Is the media guilty of anti-Zuma bias?

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Jacob Zuma has been found not guilty on charges of rape.

Minutes after being acquitted, in an address to thousands of supporters at the Beyers Naude Square in Johannesburg, Zuma launched a scathing attack on the media. Speaking in isiZulu, he told the jubilant crowd that despite his denials, the media "tried me in the court of public opinion and found me guilty".

His experience at the hands of the media deserves a thorough investigation of the conduct of journalists in order to establish whether indeed they have been guilty of violating media ethics.

Any discussion or crit on the role of the media would necessitate a comprehensive analysis of its various arms and institutions. Also, appropriate benchmarks under specific themes would be essential to subject such assessments to close scrutiny.

As an example, may I point out that our experience over the last decade informs us that using the acronym "DABBLE" has been and remains a useful means to determine specific media reports.

  • "D" – Depth or Distortion
  • "A" – Accuracy
  • "B" – Bias
  • "B" – Balance
  • "L" – Lies
  • "E" – Ethics

A recent probe into impartiality of BBC coverage of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict found that its output "does not consistently give a full and fair account of the conflict".

Since this is a fresh study – report being released in April 2006 – it is significant to note that the BBC’s coverage lacked "analysis, context and perspective". These glaring gaps inevitably result in an incomplete and misleading picture.

I wish to briefly share with you some contentious issues which usually escape public debate. These are nevertheless significant enough to warrant our attention and constant agitation.

I refer specifically to the questions of media ownership, transformation and diversity. Have the playing fields been levelled? Has the concentration of ownership been unbundelled?

According to SANEF [SA National Editors Forum] the facts are that all the major daily and weekly newspapers, an increasing number of community newspapers and many of the magazines are totally or substantially owned by three companies: Media 24 [formerly Nasionale Pers], Independent Newspapers and Johncom. With Caxtons, which is closely linked to Johncom, these companies also own most of the profitable community newspapers.

Has transformation made any qualitative changes in regard to a wider range of views and opinions? Or are we still saddled with a media that is struggling to emerge from Euro-centrism?

It is also appropriate to refer to Prof Adam Habib’s concern about the corporate threat to journalism: "…frankly the bigger threat to journalism freedom in the current era is not government, but corporate control. And there is insufficient awareness of discussion of this threat, partly because corporate control is often not obvious". [This Day – Oct 22, 04]

After all, this imbalance of power –” between the producers of information and its consumers –” lies at the heart of an important debate which to-date has not been adequately addressed.

Habib also points to this very eloquently when he says that some voices get heard and others get marginalised through more subtle processes of segmenting the public, finding niche markets, focussing the magazine or newspaper to one or other audience.

To illustrate this point further, let’s look at the role of media “gatekeepers”.

Who are they?

These are a group of people who in their capacity as producers/sub-editors determine what is newsworthy and what is not. The power residing in them allows them to exercise judgment over news, stories, comments and analysis which inevitably shape public opinions.

The same is true regarding the elitist functions of those ensconsed within the corridors of power at the SABC who control the selection of films and documentaries. The public broadcaster has a moral obligation to allow a process to unfold which will not only permit civil society to play an inter-active role, but also ensure that the necessary transparency will eliminate any opportunity for "influence peddlars" to become entrenched.

Any appraisal of the media and its role in society would therefore be incomplete without a thorough investigation of this tilted balance of power. Indeed, such a probe will allow the media to increase its capacity to be responsive to the needs of people.

These needs in relation to communication are hopelessly inadequate given the current divide between media and its consumers.

People’s ability to access information as passive consumers is relatively easier than their ability to transmit it. For instance, readers of newspapers and magazines are acutely aware of the limitations of space which apart from restricting their responses, also render it impossible to have their views published at all!

Does it not raise questions about how masses of people are restricted from communicating when the Bill of Rights, Section 16[1b] clearly supports the right to "freedom to receive or impart information of ideas"?

Since mass-media such as television, newspapers, books, magazines, radio, films and the internet have a direct role in influencing and shaping public perceptions, factors such as the power and authority of these media cannot be ignored.

Well known legal personality Christine Qunta is therefore correct in raising the following question: "Who watches the watchdogs?" [B/Day 10 June 05].

In addition and more importantly is the confirmation she provides that apart from the "few who do manage to get access to the radio talk shows and the letters pages of newspapers", many thinking black persons are questioning the role of the media.

Like all organizations that create a product, the media have basic steps in their manufacturing and distribution processes. The chain from the publisher runs through the news/editorial dept to the advertising and circulation before reaching the final link: the consumer.

The emphasis placed on profits by the publishers has therefore placed additional burdens upon the editorial team, which raises more questions about the nature of the role of the media.

Indeed in his "The End of News?", Michael Massing alludes to this phenomena which he describes as "paring of editorial budgets and ‘harmonising’ of corporate interests to augment profits". [New York Review of Books, Dec 1 and 15, 05]

In addition, the move to tabloids or “tablodisation” of the print media has served to reinforce the perception that media owners’ bottom line remains profits.

In the decade following the Human Rights Commission’s inquiry into racism in the media, despite huge strides made by media practitioners, many issues related to the faultlines probed at the time, seem to pop up all the time:

  • Stereotyping
  • Islamophobia
  • Dispersonalising
  • Propaganda

This begs the question whether South Africa’s media institutions have made sufficient progress in pursuing transformation and embracing diversity.

In surveying the current media landscape, especially in the aftermath of the cartoon controversy, it is evident that many media houses have yet to display a desire to reach out to their target audiences in order to meaningfully deal with any existing disparities.

As this week marks World Press Freedom Day when journalists throughout the world reflect on the state of press freedom, it would be tragic if such stock-taking excludes the devastation caused by the US driven “War on Terror”.

Press freedom accorded to so-called analysts who exploit their opinion columns to perpetuate hate and bigotry in order to justify US hegemonic designs in different parts of the world is a travesty of freedom of expression.

Also if it is accepted that media credibility is hinged on values such as accuracy and balance, the public’s expectation that such ethics not be compromised under any circumstances, is unfortunately not met with any degree of consistency.

In summarizing this critique on the role of the media it is appropriate to conclude that the right to freedom of expression is exercised mainly by those associated with might and power.

Unless drastic efforts are made to empower ordinary people with equal opportunities to exercise similar rights, press freedom will remain the preserve of an elite minority.

Zuma’s woes regarding the allegations of rape may be over. It does not mean that allegations of media bias against him are over.

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