Why worker struggles are portrayed as mere inconveniences in our capitalist media

03 September 2017 - 00:00 By Mandla Radebe

Recent media coverage of events commemorating the fifth anniversary of the tragedy of Marikana - where more than 40 workers lost their lives - has exposed media neglect of working-class issues.
Over the years, labour issues have been characterised by "sporadic" and "episodic" coverage, as Jane Duncan observed in her 2013 paper "South African Journalism and the Marikana Massacre: A case study of an editorial failure". This includes mine accidents like the one recently at Harmony's Kusasalethu gold mine near Carletonville and industrial actions that disrupt the capitalist production processes.
Once more, this year's commemoration of Marikana was laden with political undertones and jostling for political space - even by parties whose ideological outlook is known to be hostile to the aspirations of workers.
Marikana is the epitome of a bigger problem when it comes to misrepresentation of working-class issues by the media. At the core of this under- and misrepresentation of the working class has been the gradual decline of the labour beat in the South African media.Not long ago many South African newsrooms prided themselves on their strong labour desks, staffed with seasoned and dedicated practitioners. Today many of the labour desks are a shadow of their former selves, due to many factors.
Chief among these is the location of the media within the capitalist structures of the economy.
It is crucial to appreciate that South African media systems are an integral component of the capitalist system and help to cultivate capitalist ideology and legitimise policies expedient to the interests of capital.
The manner in which discourses affecting the working class are represented reflect the extent to which the media provides the ideological platform essential for capitalist accumulation.It is therefore not surprising that stories about workers will be framed from a capitalist perspective. Strikes by airport workers or taxi drivers are often portrayed as "inconveniences" that disrupt the capitalist production processes. Little attention is paid to the demands and the plight of the workers, let alone the rationale behind their often-legitimate actions.This type of framing elevates the private accumulation agenda central to monopoly capital as the most sensible narrative.
It has become common to argue that the progressive labour rights embedded in our constitution are in fact the main contributing factors to the high levels of unemployment. The media's inability to nuance this argument can be traced back to the dearth of labour correspondents.
Second, commercial factors have contributed immensely to the decline of the labour beat due to the huge pressure exerted on news production processes. Commercialisation of news is essentially more concerned about profit maximisation than making sense of issues of public interest.
Over the years, commercialisation has resulted in the displacement of seasoned journalists in favour of business-minded newsroom managers who drive advertiser-friendly policies with greater dependency on public relations to discover and report news.
Commercial imperatives contribute significantly to shaping the representation of the working class in the media. The portrayal of issues affecting the working class from an economic point of view often leads to the negative impression that their issues, such as the demand for a living wage, are harmful to the economy. For example, the call for R12,500 by the workers in Marikana - today celebrated by many - was often framed negatively in the media.
The changing nature of the contemporary newsroom rests on the need for media organisations to remain profitable in a difficult economic climate.This has left the media with little choice but to reduce numbers in the newsroom, and when that situation occurs it is often the top earners - who happen to be older staff members, some with institutional memory on labour issues - who are the ones who are let go.
Although the argument on the impact of commercialisation holds, it is worth noting that in the context of financial challenges, the media has been able to prioritise and grow business and economic beats by developing new sections in newspapers and broadcast news, while only a handful of titles still have labour sections.
The demise of the labour beat in the South African media has had a negative impact on the representation of the working class - and the growth of economic beats such as banking has caused it to decline even further.
Radebe holds a PhD in media studies from the University of the Witwatersrand

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