The South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF) at its AGM on Saturday 22 June in Johannesburg, noted a number of disturbing trends in our industry including the erosion of public trust, the decline of editorial independence due to a number of issues including the encroachment of media owners and shrinking newsrooms linked to large scale retrenchments.
SANEF noted that trust in journalism has become eroded in the era of fake news and misinformation, as well as journalists sometimes backing certain political factions, which has muddied the waters by tainting the whole industry.
Further, we noted with alarm the large-scale retrenchments. The latest State of the Newsroom Report, published by Wits Journalism has quantified this as approximately half the professional journalist workforce being slashed from about 10 000 journalists to about 5 000 over the past decade - and on-going closures of news organisations. This has been taking place after declining circulations. As a result, media companies have been putting the squeeze on newsrooms. The trend in South Africa appears to follow those in the developed world where advertising has moved off to the large media tech companies such as Facebook and Google. The business model of the past for journalism is over.
Yet, as the keynote address by Head of the Investigations Directorate at the National Prosecuting Agency (NPA), advocate Hermione Cronje pointed out at our Nat Nakasa awards for bravery on Saturday, journalism in the public interest has never been more important than now, and indeed had it not been for investigative journalism the various commissions of inquiries (PIC, Zondo, Nugent and so forth) would not have taken place at all. She thanked the industry for its important gathering of evidence.
In this highly pressurized and difficult era, SANEF has committed to fighting to strengthen our journalist industry in a three-pronged way:
- First, and most importantly, we launch our Inquiry into Media Ethics today with a panel of commissioners headed by retired judge Kathleen Satchwell, including panelists Nikiwe Bikitsha and Rich Mkhondo. The aim of this Inquiry is to investigate what went wrong with some of our journalism in recent years and how we can fix these gaps and loopholes so that trust and alliances between us and the public can be built. The independent panel will be interviewing media ethics experts and academics, media owners, editors and journalists and further members of the public and interested parties including civil society stakeholders, political parties, government departments, business organisations and so forth. The Inquiry will gather evidence and will draft a report with clear recommendations for strengthening industry ethics and credibility. This will be presented at an industry conference in a year from now. The conference will adopt an action plan to strengthen the ethics of the industry and to look at ways to prevent state and corporate capture of journalists. All interested organisations and individuals are encouraged to submit their views including written submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org. The panelists will analyse the submissions and will call on people and organisations to make further written and/or oral submissions. The first step, however, is for members of the public and interested parties to contact the panel via the email address above. Please find the terms of reference of the Inquiry attached to this statement and uploaded to our SANEF website on www.sanef.org.za.
- Second, we will be looking into a campaign to tax the large tech companies through co-operation with government and civil society; and
- Third, and finally, we are planning to embark upon research into new models of journalism. We note that public funding and philanthropy appear to be some of the trends.