Media moving to 'juniorisation of newsrooms'

Published May 5, 2005


By Karen Breytenbach

The South African media had failed Zimbabwe because inexperienced reporters could not properly analyse the nuances of the political situation leading up to the election.

This was one of the major criticisms voiced by Joe Thloloe, recently resigned editor of news and chairperson of the South African National Editors' Forum.

"If at a journalist is incapable of writing a fair and in-depth political story and is likely to produce propaganda, we'd rather drop the story and go for something else," he said.

Thloloe, joined by the head of SABC television news Snuki Zikalala and Wadim Schreiner, researcher for Media Tenor, an academic publication on journalism trends, spoke on media freedom and television news at a World Press Freedom Day gathering on Tuesday at Stellenbosch University.

Thloloe was reluctant to say why he had resigned while on sabbatical to write a book, or why there was a recent spate of resignations at

Trends such as the "juniorisation of newsrooms" due to commercial pressures, had caused news bulletins to compete with soapies for entertainment value and to move away from serious political reporting. There was also a lack of mentorship, because editors too are fairly young, he said.

"We are abdicating our responsibility to the public, because we forget to ask the hard questions.

"We hold ourselves accountable only to those who hold the purse strings - mainly our advertisers," Thloloe said.

Thloloe argued that the news should be educative rather than merely entertaining.

"We must not forget our comrades in the war for press freedom, who fought and died for our constitution... and Article 19 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. We cannot undermine our democracy with tabloid stories harkening back to the Bantu press of the 1930s," he stressed.

"In dealing with Zimbabwe we simply chose sides, we did not critically analyse," he said.

Zikalala also felt strongly that news should be fair and substantiated. His editors would not dare to write an opinion into a bulletin on Zimbabwe, he said.

"I say verify, verify, verify. Who said the elections were not free and fair? If you can substantiate it you can write it, but don't give me a mere opinion," he said.

Zikalala agreed that juniorisation had led to "shallow and negative reporting" and said newsrooms should work on the beat system, whereby each reporter would be assigned an area of expertise.

"We cannot ignore market forces, but we try to implement a developmental news approach. We want to offer a plurality of voices," he said.

Zikalala admitted that the SABC was not politically neutral.

Schreiner said the SABC did not use government news sources more often than the press or radio did, although its tone was more sympathetic.

He felt that focused on the Schabir Shaik trial at the expense of other political coverage.

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