Thursday, July 3, 2008

The State of the Nation: Media Influence


The Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) on Wednesday 2 July hosted a forum on the deteriorating state of the nation and the role of the media in recording South Africa’s fortunes. Editors Mondli Makhanya and Ferial Haffajee (of the Sunday Times and Mail & Guardian respectively), as well as Steuart Pennington of SA: The Good News made up the panel.

Prof. Anton Harber of the Wits Journalism & Media studies convened the proceedings. He opened by suggesting that it is easy to say that we must strengthen the media’s role in our democracy but that this raises questions about how this can be achieved. Is it by being a fierce watch dog? Is it by being as positive as possible about the condition of our democracy? Is it about reporting back our setbacks and trip-ups? Or is it about downplaying those in favour of stories of hope and positiveness?

Steuart Pennington began the discussion by suggesting that the media very often accept bad news on face value. For instance, when the SA Institute of Race Relations conducted an international study on the quality of schooling worldwide it was represented by our media that SA schools are the most dangerous in the world. Media reports on shootings and stabbings within our schools were used as evidence to back up this false perception, where it was reported that South Africa suffered the lowest levels of school safety in the world.

In actual fact, the SAIRR finding was concerned with literacy levels and not incidents of violence (and across 41 countries, not the entire planet). The media, Pennington suggested, should have investigated the real truth behind the false reporting. By not doing so they “created a sense of otherness and a sense of panic.” Some people, he said, have spoken to him about leaving the country, based on a reading of the very misleading articles under discussion

Pennington expressed the desire to have a Good News column in the national newspapers, which he said was an idea that was often dismissed. He used the term “Merchants of Chaos” to describe the media, saying that those who stop consuming news are usually better off in their personal well being and views of the condition of the country.

Mondli Makhanya questioned the perception that in other nations the media doesn’t report crime as much as here. “I think we all agree that we don’t want to see a dead body on page one. But on the question of crime, is what we are reflecting an un-truth? Are we blowing matters out of proportion? No, every crime was true.”

Makhanya cited the myriad problems facing the country in 2008 saying that “the republic is in a really negative space.” The run-up to Polokwane, the prospect of a Zuma presidency and the criminal charges against him. Waking up in the dark on January 4th. The Selebi affair. The list runs long.

“We would be doing a disservice to SA if we were not reporting these things. There are countries where this doesn’t’ happen. The country next door has tried to massage the truth for decades, and now they cannot confront their problems.”

“We do have power,” he continued, “we do have influence, we cannot be spectators. Especially in a one-party system we have a big role to play.”

“But I think we could do more. We haven’t done enough to celebrate those who have overcome adversity.”

The debate over the balance between good and bad reporting happens in every newsroom, he said.

“Good news does sell. There is a perception that it’s only the bad news that sells.” Makhanya went on to describe how in the early 2000s the Sunday Times ran a story on a young man from the Eastern Cape who studied at Wits for a BSc degree and did extremely well. Instead of going into a highly paid corporate job, he went back and taught maths and science at his old school. That year the pass rate for those two subjects shot up to 93 % The article ran under the title, “Mr Miracle Man.” The responses were overwhelming; it made people feel good, and it sold.

Ferial Haffajee let some smoke out of her ears by indicating that “the good news brigade is a load of bull.”

“I think that the purveyors of the Good News would not sell many copies [if it was a full publication]. And saying this does not make me a merchant of chaos. You just have to look at the figures. Most economic indicators are down. It’s not the doo-bee-doo days of this time last year. We are slipping down the ranks of global measurements: maternal mortality – the most basic indicator of living standards - is way down. This is shameful considering the billions spent on public health. I won’t go to a public hospital and nor would many people in this room.”

Haffajee also looked at the scales measuring corruption, issued by Transparency International (in which we are declining) as another instance of our country’s failings. Students at her old high school were protesting, she said. Our public schools are not safe places. Our children are more stupid.

“I’m not a naturally pessimistic person. I’m a Piscean and I like the New Age stuff like The Secret," she joked "But it’s hard to remain positive in light of these facts.”

On the more optimistic side Haffajee pointed to her 200 Young South Africans You Must Take to Lunch series. This she said, provides a snapshot of tomorrow and is encouraging.

In the plenary discussion Makhanya had this to say to those who think that the media needlessly propagates negativity: “Things are bad out there. The bad news is bad, because things are bad. We come from a period that we trusted our authorities too much. We as South Africans need to start owning our future.”


The words cited above are not entirely verbatim and should not be used for quoting purposes. These are rough notes that capture the general thrust of each speaker's argument, which I have tried to represent as accurately as possible


  1. I'm not a fan of Haffajee's and that she likes The Secret doesn't help change that perception...

  2. I was talking to Ms. Haffajee after the session and I asked her about The Secret, which it is no secret, is a load of bunk. She said she was joking, so hopefully that exonerates her. I don't think there are star signs in the M&G are there?

  3. An interesting observation, among the panelists were no less than three (3) former or current editors of the Mail & Guardian - Haffajee, Makhanya, and way back when, Harber.