Thoughts on the media in Africa and the Global South, by Herman Wasserman

In the Twitter trenches

Image result for sean spicer memes


Every year, the Oxford Dictionaries select a word that they think attracted the most interest during that particular year. Last year, that word was ‘post-truth’: “an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’”.

This was something quite different to the parody news shows like Jon Stewart’s Daily Shows or our own ZANews that had been around for a while and actually helped audiences understand news better because they highlighted contradictions or absurdities without pretending to be the real thing.

A few months later: January 2017. Barely has the new leader of the Free World unpacked his extra-strong hairspray in the White House bathroom, or his press secretary Sean Spicer meets the press for the first time and elaborates on the post-truth theme, inflating the size of the audience at Donald Trump’s inauguration and making a series of incorrect claims about the day’s events.

After he was caught out, his colleague Kellyanne Conway defended him by saying he wasn’t telling lies, but – and here she coined what very well might be a contender for this year’s Oxford Dictionaries word of the year – he was merely presenting ‘alternative facts’.

It might not be a surprise that this disrespect for facts comes from an administration of a president whose election campaign was mired in allegations about the spread of what has become known as ‘fake news’ – news reports that mimic the style and approach of legitimate news reports, but are fabricated and blatantly untrue.

The flood of fake news reports by right-wing outlets in the US undermining Hillary Clinton during the election campaign has been claimed to be supported by a Russian propaganda effort, which also included the hacking of Clinton’s emails and releasing them in order to make her vulnerable to her detractors. Trump himself availed himself of the term when he dismissed news network CNN’s allegations that Russia had a compromising dossier on him as ‘FAKE NEWS – A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!’

This is what a post-truth era looks like – a news landscape where it is increasingly difficult to discern truth from lie, and where social media have become the battlefield for propaganda warfare.

This situation is not limited to the United States. Earlier this week, it was claimed in court papers that the ANC ran a covert ‘War Room’ ahead of last year’s municipal elections. This allegedly included printing fake election posters to discredit the EFF (which is a breach of electoral laws) and creating a network of social media ‘influencers’ to push certain topics on Twitter and Facebook, and a news site The New South African to promote an ANC narrative. It is now alleged that the ANC never even paid the PR consultant for work delivered on this campaign, although the party denies all of it.

If social media is the theatre of this new propaganda war, Twitter is where the deepest trenches are dug. Hundreds of fake Twitter accounts have been created to discredit critics of the Guptas and their relationship with Jacob Zuma as being under the control of ‘white monopoly capital’. Fake tweets, photoshopped pictures and posters, malicious gossip and rumour are the weapons deployed in this dirty fight.

Then there is news planted in supposedly reputable news outlets by those driving a similar political agenda. The story of  a bogus ‘rogue unit’ that supposedly existed at SARS was fed to the Sunday Times who swallowed it hook, line and sinker and did the newspaper’s reputation a lot of damage.

This is of course not the first time in our history that a propaganda war was fought in the media. Imagine if Eschel Rhoodie had access to Twitter – what fun the Nats would have had.

The contemporary news ecology is a place where mainstream news outlets do not have the monopoly on breaking news anymore. Some of the most incisive analysis can often be found online on independent platforms or individual blogs, and social media have caused ‘filter bubbles’ where users can surround themselves by others who share and confirm their views and entrench pre-existing beliefs.

In this environment, a much greater burden for sifting the wheat from the chaff has been placed on audiences – or, as American media scholar Jay Rosen has called them, the ‘people formerly known as the audience’.

Because everyone with a Facebook account or Twitter handle are now not only receivers, but co-creaters of information who can post, share and pass on information. All media users have an ethical responsibility to ensure they are media literate and can critically assess the information they receive, and think before they share or retweet.

The rise of fake news may have a positive outcome for mainstream news outlets to whom audiences may start returning after they have deserted them for more individually-tailored online sites. But other factors, like the distance between elite news platforms and the majority of people, especially in a highly unequal country such as South Africa, is likely to mean that while people may trust the veracity of news in mainstream sites, they may not feel that it resonates with their daily lived experience.

Our research has shown that especially young people struggle to see the relevance of the news they find in mainstream outlets for their daily struggles. Consider the way in which community protests are often covered in mainstream media: as traffic disruptions that inconvenience suburban commuters, with very little attempt by journalists to listen to protesters and find out what their grievances are about. Individual journalists with street-cred or a sensitive ear to the ground may be those that in the end remain with their reputations most intact.

In other words, for reputable media outlets and journalists – whether they belong to big commercial operators or act as freelance journalists providing comment and analysis online – to counter the deluge of fake news and regain the trust of cynical audiences, it would not be enough just to provide verifiable, accurate facts, although this would be the obvious place to start. Facts are not the same as truth.

The truth is facts placed in proper context, facts used to create meaning, information that resonates with people’s experiences and makes a difference in their everyday lives. This requires listening, grassroots networks, analytical skills and a depth of understanding that goes beyond fact-checking. For the latter, fact-checking, there is always Google. The former is what used to be known as real journalism.

  • This article was first published on News24

Inheritances of our fathers


There’s History, with a capital ‘H’ – the one you find written up, memorized and recited as facts, dates, inaugurations, wars, victims and statistics. And then there is the one in small caps – the history that gets under your skin: when great political systems are embodied in the tiny details of everyday life; when policies made in the soft cushions of parliaments have a devastating impact on your daily lived experience; when great power struggles are mimicked in the blood and guts of the most intimate of relationships.

Three recent books about South African history display the latter version: Marianne Thamm’s autobiography Hitler, Verwoerd, Mandela and Me: A Memoir of SortsBill Nasson’s  History Matters: Selected Writings, 1970-2016 and Wilhelm J. Verwoerd’s edited collection of tributes to his father, Verwoerd: Só onthou ons hom (“Verwoerd: This is how we remember him”). In all three these books we see History echoed in the personal histories of people, their relationships, and their life choices.

The title of Marianne Thamm’s autobiography already places her next to three great historical figures of the twentieth century. The shadow of Adolph Hitler falls across her childhood, Hendrik Verwoerd’s ghost stalks her adolescence and adulthood, and then, finally, Nelson Mandela’s legacy brings her the hope she needs to keep going in this bleak, bewildering, beloved country.

Throughout Thamm’s life she has been wrestling with the legacy that she inherited. Until shortly before the death of her father, Georg, Thamm struggles to make peace with his Nazi past and his apparent inability to adapt to a changing South Africa. Initially the constant repetition of her daughterly rebukes becomes somewhat jarring, as if the reader is brought in to observe a personal therapy session. In the former Nazi Jugend member, Thamm sees a manifestation of the intolerance, racial supremacy and ethnocentrism that diagonally oppose the values she has pursued as journalist and activist. But gradually the reader comes to realize that this relationship between child and father also serves as a larger metaphor for the continuing struggles of a younger generation of white South Africans to come to terms with their political and cultural inheritance – the historical guilt, or at least collective responsibility, they carry with them.

Thamm’s ability to tell a story is what made her a respected and popular journalist. The anecdotes of her adolescence in the suburbs, the fumbling discovery of her sexuality, and her hesitant first steps into motherhood are told with compassion, insight and self-deprecating humor, and are bound to resonate with many readers who have had similar experiences. But it is her ability to contextualize these personal experiences within the racist, homophobic, and paranoid South African society that imbues them with a much broader resonance.

A similar ability to make links between seemingly everyday events and the bigger historical maelstrom one finds in Bill Nasson, even though his is a more academic register than Thamm’s. Nasson, a historian who has taught at the Universities of Cape Town and Stellenbosch, is a historian to the bone – someone who constantly experiences the present through the prism of the past, for whom the smallest of daily experiences are projected onto the large canvas of history. His anthology is an enjoyable assortment of scholarly articles, book reviews and personal recollections. His own teenage years are drawn upon to take stock of the ideals of non-racialism, while the Leitmotiv of resistance to oppression is woven through chapters on historical figures, such as Abraham Esau, a Coloured blacksmith from Calvinia who died cruelly at the hand of marauding Boers during the South African War, and in the drawing of historical comparisons such as the one between the 1916 resistance in Northern Ireland and the Boer rebellion. Culture and politics are close companions throughout, and even braaiing and cricket form part of the passing parade. Nasson also reflects on the discipline of historical writing itself, and laments the inability of many historians to make history come alive in accessible language. This is not a limitation Nasson himself suffers from.

A stark contrast to the relationship between Thamm and her father emerges in the anthology (in Afrikaans) about Hendrik Verwoerd, edited by his son (who, in his foreword, takes issue with the “clichéd accusations of Nazism, racism, anti-Semitism and more”). The book, an updated version of a commemorative collection from 2001, has now been republished with additional contributions to mark the 115th anniversary of his birth and the 50th of his death. The anthology does not attempt to provide any critical perspective, serving rather as a hagiography aimed at painting a picture of a strict, but humane “Doctor,” who could provide rational grounds for his policies of racial discrimination. You have to pinch yourself to realize that you’re actually reading this rose-tinted remembrance of Verwoerd in the year 2016, without so much as a hint of irony.

Whether anecdotes of Verwoerd as a patriarch – who chastises his son because his friend showed up at the official residence in shorts, or who gives his grandson a spoonful of sharp mustard in order to end his insistence to play with the condiments on the table – succeeds in bringing to life a kinder persona than the one associated in the history books with the design of Apartheid, is for the reader to decide. But what does feel like a historical slap in the face is the thinly veiled attempt at ameliorating Verwoerd’s legacy through a reflection on his intelligence and upright personality, as if to suggest that history judged him unfairly. After all, “Doctor didn’t easily make a mistake” (p. 283).

Tell that to Thamm’s adopted daughters, for whom racism, skeptical looks and uncomfortable questions have been part of their experiences growing up. It is in those casual comments at the nursery school, those stares at the supermarket, and in the unchecked callousness of friends that one once again hears the echoes of great historical narratives resound through the small dramas of the everyday. In his son’s eyes, Verwoerd might have been a good father and a family man, but that doesn’t make the smallest of dents in his political and social legacy. No amount of banal tales of how he interacted with his family, colleagues or friends can undo the indisputable historical fact that he was the architect of an evil system of which the tentacles can still be felt today in every aspect of our public and private lives. There is a line by the Afrikaans poet D.J. Opperman that, roughly translated, goes: “always remember, around your actions borders an eternity.”

History, as told by these three authors, reminds us that the past is not something that can or should be left behind. Rather, as History echoes in the histories of our daily lives – in the supermarket, at the pre-school, on the cricket pitch, beside the fire at a braai – we are morally obliged to keep reflecting on them. Didn’t a verse in the old Nationalist anthem Die Stem ask for the inheritances of our fathers to remain inheritances to our children?

Be careful, as they say, what you pray for.

This post appeared in Africa is a Country as a translation of an earlier book review in Rapport 

Are our media holding our institutions accountable?

Are our media holding our institutions accountable?


The media are often seen as having the potential to contribute to social progress on a number of levels. These contributions can be linked to several of the United Nations (UN) sustainable development goals (SDGs). The role that the media can play in deepening democracy, for instance, is often held up as an important justification for allowing the media freedom to criticise politicians and officials. The media are therefore seen as an important democratic institution that can contribute to SDG 16: the promotion of just, peaceful and inclusive societies.

The idea that the media can act as the ‘fourth estate’ in society by acting as a watchdog over corruption and abuse of power is one that is entrenched in journalistic norms and in the popular imagination. The amount of space and airtime that has been given to the money spent on President Zuma’s Nkandla homestead is a good example of this type of journalistic work. According to this view, such reporting can assist democratic societies in reaching particular targets of SDG 16, such as ‘Substantially reduce corruption and bribery in all their forms’, and ‘Develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels’.

Despite the media’s claims to making these contributions to the deepening of democracy and the development of society, there is often disagreement about how well this ideal is translated into practice. Furthermore, there is much controversy around exactly what these roles should entail in the first place. For instance: what should the relationship be, exactly, between the media and government? Should a different role be expected of media in transitional democracies than we expect in established ones? How well do the South African media perform these roles? How should these contributions be measured?

Do citizens trust the media to hold government to account? Do citizens feel that the media represents their interests? These are some of the questions that academic research in media studies seeks to answer, through both theoretical explorations and empirical work.

Media studies research can help to assess how well the media in a country such as South Africa are performing these roles. Critics of the media often point out that they are too elitist or commercially minded, and therefore fail to ‘Ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decisionmaking at all levels’, as described in one of the SDG 16 targets. The fieldwork conducted by a group of researchers (Professor Herman Wasserman, Dr Tanja Bosch and Dr Wallace Chuma, as well as several student research assistants) in the Centre for Film and Media Studies (CFMS) on an European Union-funded project called Media, Conflict and Democratisation (MeCoDEM) has shown, for instance, that the media does not pay enough attention to community protests aimed at giving communities greater say in policymaking. Poor communities often feel excluded from news agendas and have expressed frustration at not being listened to by journalists.

MeCoDEM involves research projects in four different countries, all transitioning from authoritarian rule to more democratic government – South Africa, Egypt, Kenya and Serbia – and the role of media and ICTs accompanying these transitions. Findings suggest that in all four countries, citizenship conflicts tend to be portrayed through a judicial or rights-focused lens, rather than with focus on social and cultural factors. The South African branch of the study reveals systemic problems underpinning news agendas and coverage.

Are our media holding our institutions accountable?

Case studies covered by researchers from CFMS included media coverage of the ubiquitous community protests in South Africa, xenophobic attacks and conflicts erupting in parliament around the state of the nation address. The investigation into community protests included content analysis of major publications, and interviews with journalists and with community activists. Anger over unemployment, housing, water and sanitation, electricity, corruption and crime have all been listed as reasons for the rising number of protests, which started in the early 2000s. However, they are about more than just a struggle for basic public services; they are also an attempt by the poor to be heard and included in democratic discourse and policymaking.

The study found that even in the media coverage of these protests, the voices of the protesters often remain unheard. Coverage of protests is often reduced to reports on traffic disruptions, and some communities report that photographers are often sent to document the protest without being accompanied by journalists to conduct interviews. Activists also told researchers that they only get media attention when they go to extremes. According to protesters, media first ask if ‘anything is burning’ in order to decide whether it would be worth sending a journalist to report.

This study reveals that while a free media has gone a long way towards ensuring democratic accountability in South Africa, there is room for improvement. Activists interviewed for the study said they believe the media could play a bigger role in boosting democracy, by highlighting the issues poor communities face before they spill over into violent conflicts. A focus on community could shine a spotlight on the most marginalised and vulnerable citizens, and help focus government attention where it is needed most, in order to achieve the SDG of creating a just, peaceful and inclusive society.

This article first appeared in the University of Cape Town research report 2015-2016. Feature image of Tahrir Square in Cairo by Jonathan Rashad, Flickr. Second image by Ramy Raoof, Flickr


Reporting on ‘Africa’



It is still not uncommon to hear South Africans say that they’re going on a business trip or holiday “in Africa” – as if their own country lies on another continent. We could blame this attitude on our history. During Apartheid, South Africa was politically and socially isolated from the rest of the continent (South African Airways flights weren’t even allowed to land in any other African countries). But a certain mindset also developed as a result of the Apartheid ideology of exceptionalism – the notion that because  South Africa was “different” from other African countries, the same human rights of equality do not apply here. South Africans became good at navelgazing, and bad at seeing much further beyond than their northern borders. This means that South Africans can often more easily point out Barcelona than Bamako on a map.

The inverse of this knowledge gap can often be seen when traveling on the rest of the continent. Just look at the signs with Afrikaans surnames in the arrivals hall in Nairobi, or chat to your fellow tourists at breakfast in Zanzibar about the Super 14 rugby game, which you’d probably be able to watch in the hotel bar that afternoon on DStv, the satellite channel that stomped its footprint over large parts of Africa. The chances are good that your host knows more about South African history and politics than you know about theirs.

The media doesn’t exactly help. Compared to news beamed to us from Washington D.C. or London, we see very little coverage of other African countries in our newspapers, news sites and broadcast channels. The global impact of the political and economic power of the Untied States and Europe means that the minute details of Brexit or the Trump-vs-Clinton spectacle is beamed to our screens, but that you have to look hard to find nuanced information behind the headlines about, say, the Zambian election, political conflict in Burundi or renewed violence in South Sudan. This, while analyses show that the image of Africa has greatly improved in the past few years in international media. TheEconomist, that portrayed Africa as the “The Hopeless Continent” on that dreadful cover page of theirs in 2000, changed its tune to “Africa Rising” in 2011, a slogan that was consumed by Time Magazine a year later. However, critics point to the fact that this new-found optimism also sometimes reveals paternalistic stereotypes, or is based on a specific neoliberal ideal of Africa as an untapped market. But one simply has to follow sites like this one to see that fashion, music and sport in Africa gives journalists much more to report on than money and guns.

It is against this backdrop that two recent books about Africa, written by South African journalists, are welcome. Kevin Bloom and Richard Poplak’s Continental Shift: A Journey into Africa’s Changing Fortunes, and  Liesl Louw-Vaudran’s South Africa: Superpower or Neocolonialist illustrate a fast-changing political and economic landscape on the continent. Bloom and Poplak’s reference point is the increasing influence of China in Africa, and the xenophobic reactions meted out against Chinese immigrants. A particular incident from 2011 in the settlement of Ganyesa, in the North West province of South Africa, is used as a leitmotiv to illustrate the violence that immigrants regularly meet with in this country. Four Chinese immigrants were burned to death in their shop – and the book insinuates that this was not an accident, that the shop-owners were murdered by local citizens. The case remains unresolved, thus Bloom and Poplak travelled to Ganyesa to speak to locals in an attempt to learn more about the situation. The truth remains out of reach, and as they broaden their discussion of how bigger geopolitical shifts are mirrored in the everyday details in African cities and towns, they return time and again to the fire in Ganyesa.  As they travel through Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, South Sudan and Central African Republic, their discoveries of new developments on political, economic and social terrain are punctuated by the threat of violence – old conflicts, prejudices and tensions mix with new ones and the result is not only intoxicating, but also often unhealthy.

Continental Shift is an entertaining and stimulating recounting of the authors’ experience of traveling thousands of kilometers and wading through academic books, historical documents, policy documents and news articles. It covers a broad range of topics – construction in Namibia, the building of a dam in Botswana, mining in Zimbabwe, Nollywood in Nigeria, food security in Ethiopia, realpolitik in South Sudan and conflict in Central African Republic. Continental Shift’s biggest achievement is its lively, and sometimes even humorous tone. It’s a heady mix of memoir, ethnography, analysis, travel writing and at times comes close to a type of political poetry. The accessibility and lucidity of this ambitious project is largely thanks to the distinctive style of writing – fans of Poplak’s political journalism in the Daily Maverick will be familiar with his destructive sense of irony. But this is also a gripping tale because of its reliance on first-hand experiences and field work, several conversations and interviews, and sharp observations on the ground.

The presentation and style is one of the big differences between Bloom and Poplak’s book, and that of Louw-Vaudran. Despite the fact that Louw-Vaudran is also an experienced journalist – she is  a former Africa editor at Media24 – her script follows a more conventional style of reporting. Her material is partly drawn from her own interviews with political leaders, but she also relies quite heavily on second-hand sources. She is less likely to communicate her own point of view or observations than summarize those of her interviewees. As a result the book is an easy read, but one that lacks a distinctive voice. The transition from reporting to long form journalism is not as easy as it might seem.

Louw-Vaudran’s point of reference is the role that South Africa plays on the continent. She questions whether South Africa, as the largest economy on the continent and a country that set the political tone, especially under the leadership of Mandela and Mbeki, can also be seen as a neocolonial power on the African continent. Is South Africa a leader or a bully? Louw-Vaudran uses several significant news events across the past 20-odd years to investigate this question. The South African liberation struggle and the ANC’s years of exile in Lusaka provides the historical starting point, while the moral bankruptcy of the Zuma’s government ends the book on a pessimistic tone about the future of South Africa, and whether it can be trusted again as leader and example for other African nations. Between these historical extremes, Louw-Vaudran aims to highlight among other things Mbeki’s attempts to revitalize the Pan-African ideal, South Africa’s role in the African Union, as well as the country’s sometimes disastrous military interventions – for example the 13 South African soldiers that died in 2013 in Bangui in a conflict with Seleka rebels in the Central African Republic. Louw-Vaudran creates quite a negative image of lost opportunities by the South African government to collaborate more strongly with South African businesses across the continent, and remarks on the damage that xenophobic attacks in South Africa have done to the country’s image on the continent.

Journalism on and about the continent tends to veer between the extremes of neglect or stereotype on the one end, and touristic exoticism on the other. These two books manage, each in their own way, to steer a path between these extremes. The Africa they show us isn’t always “rising,” nor is it always pretty, but it is fascinating.  And much more difficult to sum up than brief headlines can ever hope to do.

*A previous version of this review appeared in the Afrikaans Media24 publication Rapport. The above translation appeared on the website Africa is a Country.

Image of Rhodes School of Journalism and Media Studies, by author.

Marikana and faith in democracy-to-come



The Marikana massacre in 2012 has widely been seen as a low point for post-apartheid
democracy. The clash at the Lonmin platinum mine at Marikana between miners and police is seen by many as a failure of democratic debate and political communication in the country.
Although the consequences were tragic, the expression of anger and frustration
by the striking mineworkers could also be seen as an act of faith in a ‘democracy-
to-come’ where the gap between formal rights of citizens and the everyday
experience of the poor and marginalised was articulated. In this article  I critique
the media’s response to the massacre. In my view the media’s coverage of the massacre was rooted in a normative model of rational deliberation and a monitorial approach to the media’s democratic role. The media attempts to play the role of ‘watchdog’ over power but does not engage enough with the voices of the poor and the marginalised. My article argues that the media privileged the perspectives of those in authority rather than those who experience the democratic deficit in their everyday lives. The article draws
on theories of ‘emotion talk,’ ‘listening’ and ‘acts of citizenship’ to suggest an
alternative role for the media in the post-apartheid democracy, where the media would seek out the voices of those that remain on the margins of society, and take seriously the expression of anger and emotion by citizens who feel that they do not have formal platforms to demand bigger dividends from democracy.

Social media politics and #Feesmustfall

Image: Citizen

The protests in South Africa against rising costs of university education made headlines in media around the world. But it was on the terrain of social media that it became clear that not only was something changing in the political activism of young South Africans, but also in the way they produce and consume media. The increasing importance of social media for South African politics was illustrated very clearly.

My friend Sean Jacobs and I wrote this piece for the Washington Post on the day that mainstream media became old media in South Africa.

Voices of the poor are missing from South Africa’s media


Herman Wasserman, University of Cape Town; Tanja Bosch, University of Cape Town, and Wallace Chuma, University of Cape Town

Poor communities in South Africa feel that their voices are not heard and their issues not taken seriously by the media.

This is clear in the findings of an international research project on the role of media in conflicts arising from transitions from authoritarian rule to democratic government. It focused on four countries – South Africa, Egypt, Kenya and Serbia.

The study shows that in all four countries, citizenship conflicts are frequently reduced to judicial factors. The media’s approach to conflicts is to look at them from the perspective of rights rather than cultural factors.

In South Africa, rather than wilful distortion or neglect on the part of journalists, the findings expose systemic problems underpinning news agendas and coverage.

The project, now in its second year, has drawn on content analysis of print media and interviews with journalists and activists.

Understanding conflict in South Africa

South Africa’s formal transition from apartheid to democracy in 1994 is often heralded as peaceful and smooth when viewed in institutional and procedural terms.

But there are lingering problems. Dissent over the unrealised dividends of democracy for the poor and widespread perceptions of government as corrupt have resulted in ongoing protests.

Anger over unemployment, housing, water and sanitation, electricity, corruption in municipalities, and health and crime have all been listed as reasons for the rising number of protests which started in the early 2000s.

The protests are not only aimed at getting basic public services such as water, sanitation and electricity. They are also part of wider disillusionment at the failure of democracy to meet basic needs as well as an attempt by the poor to be heard and included in democratic discourse and policy-making.

This “rebellion of the poor” can thus be considered “democratisation conflicts”. They are similar to those in other transitional democracies where the struggle for equality and human rights did not end with the advent of formal democracy.

While it is widely acknowledged that violent protests are becoming more prevalent in South Africa, the role that the media plays in the cycle of protest and violence is not widely understood.

Our ongoing study indicates that South African community protests receive unfavourable coverage. The reporting also routinely fails to provide depth and context to explain the underlying issues that lead to the protests.

Frequently protests are reported only inasmuch as they inconvenience a middle-class audience, for instance to inform them where traffic may be disrupted.

While journalists are often sympathetic to protesters, they strive for “objective” coverage so as not to come across as supporting a particular side. The result is superficial and limited reporting. Underlying structural issues are not unpacked.

Journalists list time pressures and juniorisation of the newsrooms as some of the reasons for limited in-depth coverage.

And commercial pressures also result in media focusing on protests as drama in an attempt to attract the interest of middle-class audiences.

Fighting to be heard

Very few media articles about protests include interviews with protesters. It seems that protesters’ voices remain unheard, even as their actions are reported. Communities report that photographers are often sent to take photographs without being accompanied by reporters to interview them.

Activists from poor communities report that they only get media attention when they go to extremes, such as causing damage. Protesters told researchers that when they called the media to cover their issues, they were asked if “anything is burning”. If nothing is burning, journalists don’t come and don’t report.

Activists report that with the failure of government channels of communication, and poor media coverage of their plight, the only way to be seen is to create a violent spectacle.

They say that participating in government-created spaces for engagement, such as ward councils and municipal integrated development plans, does not lead to satisfactory responses.

This suggests that protest actions follow a calculated logic, despite activists’ impressions that they are often depicted in the media as being out of control.

While there is some coverage in the media that protests are related to structural economic circumstances, they do not reflect the frustrations experienced by communities over government’s empty promises.

Also, scant regard is given to the failure of participatory processes to address grievances. No attention is paid to the failures of capitalism to address inequality. The heavy-handed response from government to silence protest is also underplayed.

Media coverage differs noticeably depending on the respective outlets. In print, the Daily Sun provides the most coverage of protests. This bears out the tabloid’s claims to provide news from the perspective of the poor and the working class.

Compared to their upmarket print media counterparts like the Mail & Guardian and Business Day, the Daily Sun is also the most critical of most aspects of democracy. It is often the only newspaper where sources are ordinary citizens. For media serving the middle class, sources are mostly drawn from officials or the elite.

Improving reporting of community protests

The activists we interviewed believe that media could play a big role in boosting democracy in the country by highlighting the issues poor communities face before they spill over into violent conflicts.

A focus on community politics could shine a spotlight on the most marginalised and vulnerable citizens, and in turn could help focus government attention where it is most needed. Media coverage – favourable or unfavourable – added pressure on government to quickly resolve issues.

Activists felt that they would prefer not to have to go to extremes to get media attention. But they also recognised that their protests kept community issues on the agenda.

This article was co-authored with Rebecca Pointer, research assistant at the Centre for Film and Media Studies, UCT.

The Conversation

Herman Wasserman, Professor of Media Studies and Director of the Centre for Film and Media Studies, University of Cape Town; Tanja Bosch, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies, University of Cape Town, and Wallace Chuma, Lecturer in Media Studies, University of Cape Town

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.