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On a recent visit to Polokwane, I had occasion to see a doctor, and, as part of the chit-chat before the examination, he asked me what work I do. I told him I’m a journalist.
“Oh,” he responded rather quickly, “don’t write about me.”
I smiled and politely responded: “Well, doc, shouldn’t you be saying I should write something positive about you or your profession?”
Journalists, he said, never write anything positive about anyone.
Initially, I wanted to be defensive or even accuse him of ignorance. But I thought it prudent to listen and learn.
Often, I thought, we are accused of negativity by politicians who themselves contribute little to be positive about. Or by corrupt business people, not merely tenderpreneurs, who fear the searching eyes and ears of investigative journalists.
Why are journalists so negative, I asked him. Would you rather not read about these things you consider negative? Are these things false? Why do people not litigate against them? Or take them to the Press Ombudsman or even bombard him with letters complaining against these very negative, insufferable hacks?
The good doctor took his time. He started with the SABC, telling me that in December he had watched a show in which the presenter and a few guests, some of whom were political journalists, did a review of the year. “As far as those people were concerned, there were no positive stories to come out of the country last year. Everything they talked about was negative. Nothing inspiring.”
Not even the performance of our team at the Olympics, with Chad le Clos outperforming Michael Phelps? Or Tebogo Mokgalagadi, a gutsy athlete who won the 100m and 200m sprints for athletes with cerebral palsy at the Paralympics – setting a world record time? Or Oscar Pistorius? Nothing positive about our country.
“But,” I protested, “the SABC also has something called Touching Lives, a programme which shows that the public broadcaster’s newshounds have hearts. They scour our country looking for cases of very desperate families and individuals in distress and use the SABC’s various platforms to appeal for help for these people. Surely that is a positive thing?
I also took the liberty to talk about LeadSA, explaining how The Star, Talk Radio 702 and other partners have embarked on this massive project to encourage South Africans to do good – for good’s sake. Perhaps Patrice Motsepe is quietly inspired by LeadSA to give away half of his future earnings. Who knows?
I reminded him of Aggrey Klaaste, the great former editor of the Sowetan, revered for, among others, championing the Nation Building project. At this point I stopped and assessed his non-verbal communication so I knew whether to continue with other examples.
He was still unhappy. He protested about the pro-urban, pro-rich bias and many other things I’ve recently been thinking hard about.
Are we just negative people and projecting our negativity to the world? Do I, as an editor, simply assimilate what those who came before me did without properly applying myself to my job? With every search, I return to Journalism 101 lessons.
When a plane out of ORT International lands in Durban according to plan, is that a story? What if just one of the many planes crashes on the Drakensberg, killing people? Is reporting on it a suggestion that you are negative because all along you never reported that planes were running according to plan?
Do many of the politicians and, apparently, doctors not understand this simple logic? Or is it logic?
When journalists uncover corruption and fight it by exposing the corrupt, is this negative for the country? When you expose the fact that public funds that should be helping us fight poverty and underdevelopment are spent on one person’s house, is that negative?
This week, we published a story about Mohamed Mosala, the son of an unemployed mother and a car guard father. All he needed was R3 500 for registration at varsity, but readers of The Star made it possible for him to raise close on R30 000, covering expenses for his entire first year.
In the same edition, we wrote about the Gauteng Department of Education’s plans to build 27 new schools in the next few years. As many people from other provinces or abroad rush to settle in Africa’s economic hub, what is the impact on schooling, and how is the government responding? Hardly the stuff that would make MECs run for cover.
The point is, we do our best to get the mix right. Yet, even with these efforts, the accusations remain that journalists never write anything positive. The truth is that positive stories are hard to remember.
Take John Robberts. How many remember his heroic feat? What about Wendy Sibeko? What am I talking about? That’s exactly my point. Almost all newspapers publish stories that are positive about our country, but only a few – often those impacted by these reports – take note.
Meanwhile, if I merely mention R206 million, many would realise that I am not over why poor Minister Thulas Nxesi, in a state of increased sobriety, can try to justify this waste of taxpayers’ money.
If I mention an artwork bought at a McDonald’s outlet, many would know I am talking about that loser Humphrey Mmemezi, a liar and spendthrift caught out by our journalist Baldwin Ndaba abusing a government-issued credit card.
In the end, I left the doctor’s rooms thinking that journalists and the media are perhaps bad communicators. We do a lot of good, but we never talk about it.
In the same way that great scholars let their work speak for them and have no time to self-praise, editors too are uncomfortable talking about the good work their organisations do. Except, of course, if you are Jimmy Manyi, the former editor of Vukuzenzele.
We are self-effacing. We shun self-congratulatory notes.
The ANC starts a debate about a media tribunal, and our voices are not heard in our own papers. We seek communications “experts” to tell us what we know.
Some hardly move an inch to check how they could help the SA National Editors’ Forum.
We are so reticent, we are invisible and unhearable, if you will. It’s tragic.
But here are two great minds you will enjoy from now on. Janet Smith, an executive editor on The Star, wrote her maiden column on Wednesday. She is a great, delightful, insightful wordsmith. Look out for her every Wednesday.
Eusebius McKaiser, that intellectual tower who writes as well as he speaks, will also write a column for us every Monday. Enjoy him.