Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The 'collaborative role' exists only in textbooks...

Rod Amner validated the JDD-CMP course to us by saying that there have been criticisms of undergraduate journalism at Rhodes' failure to link theory to practise. However, I am afraid to say that this course only highlighted this notion. It is one thing for Christians et Al to theorise about the 'collaborative role' of journalists but another entirely to bring it to life when you are dealing with "unwilling government and a demoralised populace" in Nick Mulgrew's words. The community has cultivated feelings of anger and animosity towards government officials and rightly so, and now we are stationed in the firing line of false promises, abandoned elderly and desperate circumstances with nothing to protect us but a notepad/camera/recorder? Sure, we can take our carefully collated folders to the municipality but why should they take any notice? They ignore desperate pleas to remove waste and sewerage but they are going to respond to a soundslide? Wishful thinking is an understatement. This course has left me despondent and heartbroken about the state of affairs in South Africa and the adversity which confronts journalists. I am not sure what would have equipped me for coping better with this course, but 3 years of learning about the Utopian ideals of journalism certainly did not.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Ward 5 and 6 gathering

Photos from the gathering held in the extension 9 community centre to show wards 5 and 6 the work that we have produced.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Price of Public Journalism

When the JDD-CMP course began in July I was overwhelmed by what we had to try to achieve in this short space of time. I thought the course aims of bringing together “the Media Studies and Media Production components of the third year curriculum into a praxis-based melting pot” was easier said then done. The objectives of this course also seemed impractical and unrealistic considering we had to learn the theory and then apply it almost simultaneously.

It is so easy to put pen to paper and declare that the course was going allow us to engage critically with journalism and the definition of what it is to be a journalist but up until the start of the course, we had only been practicing mainstream journalism… the methods and skills which had been drilled into us for two years. I think it’s safe to say that I was apprehensive.

As the course continued and my knowledge of public journalism grew, I thought what our lecturers wanted us to achieve was admirable. We held our first public meeting which was a huge success… We had banners, a sound system, photographers snapping away, camera crews filming from every possible angle and radio journalists making sure that every word was recorded. The meeting was attended by a lot of people who were willing to tell us their problems and share their views… the only difficulty I faced was actually understanding a word that had been said!

The theory around public journalism and creating “deliberating public spaces” within communities seemed a little unfeasible for someone who couldn’t even communicate effectively with the communities of wards 5 and 6. Also producing audio regarding the “citizens agenda” and the problems which these individuals faced seemed impossible.

Never before had I had to rely so much on the assistance of my peers in compiling news but I realised and hoped that it would be to the benefit of the community to produce audio which they understood in order to create awareness and understanding amongst members in the community about the problems regarding the RDP houses in the Transit Camp. The journalistic work I conducted alongside Stephane Meintjes in producing our final soundslide was nothing like I had ever done before. We literally went door to door and interacted with the community at the “grassroots level” despite the language barriers we faced. We also had the assistance and involvement of a citizen journalist who was hopefully able to learn something from us along the way. The families living in the community became familiar faces to me and we became familiar faces to them.

My growth and understanding of journalism over the months of this course made all the hard work seem all worth it… until we held our second public meeting and critically evaluated our role in our focus group discussion. Although I had grown as a journalist and I had benefited from this course I think I was naïve about the ways in which I thought the communities of wards 5 and 6 had benefited. Did their living conditions change? Did the municipality listen to the grievances of the communities they serve? Unfortunately, I cannot answer yes to these questions. So what was the price the community had to pay for the public journalism we conducted and, at the end of the day, was it worth it?

The painful stories told by the community weren’t resolved and the one-on-one interaction with these individuals not only took a toll on them but also on the journalists telling these stories. The failure of the decision-makers in taking part in this process, however, is not due to our role as journalists… if anything it, once again, calls into question the governance of our country.

It is necessary to consider one of the main objectives of public journalism in “creating spaces for pubic debate”. By distributing our work to prominent people in the community as well as to the formal establishments of wards 5 and 6, hopefully our group will be successful in this objective. However, if our second community meeting, held on 19 October, is anything to go by this might not be the case. Due to the acoustics of the community hall in extension 9, the sound quality was exceptionally poor. Although the meeting was attended by a ward councillor, members of the police and an official from the housing section of the municipality, these individuals did not have anything to contribute. Furthermore, the youth of the community, which we always like to term the “future generation”, were more involved in their own conversations than in the work that was being displayed which, in turn, made it even more difficult to hear.

I would like to think that the work we did as public journalists was not done in vain and I hope that the information which has been made available to the community will be used to create spaces in which the community are active participants in public debate. The information and contact details on the DVDs being distributed as well as the wall papers will hopefully encourage community members to be active in bringing about change in their own lives and provide some solutions to the overwhelming problems these individuals face.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Final reflection - Terri

We wanted to forge a “community strengthening” project, building bridges between the residents of Makana’s Wards 5 and 6 and the people with enough money or power to help them improve their lives. Launching into this project with my usual Nihilistic cynicism, I was quick to notice the painfully idealistic, naïve and cutesy ambitions of the course. I knew then, as I know now, that no amount of goodwill by twenty journalism students is going to build even one house. What is going to build a house is money and sound governance – something that twenty journalists cannot be expected to produce on the scale needed. I understand, naturally, that it’s “the thought that counts” and that “voices must be heard” , but the results of our second community meeting proved to me that when you get a really lame Christmas present, you don’t necessarily care about “the thought that counts”. The thought doesn’t matter, and I would be fine with the niggling sense of failure that I am now left with, if I was not led to believe by the idealistic pussyfooting of the course outline, that we were going to do some real, noticeable good in the communities we were allocated.

The communities we were introduced to have problems that no individual should have to face, and our efforts within these spaces were hopelessly idealistic. How were twenty third year kids expected to make any noticeable difference to these people? Had I been a resident of Wards 5 or 6, I would have been highly annoyed at varsity kids with fancy cars offering me shrill little platitudes about how they wanted to help.

I believe in goodwill and charity. However, I do not believe in it being forced upon people. The goodwill we were doing in these communities was never altruistic – it was for a grade. I have a problem with that. The solution for these residents is a good government with an intrinsic system of accountability. Not having their “voices heard”. Their voices are heard in the shared woes of the thousands of South Africans in similar situations – and still their lives don’t change. This project only created false hopes which were noticeably dashed at the second community meeting we held in Extension 9.

First and foremost, I don’t think a course like this should be forced upon the unwilling. I didn’t come to study journalism for civic journalism work. Selfish as it may sound, it is honest. I have a very low tolerance for (frankly) quasi-retarded state officials kicking people out of meetings, ward councilors who can’t take criticism even when the basis of which is glaringly apparent, and I don’t like producing media that, when exhibited to the subjects, is scoffed at and largely ignored in favour of a Mxit conversation.

The exhibition was a huge disappointment. The sound quality was abhorrent due to the fascinatingly bad acoustics of the hall we used, and the residents who came to view the works could not have been any less bothered by it, by and large. A group of adolescents say before me, chattering away, giggling and chatting on their cell phones. People left before the half-way mark was reached. I understand that the sound quality was not great, but these were pieces about the place they live.
These people jumped onto us like lifeboats when we first arrived, so keen were they to have their voices heard. Now, they were leaving the product or ignoring their voices they so wanted heard. I didn’t understand. I was hurt. If they don’t care about their problems enough to even watch a half hour exhibition, why was I made to believe it was so important and that my work was meant to save the destitute? Let me clarify: Obviously not every member of the audience was a giant mass of apathy. But from my angle, a lot of people were. One resident, at the end of the meeting, said they were largely unimpressed because they figured this exhibition would give them answers as to why RDP houses were not arriving, why health and sanitation was so neglected, why crime and inefficient policing are rife. I wanted to bang my head against the wall. People WERE in fact blaming us for what we feared in the beginning – prancing around a township and getting nothing of any real value done. It is impossible to get things done, as I have previously mentioned, without a wad of cash and a sound local government. And, being naïve enough to believe that these people simply wanted their “voices heard” is stupid.

These people, judging by their reaction to our media, did not get the point of our presence, and probably think us quite useless. Because, even when these pages go out into the plush lounges of the Grocott’s Mail readership, nothing substantial is going to get done. A good government is needed. Lots and lots of money is needed. A sustainable method of accountability on decision makers is needed.

We hear the voices of the impoverished, the sick, the abused, the downtrodden… We hear them every day in this country. Not much gets done, either. And I can’t wait to stop this course if only for the reason that, if one more person has to tell me that “every little bit counts” and “even the tiniest difference is a miracle”, I am sure to vomit from the saccharine, butterscotchy torment of their naivety. It’s attitudes like that which serve selfish purposes – you want to make a difference because it would make you feel better. Honestly, the only way anything is really going to change is if people start voting for another government, stop having children they cannot support and start looking for an infrastructure of accountability.
I don’t have all the answers. I appreciate good intentions. I’m just tired of feeling like a failure – especially when some kid is texting through a viewing of a family’s problems. A family that lives within walking distance from him. And the worst part of it all is, that if I was that kid, I probably would have done the same. Because, what does it matter?

"...and all we got was a dvd"

Whilst some people try, whenever possible, to involve themselves in socially conscious, development-type journalism, I actively try and stay as far away from it as possible. Earlier this year, as my course dictated it, I was required to do a developmental piece of journalism - so when the JDD CMP course was announced, to say that I was less than happy would be understating my emotions.

I like soft-journalism ok. Sue me. However, that was not the reason for my concern at the commencement of this course. Having gone into the township in the past to document people’s lives I knew how emotionally taxing it was for me. Some people are cut out to do that type of work and burden themselves with other people’s issues. I, on the other hand, can barely deal with my own.

So, it was with apprehension that I approached this course.

Pinpointed at the community meeting held in 3rd term was the issue of insufficient recreational activities for children staying in our area (wards 5 & 6). Along with my partner, this issue was chosen as the one we would try an address. Allow me first to explicate the sense in which I use “address” as we did little more than highlight the issue at hand, although some, not me, would have thought they could do more before undertaking the project. My pessimism here is obvious, and my scepticism at the course’s commencement more so. I am glad that upon starting this project I knew the limitations as I get the sense that a number of people felt let down with how little they were able to do.

My soundslide detailed the plight of the indoor sports centre in Ward 6. Apart from drawing attention to the shortcomings of the centre it also celebrated it as one of the beacons of hope within the area and an example of a place that is having a positive impact on the lives of the youth. During this production process I did encounter a number of problems. In the past I have encountered instances where my title of student-journalist or even just ‘journalist’ has been a hindrance. However, this was not a concern whilst putting together this particular project. Rather, the problem involved the overwhelming sense of helplessness which accompanied my realisation that regardless of how good the piece was, it, ultimately, would have no impact on whether a new sports centre was built as those in a position to initiate change were unmotivated to do so.

To reiterate what I brought up in the prac, I began to realise that when I left the township it carried on existing. The township was not games of basketball. The township was not kickarounds in the parking lot. The township was not boxing practices. These things are what the township was to me. Why I became most disenchanted with the course is because we were the ones who initiated this interaction. We went to the township. We promised change. And ultimately it was us who created, in most instances, a degree of false hope.

At the end of the day we got our marks, and the people whose stories we told got apologies that “the municipality didn’t want to listen to us”. That’s a pretty poor exchange. I got something extra though- the sense that I let a lot of people down.

At the second community meeting we held the turnout was great, but the response did not match the turnout. People who attended seemed to not care and to be honest I don’t blame them.

Impotence in CMP

While the JDD-CMP course was a worthy introduction to the theory behind - and the practice of - public journalism, I cannot help but think that I would have rather not gone through with the charade of implementing it on the level that the JMS3 class has done over the past four months.

Although the course began with a burst of optimism, I believe that the gravity of the situations in which many local citizens are forced to live soon hit home and greatly demoralised those of us who weren't completely overtaken by the fallacious ideas of a readily-developing public sphere, which we could use to foster deliberation between those who need help and those who can give them help. The fact of the matter is that many people are living in appalling conditions to which no human being should be subjected. One could qualify the way things are by invoking South Africa's history, or any number of ghosts from eras past, but doing so only offers excuses for the mediocrity and incompetence of this country's governance. I believe we try to offer excuses in the form of platitudes like, "every country has its problems" or "there is also poverty and crime in America", or many other easily-quotable (and glaringly obvious) truisms. I do not believe there are many places in the world in which schoolchildren sodomise each other, as has been the case in one of the wards that a JDD-CMP group had to practice public journalism.

I know, as South Africans, we may have a lowered sensitivity towards really horrible things, but I believe this bears repeating:

In one of Makana's wards, there are schoolchildren that sodomise other schoolchildren.

In what ways are student journalists, who have been plied with vague direction in their vocation by three years of below-par university instruction and (on average) two weeks of work experience, supposed to deal with this?

In whose mind, littered with idealistic thoughts, are we prepared to successfully deal with reporting on, and helping members in that community deal with, issues of that magnitude? Let's be frank here: there are no "soft issues" here. In Wards 5 and 6, people lock themselves into their houses at 9pm for fear of being assaulted. In Wards 5 and 6, the municipality does not believe it is their responsibility to dispose of people's rubbish and make sure ablution facilities are clean. In Wards 5 and 6, there are scores of amazing people who look after society's most vulnerable - the orphaned and the abandoned elderly - who are let down by bad government, and a general malaise in their community. A lack of investment in infrastructure leads to obscene levels of unemployment, which in turn leads to desperate men and women turning to alcohol and drugs for catharsis and escape.

Again I ask, how is a group of outsider student journalists equipped to deal with this?

South Africa has a habit of becoming a drunkenly optimistic nation, fuelled by gestures and catchphrases. We'll wear national colours and football jerseys; white people will unironically and awkwardly introduce shaap and heita into their vocabulary; we'll make up awful dances in a ham-fisted attempt to foster national unity. These are empty gestures.

I came to the conclusion that much of the JDD-CMP course was also an empty gesture on Tuesday night, the night on which we decided to lug a whole bunch of equipment up to the (still-yet-unnamed) Extension 9 for a second community meeting at which we would showcase all of the hyperlocal journalism we had produced for Wards 5 and 6. It was attended by about 80-90 people, which wasn't a particularly bad turnout, but much of the audiovisual aspects of the meeting were nullified by the constant chattering of children in the hall. Coupled with bad acoustics, I don't think many of the adults or other interested parties could really hear what was going on. (I wouldn't have been able to if I hadn't seen the work prior to the screening.)

It was disappointing, yes, that a few months of work would come down to this rather impotent spectacle. Sure, there are many positive things we have done, including helping out a few very worthy establishments, and giving an audience to Ward 5's community policing forum, and these are things to be satisfied about.

But, frankly, to think that the aggregate of this entire experience is a positive would be stupid. Sure, all of us have probably learned a lot in terms of skills and, hopefully, their outlook on the very real issues that South Africa faces. Was this process necessary to do that? No. Were these the intended outcomes of the course? Hopefully not.

A throwing around of buzzwords like "hyperlocal" and "deliberative public space" does not equate to tangible process, in the journalistic realm, or the social realm, or otherwise. While I believe that public journalism does serve a purpose, a group of students aren't going to change anything with an unwilling government and a demoralised populace in tow. Maybe the Daily Dispatch, a newspaper of considerable weight and influence, can do this, but even their efforts were halted by the incompetence and in-fighting of the Buffalo City Municipality.

It's romantic to suggest that we could have ever affected any sort of far-reaching change given our working context: a group of 20 students to cover 10 000 people who we know very little about in the space of 4 months, punctuated by holidays and other work to do? Fat chance.

And if you think that's pessimistic, I suggest you start to get your hands dirty, you know, like the rest of the few remarkable men and women on the ground that we have met over the past few months.

Maybe we did it, maybe we didn't?

Second semester of JMS 3 was set out to be the JDD-CMP course. So we’d first dive into the theories of Public Journalism and Journalism Democracy and Development and then use these theories as the basis of our projects for Critical Media Production. Initially it sounded like a solid plan – learn some theories and then get a real chance to put them into practise. But this was quickly disillusioned when we realised that we were being sent out to specific areas in and around Grahamstown to arrange community meetings from which we could source stories for our projects. When the plan was summarised it was apparent that we’d have to rile people up and get their support at a community meeting, encourage them to discuss their problems and then use these stories for our benefit.

Looking back on the past few months, I can see that I was being judgemental and silly to think that was what our lecturers were sending us out to do. Don’t get me wrong, I still completely disagree with the course, how it’s run and what the overall outcomes are, but all the parts in between were really great and a lot more worthwhile than I could have ever foreseen.

As a Photojournalism student, I worked in partnership with Marcelle (a radio student) and we created a Soundslide combining my photographs with her audio clips. A major issue at our community meeting was the bad health condition of the area, most specifically in Extension 9, Transit Camp. More specifically, we dealt with bad water conditions, severe litter problems and the overall results of this squalor. We created profiles on three women from the area who spoke to us about their personal experiences, how they are trying to help their community themselves, as well as what they would like the government to do for them. We then took this piece to the Makana municipality and spoke to Media and Communications Officer, Thandy Mathibesi in order to hear the government’s side of the story. It was really great actually managing to get comment from a municipal officer, but in the end Mathebesi was doing little more than blaming the citizens for their lack of ‘responsibility’ and doing his best to cover his own tracks. In the end though, I feel like we managed to create a well-balanced story that illustrates the municipality’s lack of contribution, reflecting on the dire consequences this all has on the people of the community.

Overall, the JDD-CMP course was very antagonising. There were many obstacles: government’s unwillingness to participate, having to co-ordinate a group of 20 students with very busy timetables and the language barrier between most of us and the people of Joza. But we were a really great combination of people and our group settled into this project with ease, managing to achieve success at the end of every section. Our community meeting was well attended. We worked on very serious issues and hopefully managed to help give the people of the township a voice in Grahamstown. I don’t really know if we can believe that our little pieces of work are going to make any sort of difference. But maybe they will in smaller ways. And if we don’t manage to make a difference now, perhaps the third year students of years to come will have enough to learn from and make more of a success out of this somewhat dishevelled course.