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Fri Oct 31 12:43:00 SAST 2014

Readers deserve facts

Public Editor: Joe Latakgomo | 20 June, 2011 22:09
It cannot be that all the riots and service delivery protests are the result of newspapers not reporting government projects and successes, says the columnist

I am not sure who it was who said that the human being, looking at the infinite complexities of life, cannot see the whole, and therefore is informed only by the view they are able to see. Often, they take this view as the whole truth - anything else is lies and distortions.

I was reminded of this profound observation when I read that government spokesman Jimmy Manyi has threatened to take over the people's advertising budget - R1-billion of it - to reward those whom he and others in government believe are fairly reflecting government's service delivery. In other words, government will pay those who say nice things about government, and turn a blind eye to government failures and corruption.

"We don't play games in this government. We are not messing around," Manyi is quoted as saying.

I also thought back to a great newspaper, the Rand Daily Mail, and how it met its untimely demise. The Mail was fearless in its reportage. Its only crime, in the eyes of the government of the time - and business interests of the time - was to speak out for the disenfranchised black people. It exposed prison conditions as they affected black inmates. It reported on forced removals. It exposed the Information Scandal - the clandestine funding of attempts to buy the Washington Star and setting up of The Citizen to counter the Mail.

The price the Mail paid was harassment by government. The weapon of withholding advertising was used to squeeze it to death - both advertising from government and from the private sector - much as is happening today.

The newspaper was dumped by its white readers, and at its death, the majority of its readers were black. It takes guts to take on the big guys - in business or in politics. The only weapon journalists have at their disposal is truth.

Clearly, people like Manyi seem to have no idea how newspapers work, and how editorial content is put together. Or maybe they do.

It cannot possibly be that all the riots and service delivery protests are the result of newspapers not reporting government projects and successes. I would guess that if the government had claimed its service delivery was anything other than the failure reflected by the media today, and trumpeted success through the government publication Vukuzenzele, the people would still have protested - perhaps even louder as they would perceive they are the only ones left behind in service provision. A sum of R40-million would have gone down the drain.

Manyi has accused the media of "picking and choosing" which government messages to convey. But that is exactly what he and his team propose to do in Vukuzenzele.

Are newspapers in the business of "my country, right or wrong"? At the height of state repression, then State President PW Botha boasted publicly that if necessary, he would tell lies for his country. He then expected the media to report those lies.

That would certainly not be what the readers look for in a newspaper. Readers look for balance and accuracy. Sometimes, readers may not like what they are reading, but if they are satisfied that it is factual and significant, they will accept it as the truth. No newspaper reader wants to be fed propaganda. Indeed, propaganda often comes back to bite politicians - and the media that has fed them that diet.

Can journalism cure the ills of the country by suppressing the terrible things that are happening to the people - particularly the poor of the land? Should newspapers focus on ferreting out the good only?

Readers demand accountability from newspapers. They might not always agree with the newspapers, but it leads to greater public trust.

The result of publishing government propaganda will inevitably lead to journalists being held in very low esteem by readers. In my interaction with readers, there is one common thread of what readers of the newspapers that Avusa Media publishes expect: They expect - nay, demand - news that is a fair account of the facts. Editorials should be analysis of significant facts and, for the most part, readers accept that this would be subject to slanting.

Sometimes, the difference does get blurred, and the challenge for newspapers is to ensure that this division between editorial opinion and news is clear. Opinion should always be based on information that can be verified, done by a writer with specialist knowledge on the subject, and always has to carry the name of the author. It should place the news in a broader context so that the reader understands the significance of the issue or subject. It should also be authoritative.

Avusa Media has pledged to be true, accurate, fair and balanced in the reporting in its publications.

Manyi clearly does not believe this. For the most part, readers of our publications do. And that is what matters.

  • Latakgomo is the public editor. He can be contacted at latakgomoj@avusa.co.za, or to log concerns, complaints or issues at telephone number 011-280-5374

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