Publication: Mail and Guardian Issued: Date: 2003-09-24 Reporter: Guy Berger

More is Less



Mail and Guardian

Date 2003-09-24


Guy Berger

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Media lovers, take heart. The latest data shows that South Africans are consuming more media. The figures come from the All Media Products Survey (Amps) of the past year, and are based on a research sample of more than 27 600 households.

A star in the consumption increase is the daily newspaper category. Five and a half million of us are now reading dailies -- nearly one in five South Africans.

What the increase reflects is that new dailies have recruited new readers. Thus, while there may be a fixed advertising pie to fight over, in terms of audiences there is expansion. Newcomers like the Daily Sun and Isolezwi aren't so much drawing eyeballs away from the incumbents as bringing novice newspaper readers into the market.

For the Sunday papers, there's also expansion, even if it's more of a mixed bag. City Press has lost some ground -- down from 2,4-million to 2,13-million readers. Many deserters have probably gone to its baby sister, the Sunday Sun, which soared from scratch to attracting 1,58-million readers over the year ended in June.

Smaller, but still another grower on Sunday, is Sowetan Sunday World. This publication added 75 000 readers over the period to reach 1,19-million.

Its sister paper, the Sowetan, has lost tens of thousands in circulation over the past year, but fascinatingly its total readership has risen by three percent. People may be out of pocket in terms of purchasing the paper, but, more than ever, they are borrowing it from the 155 000 individuals who do buy it. There are now 1,98-million people who see the paper -- in other words, there are close on 12 readers per copy sold.

This is one reason why the paper continues to attract advertising, and indeed makes more money than ever. No wonder Johncom has wanted to buy it.

The Amps data confirm a discernible trend over the past few years -- one that is towards increased media density on both the supply side (new papers) and demand side (greater readership per copy).

After a long decline in media consumption, especially in newspapers, it seems South Africans are now reversing the trend. We may, finally, be headed for the much-heralded "Information Society" in terms of both our hunger for media and the menu on offer. It could be a forerunner of similar trends elsewhere in southern Africa.

But enthusiasm about such quantitative improvement needs to be tempered with an assessment about quality. More information seems to be circulating; what, however, is its value?

At least three contextual factors can impact negatively on quality and undermine the gains in quantity. They are commerce, politics, and the state of journalism, and the past fortnight has given examples of each.

Commercialisation of the media industry has intensified in past years, even though yet more is still to come. One of the adverse effects has been the increasingly competitive rush to publish, at the expense of fact-checking and investigation.

Thus, in recent weeks, City Press pushed ahead with reporting the spy allegations about Bulelani Ngcuka -- in contrast to the Sunday Times which held back.

That the spy claims were being made (in fact revived) was indeed newsworthy. Yet a strong case can be made as to why City Press should have paused before putting the story into print.

Everyone would have benefited if the paper had spent more time doing its own independent investigation of the validity of the claims, and if it had gone deeper into the identity and motivation of those plying the story. As it happened, however, the drive to be first with the news evidently over-determined a more considered approach.

Politics, alongside commercialisation, is another player in the undermining of quality journalism. We're fortunate to enjoy free speech in a vibrant South African democracy. Sadly, however, our government continues with its pusillanimous policy on human rights in Zimbabwe. Thus, in the very week of Harare silencing the Daily News, that country's biggest daily paper, Pretoria proudly punted its support for Zim despot Robert Mugabe to attend the next Commonwealth meeting in Nigeria.

It's not even a question of quality journalism in Zimbabwe -- it is a question of no journalism.

Governments also disappointed last week at a key meeting in Geneva to prepare for December's World Summit on the Information Society. A host of regimes refused to endorse free speech as a fundamental right. Instead of including Article 19 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights in a draft declaration, they held out for the qualification that media freedom had to exist within the given legal system of each country. Music to Mugabe's ears.

The point is that, around the world, there are too many politicians in power who constitute a huge danger to free journalism and therefore to quality journalism. It's not a good omen when our government won't stand up for media freedom next door.

Journalists themselves represent the third contextual factor that can counter quantity gains with quality losses. Nowhere are journalists intrinsically saints (just as governments are not inherently sinners). Cut-'n-paste plagiarism as per the still unrepentant Darryl Bristow-Bovey is a recent reminder. But DBB is merely at the extreme end of the common practice of journalists routinely putting their bylines on information taken verbatim (and unchecked) from press releases.

Another recent example of media people sometimes being the worst enemies of quality journalism is when they compromise their political independence. Most media people aspire to keep some autonomy from sources, but there do seem to have been some in recent weeks who come close to playing prostitute to external power-mongers. Quality of journalism suffers when media effectively take sides by uncritically publicising loaded information about a range of public figures -- information leaked for hostile and highly partisan reasons.

Taking stock of these three threats -- commerce, politics and the profession itself -- and it becomes clear that it's important to keep quality in mind while celebrating quantity.

Because if increased media density doesn't help us make more sense of the world, we will -- to adapt from academic Frank Webster -- simply have a case of more information and less meaning.

E-mail Guy Berger directly if you have a question about this article.

Guy Berger is head of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University and deputy chair of the South African National Editors Forum (Sanef). He was recently nominated for the World Technology Awards.

With acknowledgements to Guy Berger and the Mail & Guardian.