication of these policies as an outreach reassuring readers and viewers as well as the subjects of coverage themselves of recourse and remedies available in case of a journalist, editor or publication being reckless with “facts” or playing fast and loose with personal, government and company reputations.
The right to reply is sadly the most flouted of all journalistic ethics currently.
It is disappointing to see how many news editors (particularly in print) have sunk to the level of allowing a story to be published or aired featuring these most pathetic of disclaimers as protection for their publications: “Mr X was unavailable at the time of going to print” or “Mr X’s phone went unanswered.”
All in the name of a scoop.
In a world in which careers can be destroyed in 140 characters plus three emojis and share prices can tumble on 30 seconds of inappropriate video, we need to defend the freedom we do have by ensuring fairness and the highest journalistic standards.
This is not Netflix, colleagues. It’s the news. And we can’t chill.