31 October 2018

South Africa: How to Combat 'Media Capture'

Photo: IPI
Under the title "Why Good Journalism Matters: Quality Media for Strong Societies", the 2018 IPI World Congress was held in Abuja, Nigeria, from June 21 to 23, 2018.

How do we combat fake news, the grooming of journalists by sources less than credible and how do we grow and maybe even restore the public's trust in journalism? These are questions that are foremost on the minds of the media profession as well as the public's as we commemorated Black Wednesday this October.

There are no easy or quick answers, bar to keep working on many fronts to improve news flows in the public interest and to draw on whatever resources we have to do so. Since its inception The Journalist has provided a platform for critical reflection on news and current affairs in South Africa and beyond. Online media and social media platforms have increasingly provided alternative news outlets to compliment the mainstream news media. And this is an important feature in a media landscape that has had to confront issues of fake news, circular reporting and in the South African context 'media capture', as exemplified by the recent revelations of the Sunday Times involvement in stories aiding 'State capture'.

Media commentators, journalists, and the Sunday Times itself, have risen to the challenge of introspection, alongside condemnation. Issues that have come to dominate the discourse around the news media this October and Black Wednesday commemoration. Going forward, we are going to have to tackle these issues on a broader front, and partnerships and involvement from the news media, civil society and professional organisations will have to rise to the challenge to continuously address the challenges facing the news media in contemporary society. Here, the partnership between The Journalist and the South African Communication Association (SACOMM), an academic interest group that have been the main professional organising body for media and communication scholars and its sub-disciplines for close to 45 years, is of interest. And the link to professional issues of outmost importance.

In later years, SACOMM's involvement with platforms such as The Journalist have given an outlet for setting out theory as well as practice. Equally, partnerships and links to professional bodies such as the South African National Editor's Forum (SANEF) and a wide range of advocacy groups such as the Right to Know Campaign (R2K) and the Support Public Broadcasting Coalition (SOS), has given weight to the growing importance and need for advocacy and engagement with industry and policy development. First and foremost, here is the engagement with broader media and democracy and media freedom issues. Recognising this SACOMM has since 2016 had a Communications Advocacy and Activism interest group with its core mission to engage with the burning issues of the day whether calls for equity and economic redress of the student movement or new media legislation and threats to media freedom, or, as most recently the issue of state and media capture.

Given recent debates around the news media and journalism with regards to fake news and journalists being played by sources with anti-democratic agendas, we need coordinated and thought through interventions from a wide variety of sources. Recognising the role that platforms such as The Journalist, and many others, as well as organisations such as SACOMM, SANEF, SOS and R2K play, is crucial to addressing the challenges facing the news media. And the kicker is that the age-old debate between the relative value of theory and practice is finally broken.

Working together across the theory-practice divide will provide opportunities for drawing upon multiple and a multitude of resources and sources of knowledge in our fight to guarantee an information flow and public discourse that is not only accurate, but also provides opportunities for us to evaluate its claim to the same. Equally, working together as academic and professional interest groups, and broader civil society groups strengthens our collective abilities to influence policy and legislation. And if such legislation stands as a response to a news media that seems to have lost the public's trust, we need to engage policy makers, legislators as well as the public directly as not to have legislation pushed on the news media that in the end might curb media freedom rather than encourage accountability, openness and trust in what is one of the most central institutions to a healthy democracy.

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