College of Human Sciences

A need to bridge the gap between traditional and new media

Dynamics of journalism in the digital age

Tshimangadzo Mphaphuli of the Department of Institutional Advancement was inspired to respond to the 10th Annual Percy Qoboza Memorial Lecture, hosted by the National Press Club, in partnership with Unisa and the Qoboza family, on 19 October 2020, and delivered by the South African Press Ombudsman, Pippa Green.

In the spirit of Percy Qoboza, an influential black South African journalist, author and outspoken critic of the apartheid government whose editorials did much to challenge white South Africans who were shielded from the horrors of apartheid as experienced by millions of black South Africans at the hands of the minority government, I, as a young black journalist, similarly feel the need to challenge Green's arguments on the threats of journalism in the digital age.

As a scholar and practitioner in the media and communication fields, I did for the most part agree with Green’s arguments on why journalism matters, I furthermore agree with her submission on the importance of upholding core principles in storytelling, such as accountability, verification and other guiding principles. I am of a strong view, however, that Green’s presentation sought to portray new media as a villain threatening traditional media. Instead of portraying new media as the problem, traditional media, its guardians and practitioners should seek ways of adapting and reskilling to fit into the new world order.

New media does indeed pose threats to traditional media; these, however, are both bad and good threats. They are bad threats as far as challenging journalistic ethics are concerned but good for the consumers because, for the first time in a developing country like South Africa with its history which economically excluded black people to participate in various markets, consumers now have diverse media platforms they can choose from to consume or produce media products.

Thus, new media has done a great job of disrupting white capital monopoly that some mainstream media have sought to reduce as a mere rhetoric. New media has disrupted white capital monopoly in the ownership of media platforms and, subsequently, the voices telling stories.
White capital monopoly in the media

The two media houses that Green references, Media 24 and Caxton, own a major stake of the media ownership pie in Africa. Naspers, owners of Media 24, alone dominates the printing media industry, newspaper industry, magazine, pay TV, the circulation/distribution of media products and e-commerce, to mention a few. This monopoly of the market makes it almost impossible for most black-owned media platforms to successfully operate and thrive in the media industry in the country, if not the continent. For example, the systematic exclusion and difficulties of a small community newspaper to thrive in a community whose stories are told by these media giants have seen many small media platforms established but quickly dwindling. Establishing a successful self-funded mainstream media platform by black people is a task almost equivalent to the miracle of walking on water, if not turning water into wine. As a young black journalist, these are cases I have seen often from my underprivileged community back at home in Limpopo.

In the same community, however, a number of young black media enthusiasts have established online radios and television programmes on Facebook and YouTube and they continue to grow daily; some, in fact, have been lucky to start gaining advertising revenue through their platforms. Thus, through new media, there's a diversity of voices telling stories and individuals get to choose how and where they tell their own stories; this is a major milestone in the functioning of democracy.

From some panel respondents and experienced journalists, there also appeared to be a level of denialism of this new world order. While old journalists acknowledged the impact of new media, they argued rather on the importance of distinguishing between a "reporter" and purveyors of information, a view which I argue matters very little, if not at all, in the digital age. The fact of the matter is that new media has afforded anyone with access to data, a smartphone, and digital media platform the power and, in fact, the authority to report a story. Affording each other titles, therefore, doesn't matter, as, in fact, mainstream journalists recently produce their media products based on social media posts. In this instance, we should ask, therefore, who is a reporter and who is a copycat?

I am, therefore, of the view that it is exactly this denialism and semantic play that is the exact cause of the demise of traditional media. As the Ombudsman, Green perhaps missed an opportunity to tackle the Press Club and journalists in attendance on how current traditional press regulation bodies do not address the capacity and dynamics of journalism in the digital age.

Given that most of the threats presented by Green were centred around journalistic ethical responsibilities, I am of the view that this would have been a perfect opportunity to embrace the media paradigm shift while exploring media ethics education for ordinary citizens who are now playing the same role as a journalist in the newsroom. What we need in this regard is a new approach and inclusive codes. Other than that, new media is here to make a necessary shift and ease in journalism. It is necessary, therefore, for traditional media custodians to reskill, adapt, and find ways of existing in the new normal.

The National Press Club, in partnership with Unisa and the Qoboza family, hosted the 10th Annual Percy Qoboza Memorial Lecture virtually. The lecture is held each year in remembrance of 19 October 1977, when the apartheid government banned The World, Weekend World, and other publications and organisations in what came to be known as Black Wednesday.

The lecture honours Percy Qoboza, the editor of The World and a critic of the apartheid regime, and serves as a reflection on media freedom. The theme this year was: "Why journalism matters. The challenges have changed but has its core purpose?".

Presenting the lecture was Pippa Green, a South African journalist and writer who began her career in 1982 reporting on the trade union and anti-apartheid resistance movement for The Argus in Cape Town. The veteran journalist currently serves as the South African Press Ombudsman.

To respond to the theme of the lecture, Green told of how various newspapers broke various stories about the state violence of the late apartheid era: about Vlakplaas and the police supplying arms to what was then Inkatha, and about the letter bombs sent to various political opponents that killed or injured them. She added to support her argument that "when the human rights lawyer Bheki Mlangeni was blown up by a letter bomb…Vrye Weekblad published a sworn affidavit from a Vlakplaas agent blaming Eugene de Kock for the murder. Why did the other newspapers not carry that story?" she asked.

She quoted Max du Preez who told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that "…if the mainstream newspapers and the SABC had reflected and followed up on all these confessions and revelations…every single one subsequently proved to have been true…the government would have been forced to put a stop to the torture, the assassinations, and the dirty tricks. It would have saved many, many lives."

Why journalism matters

"This is why journalism mattered then; and why it matters now," asserted Green. "We may not face anything like the same level of repression, the same violence, but we face other severe threats to the fabric of our democracy," she explained. She added further that corruption is one as it deliberately siphons money and resources paid for by taxpayers and intended to benefit the poor in our deeply unequal society and redistributes it to a politically connected elite class.

"The work of the Daily Maverick-convened team that included News24 and the investigative news agency Amabhungane exposing the extent of state capture through what is now known as the Gupta Leaks is one example of how journalism can hold those in power to account and how it can protect the fabric of democracy," Green said.

"But as praiseworthy as that work has been, journalism today faces other major threats. Some are economic. In SA, for instance, circulations of print media, and with it advertising revenue, traditionally the financial lifeblood of newspapers, has plummeted. The current pandemic and the lockdown have accelerated the economic decline."

"Major media houses such as Media24 and Caxton have begun an effective exit from print and are transitioning to digital; several magazine titles have been closed. This is part of a long structural decline of the print media but the lockdown has accelerated it."

Journalism in the digital age

Green further argued the threats that journalism faces in the digital age. She posited that "underlying the threats to the financial structure of the print media is the rise of social media and with it the instantaneous, quick, and often false news that gets spread on it. Proper journalism has to be about accountability. It has to be about verification and about a respect for truth."

"The problem with social media is that obligation to the truth and the discipline of verification frequently comes second to clickbait, rumour, and outright propaganda. In South Africa we experienced a deliberate social media campaign as a pushback to the exposés on the Guptas and state capture, run by a PR company based in London to redirect attention to what it called White Monopoly Capital," argued Green.

To read the 10th Annual Percy Qoboza Memorial Lecture lecture, click here.

* By Tshimangadzo Mphaphuli, Senior Journalist, Department of Institutional Advancement

Publish date: 2020/10/20