Some rules for better journalism

Andrew Donaldson suggests that, whatever you do, never buy a politician a drink

MEDIA bosses rarely do themselves and the profession any favours when they turn out in public to discuss their business. This is especially the case in the present journalism climate.

In this regard, Nic Dawes, the former Mail & Guadian editor, made an excellent point on Twitter this week. “The time has come,” he said, “to stop debating media freedom and standards with people who hate journalism.”

Dawes was referring to the “handwringing” and minor flap that followed The Citizen editor Steven Motale’s bizarrely sentimental and overly long apology for being “unfair” to President Jacob Zuma.

“It’s not just government that’s still new to getting democracy right,” Motale had written. “The media is, too. And the bottom line is: we should be willing to try harder to be better at this thing called democracy, and one can only hope that, in return, somehow, our government will be too.

“I’ve been party to the sinister agenda against Zuma, and can only apologise for that. I’m not saying I’m suddenly his biggest fan, but it’s time to admit I’ve been party to the unfairness, along with many of my colleagues.”

Well, gee, that was generous of Motale to include the rest of us in his grovel. And loftily noble, too, what with all the “democracy” babble. But he should remember that the business of journalism is journalism – and not much else.

Certainly, and notwithstanding the very real and often very sinister agendas against media freedom, there is room for improvement. That, I believe, is the point that Dawes was making: just crack on with cracking on and ignore the haters.

His comments certainly had a bearing on The New Age breakfast debate on media transformation. Here, indeed, was an exercise in pointlessness – much like an atheist trying to reach consensus with a creationist about evolution and natural selection.

We delude ourselves when we excuse panelists’ “fundamental disagreements”, as one newspaper commented, with platitudes about a democracy “where polar views get a platform” – especially when one of those panelists was SABC chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng.

It was Bertrand Russell who suggested that we are all born ignorant but it is a little learning that makes us stupid. If that is the case then it is Motsoeneng who is the self-made idiot. He, after all, sought to dismiss the controversy over his fraudulent matric by claiming he didn’t need the certificate because “I qualified myself”.

It is baffling that otherwise rational professionals would share a platform with this fraud. Not only does he hate journalism, but he does so with a gormlessness that verges on mania.

How telling then that, he of all people, should accuse lecturers in universities and colleges of poisoning the minds of journalism students by misleading them with facts and turning them into “lazy” reporters who lacked objectivity. 

As he put it, “If you take anyone from tertiary level … they are excited, new, energetic. At editorial level, you sit and you ask them, ‘Can you come [up] with a very good story?’ You know what will be a good story? Corruption. That is any journalist. When you talk about a good story, it’s corruption for them. We need to change the mindset of journalists.”

But better a poisoned mind than one given to fawning consensus reporting. Here then, are the Mahogany Ridge’s rules for a better journalism. Lecturers who wish to corrupt young minds may sully forth accordingly.

Firstly, always remember that news is information that someone, somewhere doesn’t want you to know. Luckily, there are many out there with something to hide. (Two words: academic qualifications.) 

Objectivity may be a myth, but it’s fair to say there are two sides to a story: yours – and the official version. Responsible journalism never hurt anyone. That’s why it’s boring. A bit of slander, well-crafted and regardless of consequence, may raise hackles and give rise to apoplexy, but it makes for entertaining, memorable reading.

It is true the only pact a journalist ever makes is with the public. It is also true that there is no such thing as the average reader. Below-average readers, on the other hand, are everywhere. You will be amazed at the speed with which these ingrates take offence at your scribblings.

Speaking of which, practice writing skills whenever possible. A useful exercise is to justify all expenses in the first paragraph on the claim form. 

Double entendres should only ever have the one meaning. This is especially true if one intends to pursue a career with the tabloids.

And lastly, never buy politicians a drink. They’re not your friends, and it’s more than likely they’ve had far too much already.

This article first appeared in the Weekend Argus.