At the best of times, it is tough to be a journalist - and not only in South Africa. Journalists are almost always among the worst-paid professionals, but most of us do not practise journalism because we want to earn big bucks. Most of us are driven by more simple things, like wanting to change the world.
One of the things they teach in journalism 101 is the need to be objective, which is of course impossible because none of us can completely get rid of our historical, social or political baggage. It is inevitable that this will impact on our journalism, which makes it difficult to be completely objective. Even the stories we choose to cover or ignore indicate some level of subjectivity. I teach young journalists the need to be fair and respectful towards the people and subjects they are writing about, even if they feel that they don’t deserve respect.
When one approaches everything with respect, it makes it easier to be professional and to remove oneself from any possible emotional attachments. The nature of journalism is such that we will not only write about or interview people we like. Quite often, we will interview people with whom we disagree vehemently, but professionalism requires that we record their stories.
In the past, there was always a clear line between news and opinion in the media. Opinion pages were clearly marked and opinion writers were not the same people who wrote news.
In recent years, for various reasons, there has been a blurring between opinion writers and news reporters, with the latter often doubling up, expressing their opinions on the news of the day.
This has provided ammunition to people who think the media is their enemy and who argue that journalists who have expressed certain opinions will never be able to be objective about any issue.
Most journalists, over the course of their careers, would have covered a range of stories, representing different political opinions or the preferences of different public personalities. It is my experience that most people who need the media are comfortable with the media, as long as journalists write positive stories about them. But as soon as the negative stories start to appear, they will turn on the media.
When I trained prominent people on how to deal with the media, I used to say: “If you don’t want the media to hang your dirty linen in public, then you should not dirty your linen.”
If you don’t want the media to report on your wrongdoings, then you should not do wrong. The role of the media is to report on the good and the bad in society. You cannot expect us to report only on the good.
This brings me to the disturbing comments by the leader of a major political party this week, attacking journalists and naming some on Twitter in attempts to isolate them. It is the easiest thing to do when you are confronted with uncomfortable realities as a public personality to blame the media and call it “fake news”.
The more difficult thing to do is to engage intelligently and with facts whatever it is that you disagree with.
My fear is that, as the elections approaches, more people will try to take aim at journalists. It is up to everyone, and not only journalists and politicians, to ensure that the media is able to do its work without threats and without fear.
If not so, we run the risk of missing out on important stories in our democracy, which might not be published because of fear.
The media is not perfect, but journalists should be allowed to do their work, which is to inform the public. This is, of course, easier said than done.
(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 27 November 2018)