Gross negligence at best. Racist at worst.
“Next week, I am going to eviscerate the media for the role they played in this movement,” I said a few days ago, coming down off an angry high.
That time has come.
(Sidebar: if you don’t know anything about #FeesMustFall, then you shouldn’t be here. You should be on Google instead, doing your due diligence.)
When the #FeesMustFall movement drove into this country’s dark heart and let in the light, the media failed them.
All of them.
It also failed us. All of us.
At first, it made the mistake all media makes when the oppressed and marginalised rise up for themselves and their basic human rights: painted them as the villains. Media bias is best practice, internationally, these days. You’ll see in the United States, in Europe, in Asia, the rest of Africa — somehow, people who are legitimately expressing the systemic harm done to them by institutions and structures end up being the ones who are tarred with the brush of infamy, who become the violent element in peaceful negotiations, who are the reason that society has broken down and become lost. It’s a tried and testing method of reporting and it reared its ugly head when students shut down their university campuses, and most of the country too.
A small sample will reveal:
- Wits students accuse police of ‘using excessive force’ (EWN)
- Rand falls nearly 2% after student chaos (M&G)
- Student protests hit zenith at Parliament in flood of anger-driven activism. (M&G)
- What if the #Feesmustfall protests turn violent? (News24)
- Watch: #FeesMustFall campaign students abruptly barge into parliament (Times Live)
- Violence erupts as police aggressively clash with students at Parliament (Times Live)
Initially, it shows itself as misrepresentation. Essentially, these headlines lend credence to the idea that this movement is overly emotional, chaotic, without leadership and astoundingly violent, to the point where police have to get violent right back in an attempt to curb the maelstrom of ungovernability the students laid bare. It’s a twisted narrative that at once absolves the authority’s reaction to the protest and insidiously suggests that the students are actually way off here, with this action, and should probably attempt something a little more diplomatic and less reactionary in order to get results. It’s liberalism at its worst, and media objectivity at its most harmful. What makes it more difficult to swallow is the kind of thing that started to churn out after Wednesday, when Cape Town students protesting at Parliament were let into the main precinct — the flip flop nature of the headlines not only served to aggravate, but didn’t quite lose the tone of recrimination for students because of the violent protests. Please note, at this stage, that the violence was introduced by the South African Police Service (SAPS), who acted with impunity when dealing with students who were peacefully exercising their right to protest. Media, however, will continue. All in the name of objectivity.
In which case, South African media, you failed us and failed us good with your reporting.
Because it is about objectivity. Always. Objectively speaking, a journalist should cover both sides of a story and offer up a balanced and representative account. Somewhere along the line though, that objectivity is ruined by a compelling headline, the concept of ‘if it bleeds it leads’, emotive language to inspire a response in the reader and the journalistic agenda, which is set differently from media house to media house but ultimately serves the needs of bottom line and ego. The objectivity of journalism is ruined by media’s determination to set the public agenda, as if that kind of thing doesn’t set itself these days. It gets pretty mangled, though, because journalistic ‘objectivity’ is grounded in context, national sentiment and personal feelings. It isn’t objective, because someone who is all too human (and thus, whew, flawed) gets to decide where they sit on the objectivity sliding scale. When I was studying the underlying tenets of journalism, I always got thrown this concept of ‘watchdog’. That as a journalist, you were the one here for the public, protecting and informing them, making sure they were wys and aware of what’s going on in their world. A mouthpiece of the people, for the people.
In which case, South African media, you failed us and failed us good with your reporting.
It only gets much worse.
Because then the media got racist.
It wasn’t in your face racism. The only time the media really makes itself guilty of that is when they publish ain’t shit opinion pieces by genuine racists. Rather, it played into the inherent bias that is a structural essential in society and which props up the institutionalised racism we all make ourselves guilty of. It was writ large in the scope of the coverage. The press flocked to Wits, to University of Cape Town (UCT), to University of Johannesburg (UJ), and to the university currently known as Rhodes. All previously white universities. If you give it some real thought, you could more or less claim that they are currently white universities, but that’s a conversation for another day. What I want to know is: where were the press when brutality was raining down down on historically black and coloured universities? Where was the press when students at Fort Hare were being shot at like criminals? Where were the journalists when police were hunting University of the Western Cape (UWC) students with helicopters? Sure, the journos showed up when Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) students joined the protest outside the Union Buildings and added their voices to those already there but only so they could paint the students as radicals, rock-throwers, portaloo-burners and fellow student intimidators.
Now, most people struggle with their inherent bias, particularly the recognition thereof. When you are self-nurturing and self-expanding, it is often a process that happens in silo and thus, one cannot be blamed for missing the facets most easily identified by others. But media coverage never happens in silo and my expectations of journalists are higher. If you are qualified to shift public opinion, and are entrusted with telling the story to everyone, then you better be checking your media bias every time you finish a sentence. In the interests of this so-called ‘objectivity’, journalists better be going to as many sites of activity as possible, to affirm and support the idea of ‘balanced’ reporting.
It also goes beyond simply being on the ground in as many places as possible. The Cape Argus announced with much flourish and self-righteousness that they were getting in a number of student co-editors to put together the first five pages of last Friday’s edition. They did the same this week. Except — and this is not something I wholly blame the students for at all — why oh why were all the co-editors from UCT? There was more than one campus protesting in the Western Cape and yet somehow, the institutions that are historically black and coloured have been ignored. Why did nobody contact the students from UWC? Because the message is that, if the Argus did put out a call to everyone, they only got responses from UCT students and I refuse to believe that. I refuse to believe they could not find one UWC student, or one student from the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), who was not interested in curating an egalitarian and honest reflection of the #FeesMustFall movement.
The Cape Argus is not the only media publication that made itself guilty of this kind of blindness.
On Sunday night, I hit the pages of the City Press in the hope that I might find something a bit more balanced and inclusive. Sadly, I was disappointed. Oh they tried — you see faces of students and they are mostly black, and the queer women who led the movement were most certainly mentioned.
“But where are all the students from TUT, or CPUT, or UWC, or Fort Hare or UKZN?” I incredulously asked my husband last night.
“I mean, there probably wasn’t enough space on the page.”
A poor excuse, in my opinion (though I suspect it will be one oft-used). Much like the excuse of City Press being a more localised newspaper — only for Johannesburg. Though I might be wrong in considering the City Press a national publication, #FeesMustFall is a national issue and deserves to be covered in its entirety.
In the case of this movement and the media, privilege won out. It is, in fact, a rare instance when it doesn’t come out on top. And while I am absolutely not playing oppression olympics here, the truth of the matter is those historically black and coloured tertiary institutions have been waging this war, year in and year out, while the authoritorial structures do their best to exclude anyone but the wealthy and the privileged from attaining any form of quality higher education. This is not a new fight for the students from TUT, or UWC, or Fort Hare and the media apathy towards their plight is gross negligence at best, and fucking racist at worst.
Initially, when I began planning out this piece and wondering how I was going to say any of this, it crossed my mind that this blanket indictment of the media’s inability to report in an empathic and equitable way neglects to acknowledge those few who are doing their best work. It’s been mentioned enough in conversation around the issue. And while I considered putting in a caveat for those sterling reporters, I have eventually decided to do away with that. Because if men and white people are not exempt, in any way, from this kind of statement, then neither should the media. For a global industry that has played a pivotal role in the propping up of our white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy, there are no caveats.
Perhaps the most painful moment was on Friday, when police were running riot across the country, notably at the Union Buildings and brutally at UWC, particularly, where students were being hunted through the streets of surrounding areas and had to take refuge in the homes of complete (but kind, and supporting) strangers. It was business as usual for the media — what with their neutrality etc. — until some journalists found themselves on the other side of the riot police, being manhandled into the back of vans. Then it was outrage. Online screes. Exclamation marks from the major players in the industry. Demands for abolishment. So many feelings.
And all I could think about what the media outrage at journos getting shot at, but when it’s students, then it’s the same old ‘objectivity’.