ASRI and the Wits School of Journalism Invite you to a Seminar

“WHAT’S THE PROBLEM WITH PUBLIC DEBATE IN SOUTH AFRICA TODAY?”

A Focus on the media, and the “Huffington Hoax” in particular.

Speakers:
Marius Roodt/Shelly Garland
Former Journalist & Researcher
Angelo Fick
Senior Researcher, eNCA ( e News Channel Africa)
Karima Brown
Political Journalist & Analyst, Host of Talk@9 on Sundays on 702

Date:
Wednesday 24 May 2017
Time:
6pm till 8.30pm
Venue:
Humanities Graduate Centre Seminar Room
South West Engineering Building, East Campus, Wits University

This is the second in a series of seminars that ASRI is hosting on the theme “WHAT’S THE PROBLEM WITH PUBLIC DEBATE IN SOUTH AFRICA TODAY?”. The first of the series was delivered by Aubrey Matshiqi, at the ASRI Offices in Auckland Park. (see https://youtu.be/vqNTvZrBxTE)

This second of the series focuses specifically on South African public debate which is facilitated through the media.

It’s alleged that the South African media has become saturated with alternative facts and fake news, and have become mired in the service of ideological and political echo chambers.

For example, it is more than a decade now that the phrase “a generally corrupt relationship exists between

[Jacob Zuma and Schabir Shaik]”. This phrase was attributed to a Judge of the High Court- who has denied ever coining it – yet it had gained popular currency.

It can be argued, that much of the South African media, at least in the private sphere, has adopted a set of biases that they are not transparent about. Where it is acknowledged, their commitment to it is weak at best, and inconsistent at worse, changing on the whims of the latest faddish sensation.

This has potentially led to serious weaknesses in the practices and narratives emerging out of South African newsrooms, and in the public debate generally, in which a lack of editorial discernment, lack of judgement, information fabrication, and passing off opinion as truth and fiction as fact, have become rife. The Sunday Times newspaper reportage on the SARS rogue unit, is a case in point.

Has the media has become a facilitator of debate that is merely propagandistic in nature, rather than to solve seemingly intractable social problems?

And consequently; Has real public debate and genuine dialogue become so scarce that that fake news, alternative facts, and distorted information is passed off as reliable fact? Especially if the facts are used to bolster an ideological argument that a media outlet, or editor agrees with and which popular sentiment echoes.

In these cases, basic distinctions between news, analysis, opinion, comment and propaganda is lost, allowing the perpetuation of ideological and propagandistic “echo chambers”.

A participatory and deliberative democracy requires both – a degree of bias and propaganda and the space for different views, but it is equally reliant on factual and verified information that serves as a source of news, information and education.

It is true that in a democracy, bias and partisanship are necessary facilitators of political argument – yet, such viewpoints need to be coherently and logically argued, both of which have been an absent feature of partisan political debate devoid of facts.

In this instance free, open debate has descended instead to grievance rehearsal and sloganeering, to wit – “debates” about radical economic transformation.

Therefore, we must ask whether much of the public debate has been dishonest, untrustworthy, and inconsistent? Instead of fostering new avenues of thought, has public debate, especially in and through the media become narrow and cynical, constraining the voices and choices of citizens?

The “Huffington Post hoax”, in part illustrates this point, having recently published a controversial piece, which called for the disenfranchisement and dispossession of white men across the world, claiming to be from a white female, “Shelley Garland”. The “Huffington Hoax” was able to demonstrate the inability of the media practitioners to have understood how the identity of “Shelley Garland” was secondary to the debate, since people publish under pseudonyms anyway.

What mattered is the content of the argument and the logic and facts it relied on. The ruling by the press ombudsman has also conflated the issue and branded the original “Shelley Garland” article as hate speech; yet the press ombudsman ruling is contestable.

While the views expressed by “Shelly Garland” were odious, they were not strictly speaking hate speech. The press Ombudsman’s ruling detracts from the manifest problems around editorial practices in news rooms and creates more problems for the media in general – by branding as “hate speech”, issues that ought to find free ventilation in our public debate.

What was at issue – were the actual views raised in the original piece by Shelley Garland, a subsequent piece written by the then Huffington Post editor in support of it, and the “celebration” of the large volume of online traffic Shelley Garland’s piece generated – without a genuine and thoughtful engagement with its content. When furore broke out – all of the pieces – the original, as well as the article supporting it, were subsequently retracted.

It is consequently impossible to discern in this milieu – whether the pieces were retracted because their views were suddenly found to be distasteful? or because the identity of the writer was in question.

If the former, then what explains the article written in support of its views? If it was the “identity” of Shelley Garland in question, why not retain the subsequent supporting article since its writer was clearly identifiable?

Naturally, a few other structural factors impact on the values, ethical, political and ideological commitments of newsrooms and media practitioners.

These include the rationalisation, restructuring and downsizing of newsrooms, the juniorisation of editorial staff, and inappropriate recruitment practices as well as inappropriate newsroom workflows and work streams as well as the pressures of content and revenue generation and profitability. In what ways do these impact on the values and practices in the media?

 

This seminar is aimed at stimulating a discussion facing public debate facilitated through the media in South Africa today. In addition, the seminar also aims to explore the following questions:
• What shapes the content of public debate in South Africa, especially in the media?
• Are “social media” and online platforms a unique producer of echo chambers and self-perpetuating views? or has this become a problem in the mainstream print and electronic media too? ( for example- the accusation that ENCA is biased towards white monopoly capital? or that ANN7 champions factionalism in the ANC
• How has the growth of social media communities, or “bubbles,” influenced public debate in South Africa?
• In what ways do the (mal)practices of media houses, media managers, editors and journalists and their (mal)practices lead to skewed, ill-informed and counter-productive public debate?
• In what ways are the (mal)practices in the media perpetuating and even exacerbating tense social relations in society across its different cleavages (especially race, gender and class). What can we do to improve public debate in South Africa, especially that facilitated through the media and what practices in the media need to change?