South Africans consume about 10 litres of alcohol a year, nearly a third more than the world average, say experts. File photo: David Ritchie

A single, well-crafted piece of journalism on alcohol abuse can have a massive impact, writes Michael Mabasa.

Pretoria - A free, vibrant and inquisitive media is a cornerstone of a functional democracy. That fact is all too often countered by warnings that the media oversteps its brief, shaping public opinion with some odious or nefarious agenda.

There are certainly examples of mischievous, even malicious work by individuals or at times, entire news brands. The hacking of voicemail by the staff at the now-defunct News of the World was a good example. But a clear-headed look at these admittedly damaging incidents show us how isolated they are, and that there’s no spin doctor, star-chamber conniving to enslave the weak-minded.

The media generally makes an effort to present a balanced view. There will always be lapses and exceptions to objectivity, just as there are lapses in any profession.

Like any profession, there are means of recourse, such as ombuds and the right of reply.

The media in South Africa is certainly not without its blind spots. The apartheid government knew the media’s power and had broadcasters and media houses to present its view. The independent media on the other hand helped expose apartheid’s dehumanising effect, from the puerile legislation of whites-only park benches to the vicious crackdowns on dissent.

The messengers got shot, sometimes literally.

The much-vaunted objectivity of the media is largely subjective. Take climate change, a scientific fact: man-made carbon emissions cause Earth’s atmosphere to heat, altering weather patterns and changing our world for the worse. But denialists are still granted a disproportionate media space to trot out fallacy, presented as debate.

How far should the media go in its quest for balance? Should a picture of our convincingly spherical planet, taken from space, be accompanied by a painting of a flat Earth to allow earthlings to make up their minds? At what point does offering an opposing view, however discredited, simply become absurd?

Another example is the still-too-generally accepted misconception that banning alcohol will decrease alcohol abuse. This has been roundly debunked as it simply hasn’t worked anywhere in the world, but it’s still regularly cited as a solution.

Part of the reason may be that abuse and binge-drinking is such a serious problem with long-reaching, often tragic consequences. Journalists don’t live in isolation: many live in communities with deep social problems, which are prey to South Africa’s overriding crises of poverty, inequality and unemployment. Also, journalists almost universally have a social conscience.

That’s why efforts aimed at influencing how society behaves work when the media buys in. The LeadSA campaign has helped drive the awareness of responsible citizenship by promoting success stories about South Africans. Through its media partners LeadSA has made being a good South African en vogue. It’s helped citizens feel empowered to take responsibility.

Despite its occasional slips, the media and its independence place it in a trusted position in society and in a powerful position to change behaviour. It’s why we so value the effort that goes into reporting public attitudes towards responsible drinking. In the US the media has often been credited in playing a role in the drop of alcohol-related vehicle deaths over the past three decades. In the 1970s, the media turned what was common behaviour into something anti-social and unacceptable. In Australia, the media helped highlight law-enforcers’ zero-tolerance approach towards drunk driving and helped stigmatise it.

Alcohol company brandhouse has taken cognisance of the role the media plays in fighting alcohol abuse. In 2011, it launched its Responsible Drinking Media Awards (RDMAs) in recognition of the effort being made by the media to report on alcohol abuse and as an educational tool.

The RDMAs recognise journalistic efforts in supporting, promoting and contributing to the responsible drinking agenda and ultimately to helping change consumer behaviour. It encourages journalists to use their craft and their platforms to shape perceptions and behaviour around the responsible use of alcohol.

Responsible reporting about alcohol abuse and the ways we can fight it help to improve society is important. These awards are a modest way to recognise journalists who inform the public about the role they can play. A single, well-crafted piece of journalism on drunk driving, underage drinking, foetal alcohol syndrome, binge drinking, alcohol-related violence or illicit alcohol can have a massive impact.

I look forward to seeing the entries this year, especially since no fewer than 166 entries have been received this year, the highest so far. We’ve had strong entries in all categories: newspaper, magazine, broadcast, online and blogs. While it’s a sombre topic, it will be refreshing to experience stories that have at their heart the hope of making society better. This is an opportunity to recognise journalists – from those writing for a small community newspaper to those working for the nation’s biggest television stations – and the equal contribution they make to society.

Not all journalists will have a role in toppling oppressive political regimes or exposing gross human rights violations, but in highlighting issues such as alcohol abuse, they can strike a real blow for a better society.

* Michael Mabasa is corporate relations director at brandhouse.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independenr Newspapers.

Pretoria News