Journalism is about balance, not impartiality
There is no media company in the world that operates under the belief that they are completely impartial and without an agenda.
If one considers the obvious examples, in light of US President Donald Trump’s continuous ridiculous statements and behaviours, the agenda and leaning is far more visceral and perceptible. But in other cases, the political leanings of media houses are far more obscure.
When I lectured journalism to first- and second-year students at Varsity College, I would often remind them that impartiality is a myth. Each journalist, each editor, each business owner, each shareholder has their inherent agency to consider; a lens through which they see and interpret the world. And thus, their storytelling is tinted by the effects of that lens.
You can never be impartial. But, you can be as fair and balanced as you possibly can; tell as many sides of the story as you can find, give each party involved the right of reply, check your supplied information for truth and factuality.
The cases of influence being applied from the very top, at the level of media owner or majority shareholder, are often not clear-cut.
There are agendas. There are slants. There are specifically tinted lenses through which media companies tell their stories, and that culture filters down and permeates every aspect of the business.
Is this a bad thing?
Well, one only has to look at Zimbabwean medical doctor and author J Nozipo Marire’s quote: Until the lion learns to write, every story will glorify the hunter.
Oppressed peoples do not have the agency, nor the means, to tell their stories to a wider audience.
So when oppressed people gain a little bit of agency and means of production and channels of distribution and begin to tell their stories, who are detractors to negate the inherent agency and slant of that storytelling?
I have the privilege of running the African News Agency’s syndication business, and I make no bones about the fact that we have an agenda. Our agenda is to power Africa’s growth and development through the content we produce. We glorify the lions.
If, for example, a media owner is pro-labour, or pro-capitalism, or pro-conservative, or left-leaning, or right-leaning, or centrist, or supports a particular faction within the ANC, or supports the beliefs of the EFF, or supports the narrative of the DA? Does that kind of influence exist? And if so, is it overt, or subtly nuanced?
In Sun Tzu Wu’s The Art of War, he says: “There are commands of the sovereign which must not be obeyed.”
A general makes this call based on one of the five constant factors governing the art of war: The Moral Law; or in modern terms what author Simon Sinek refers to as the Just Cause. The sovereign imbued with the moral law – that which causes subjects to be in complete accord with their leader – will be victorious.
Transpose this into a business context – the leader/media owner – must have a vision and objective for the company. This is communicated and instilled in the generals – the executive leadership of the company. This gets filtered down through the creation and development of a company culture, which permeates every aspect of the day-to-day operations. Thus, everyone within the company, all employees, are in accord with the very top leadership.
But when an overt instruction from the top leadership runs contrary to this “moral law”, this just cause, then, as Sun Tzu rightfully says, it is a command that must not be obeyed. And there’s the rub.
In the age of democracy, where the lions have learnt to write, they can no longer be dictated to by the hunter.
So too, the writers, the journalists, those on the ground, can choose themselves not to obey the commands of the sovereign should it run contrary to the moral law, or the just cause.
To borrow from Steve Biko: We write what we like.
* Witten is the chief content officer of African News Agency: Syndication. He has been in the media industry for two decades, having worked in radio, television, digital publication and e-commerce, and legacy print media.