Media houses need to deeply introspect on their practices and how these might be contributing to democracy or eroding trust, the South African National Editors' Forum (Sanef) urged this week.
Commemorating the 41st anniversary of Black Wednesday, which saw a serious crack down on media freedom in 1977, Sanef chairperson Mahlatse Mahlase touched on the raging debate about the credibility of some media institutions and the craft of journalism itself.
"We need to honestly answer why studies show that trust in the media is eroding. This was long before the recent apologies," she said in a speech prepared for a Sanef fundraising dinner on Friday night.
She was referring to the recent apology by the Sunday Times this past week for serious editorial lapses with some of its past stories since 2014.
Sanef met with Tiso Blackstar management on Tuesday to discuss the series of inaccurate reports on the Cato Manor death squad, the illegal deportation of Zimbabweans and the South African Revenue Service "rogue unit".
Sunday Times editor Bongani Siqoko said in the apology that it was clear they had made mistakes "and allowed ourselves to be manipulated by those with ulterior motives".
Mahlase said those who were part of capturing the State saw the media as an important vehicle.
"The role of the media in creating the fertile environment for the band of rogues to grace our most sacrosanct institutions, needs an honest and thorough assessment. This is so that such heinous mistakes can never, ever, happen again," she said.
"The recent events have again suggested that the media industry has a lot to do, if the dream of meaningful democracy is to be truly realised."
Sanef acknowledged the throngs of ethical journalists in South Africa who remained committed to serving the public and those who exposed corruption.
"Despite what our critics say, Steinhoff, the collusion ahead of 2010, Bosasa, VBS etcetera - were exposed by the media."
Journalists worked hard to expose the rot, in the face of physical, verbal and psychological threats to have them silenced.
On the topic of muzzling the media, Mahlase said they asked President Cyril Ramaphosa in May to do the right thing and not sign into law the so-called Secrecy Bill, which was passed by Parliament in 2013.
"We remain positive that President Ramaphosa will still do the right thing - as an important sign of his commitment to democracy, which cannot be sustained when draconian ideas and draft laws bubble around.
"If he has any doubt, he can send it to the Constitutional Court, so we can get finality on this matter."
A number of other threats to the industry were also highlighted.
Mahlase said they were aware of complaints of inappropriate managerial interference in editorial spaces, as well as editors being fired or intimidated in order to tone down what was reported.
"We know journalists too have been pushed out when they fought back; Editorial decisions being taken in order to achieve particular commercial goals."
Newsrooms faced budgetary challenges and rounds of retrenchments, forcing out those with experience, institutional memory and agency.
A study by Sanef and Genderlinks that was launched this week, revealed that black men now comprised half of top media managers.
The number of black women in top media management has increased fivefold but was still 20% lower than black men.
"But there is still a worry - the gender gap appears to be widening and black men are moving up the ranks at a much faster pace than black women, and while there is an increase in women middle managers, there is a decline in skilled professionals."
Mahlase said the industry needed to walk the talk on gender parity.
Sanef has prioritised the training and upskilling of female media professionals with its Media Management Skills Programme.
It has also updated the journalist occupational qualification, a certificate targeting people with matric but also suitable for graduates and newsroom journalists.
"Media law and ethics remain a critical component in grooming the next generation of truth warriors," said Mahlase.