How I Believe South African Media is Failing Us

Last week I found myself in a store and heard a full radio link where the only two things the presenter spoke about were the weather and COVID-19. That was literally it – in the same link. This was on a commercial radio station, so the presenter has been trained to create radio which is supposed to entice and entertain the listener. On top of that, it was on a daytime show, where the news is either every hour or every 30 minutes. Why in the world would a radio presenter then simply speak about the weather and COVID-19, which I could hear on the news anyway? No, he did not have a fresh take on the subject, he just spouted easily accessible information.

There are a few possible reasons why he did that. It could be that he didn’t prep properly, it could be that he didn’t know what else to say for that particular link, or it could be that we have lowered our standard for certain mediums to a degree where talking about the weather and COVID-19 stats when you are paid to entertain people is acceptable. COVID-19 stats change everyday, which means that while they are a form of news, they are not in and of themselves news.

I have found myself more and more frustrated with South African TV, Radio and News outlets over the last few months for a plethora of reasons. The more I think about it, the more I realise that most of South African media isn’t doing what it is supposed to be doing. TV and radio need to actually entertain their audiences. News outlets need to actually write news. Instead, both are just telling us what we can find on any Government employee’s Twitter account.

For example, certain news outlets seem to think Twitter’s reaction to The Great Sea Point Promenade Walk of Level 4 was more newsworthy than making an in-depth analysis of why South Africa is maintaining a ban on cigarettes during Level 4 and Level 3. Reporting on Nkosana-Dlamini Zuma’s reaction to the song Zol is not doing that.

I haven’t been able to fully articulate my frustration with South African journalism until now. What helped me a lot was Unathi Kondile’s exploration of the death of journalism in South Africa. In his post, he argues that South African journalists need to look into the following:

  1. Together with his top three advisors our president must host briefing and Q&A sessions daily or every two days.
  2. StatsSA, working with hospitals and doctors, must also provide other causes of death in this country. Daily.
  3. Is there a rise in malnutrition cases in the country? What are South Africa’s malnutrition stats? Before and during this lockdown?
  4. The rise in HIV missed clinic and hospital appointments is said to be at a maximum of 60%, are people now defaulting on HIV treatment because of Covid-19? What with key health centres closing down with every reported staff Covid-19 contraction.
  5. There are currently 50 scientists advising government? Who are they and what are their independent contributions to the national Covid-19 dialogue?
  6. Why are some of these scientists claiming that government’s phased exit from the lockdown is “nonsensical and unscientific”?
  7. Numerous reports have outlined job losses and rising unemployment. Can we get some figures? How many businesses have closed thus far? What are the current unemployment figures?
  8. Probe banks that are busy dishing out 3-month Covid-19 relief loans to people who have lost jobs and income. What happens after three months and the person still has no job and still has to raise income from scratch? Will houses and cars be repossessed? Mass blacklisting? What measures are being put in place to buffer the escalating debt during this period?

If we were to ask whether South African news outlets have published stories on the above over the last few weeks, could we honestly say they have? The truth is we couldn’t. Even though, radio stations and TV stations were declared essential services under lockdown level 5…

Do you know what one of the worst consequences of this is? It means that we cannot critique the government or people’s behaviour appropriately because we do not have certain key facts in order to critique.

A simple question, why is the COVID-19 death rate so much lower in South African and Africa than the rest of the world? Can you point me to an article from a South African news outlet that explores that in-depth, interviewing experts? The truth is you probably can’t. If you can, I apologise.

Did any journalist explore why the South African government didn’t report on recoveries for the first few weeks of lockdown? Or is anyone reporting on the fact that the UK is not reporting on recoveries, which means the death rate is again lower than initially thought? In South Africa at least, I distinctly remember checking COVID-19 stats every day, and recoveries were not going up until Cyril Ramaphosa announced the initial lockdown extension, then overnight we had hundreds of recoveries. Why did no news outlet explore that?

If you don’t believe me, take a look at this tweet from Zweli Mhkize on the 8th of April:

In the tweet, there is no information on recoveries. Some comments in the thread say 95, but those were taken from COVID-19 Visualiser and not the government. The official number around that time was 40 something if I remember correctly. Then on the 10th of April, we jumped to 410 recoveries. At the time, that made no statistical sense. Why in the world did no news outlet explore that? If you still don’t believe me, try to research recoveries prior to the 10th of April. All I could find was this sentence posted on sacoronvirus.co.za:

We are slowly seeing an increase in numbers of recoveries, however recovery numbers do tend to lag behind because of the criteria for recovery. Our focus right now is finding all active cases and treating those who are very ill.

Guess how long the research above took me? An hour. I guess research is hard work or my laptop is far slower than I would like.

Or did any South African journalists explore alternative options to lockdown? At the beginning of lockdown I saw a few articles about the Lockdown model being unAfrican. None of those were on South African news outlets. Why didn’t South African journalists explore that idea? Whether that argument is true or not, shouldn’t it be explored? Especially considering the fact that prior to lockdown our unemployment rate at the end of 2019 was 29.1%. Guess what America’s unemployment rate was during the great depression? In 1933, the height of the great depression, their unemployment rate was 24.9%. Think about that for a second. South Africa was living America’s great depression last year already.

A sad reality we have to realise is that economy and death are entwined. So did Lockdown really protect South African people? Guess what, thanks to bad journalism we can’t really know. That means we can’t be angry at government because we don’t even have the facts to back up that anger. We can’t be angry at citizens because they have been sold fear and rule by force. People either obey or rebel under those circumstances. At this point, what seems more likely?

Obviously I’m exaggerating, Government has made huge mistakes during this period, allowing security forces to assault citizens being one of many. Ironically, this was covered brilliantly by a satire news channel, Politically Aweh. Citizens have made mistakes to, the Great Sea Point Promenade Walk of Level 4 being one of them.

Nevertheless, media in South Africa has to do better. It has to try and let go of it’s biases, it has to do more research, it has to critically engage with laws, it has give us something more in-depth than what Zweli Mhkize tweets or what I can find on a Government Whatsapp.

I want to add, I am not mad at the journalists. I know a few incredibly talented journalists – they are more talented than me. I don’t think I would have been accepted into journalism at University. I do not blame those individuals – I blame editors, who assign stories that don’t make journalistic sense but work to get clicks online.

I know what it’s like, you need readers to make money and articles need to be written a certain way with certain headings to get readers. I get it. You want to make money, but news outlets shouldn’t be predicated on the same marketing principles as a digital marketing blog.

We’re angry with people wanting to reopen the economy because they seem to be putting profit over people. Doesn’t poor journalism to garner clicks do the exact same thing?


Some closing notes.

I did initially agree with Government’s Lockdown and phased strategy – You can see that here. My mind changed with new information, however I am still not against the initial 5 weeks of Lockdown nor do I believe that COVID-19 is some elaborate conspiracy theory.

I am not a journalist. So I don’t know exactly how it works in the newsroom or why the news cycle has been lacking of late. If you are thinking right now “if you’re so critical of journalism, why don’t you do better?” I would happily try – organise me a paid gig and I will certainly try. It’s possible I wouldn’t do much better, but alas. We need to hold our news outlets to account, and here I am trying to do that.

This is my opinion. There is a possibility I am wrong and in a turn of irony I haven’t done enough research or reading. If so, that is fantastic, please point me to articles that answer some of the questions posed in this post.



Featured image by Nijwam Swargiary on Unsplash

Tyrone Fisher

The creator of Over Saturated. An entrepreneur, storyteller and thinker.