Against the odds, we're producing good journalism

Because of the work of dedicated journalists we are able to take informed decisions about the serious matters that affect us, writes Ryland Fisher.

I spent the first part of this week in the company of a group of very experienced people within the media industry who constitute the judging panel for one of the most prestigious journalism competitions in the country. We were engaged for two days, considering close to 1 000 entries in various categories.

I walked away feeling good about our beleaguered media industry, one that has been plagued by a range of issues, including juniorisation, retrenchments, ownership contradictions and management inefficiencies.

Despite all of the above and more, I was glad to see that the quality of journalism in South Africa remains high. Yes, there are problems, and we still make too many mistakes, but that we saw so many high-quality entries means somebody somewhere is getting something right.

Journalism is not a profession most sane people would follow willingly because many people view journalists with a sense of suspicion.

Many people have a love-hate relationship with journalists. A few years ago I was asked to contribute a chapter for a book on dealing with the media for young sportsmen and also to speak to some of them. I remember warning them about how sportspeople often use the media to advance their careers but then want to turn on the media when they are famous and the media expose their wrongdoing.

As a young journalist who was committed to the Struggle against apartheid, I was put under pressure by so-called comrades who wanted me to report in a certain way. For instance, if I attended a mass meeting of 500 people, they would want me to say that 1 000 or more attended. They also wanted me to only write negative stuff about people who appeared not to be supportive of the Struggle and only positive things about people who were active in the Struggle.

I never succumbed, arguing my commitment to journalism was based on my commitment to certain basic human values, such as fairness and justice, and that is what attracted me to the Struggle in the first place.

In many ways, I have been vindicated over the last 22 years of democracy, where we have seen former Struggle heroes commit serious crimes or loot the public purse and some people who might not have been supportive in the past assisting the transformation of our society in great ways.

It has been a long time since I have done active journalism, in the form of investigations which I used to enjoy as a young journalist (nowadays I write columns and do interviews which are not very dangerous).

I can only imagine the pressures young journalists face in a situation where politicians are no longer driven by a desire to change society for the better, but mostly by their egos and attempts to improve their bank balances and standards of living.

In many ways the stakes are much higher now than in the anti-apartheid days. We did not care much about money in those days. Nowadays, it is difficult to find anyone who cares about anything other than money and they are prepared to go to great lengths to defend their “right” to have as much as possible.

It is against this background that journalism in South Africa, no, possibly journalism in the world, needs to be judged and observed.

When you have small newsrooms being prepared to spend time on serious investigations, often working way beyond what most people would consider normal hours, and when their investigations bear fruit, there is nothing more satisfying.

I don’t think I was born with ink in my blood, but I am sure it was injected into me at a very young age. I knew from primary school that I wanted to be a writer. Now, journalism is a part of who and what I am and probably will be until I am no longer able to move.

It can be a thankless profession, especially when you expose excesses and abuses by people who consider themselves powerful.

Most journalists do not write because they want recognition. They merely want to tell the truth. But, if the entries that we saw in the awards competition this year are anything to go by, then there is a need for many journalists to take a bow because without their contribution, our society would have been in the dark about so many issues. Because of their work, we are able to take informed decisions about the serious matters that affect us.

Despite everything that is going on in our industry, it feels good to be a journalist.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 1 October 2016)