Friday, October 8, 2010

JDD-CMP Critical Reflection - Terri-Lee Adendorff and Nick Mulgrew

(For purposes of easy reading and coherence, the article written by Terri-Lee Adendorff referred to in this piece will be henceforth referred to as "our" article.)

A communitarian viewpoint of the public sees the consumers of media as a united group, sharing common values and aspirations, and a joint concern to contribute to the “greater good”, being that which is beneficial to the entire community, instead of a few elite individuals. Haas grapples with the notion of what exactly the “greater good” is, and who gets to decide what outputs can be grouped into this highly subjective category (Haas 2007: 27). As such, Haas is not entirely satisfied with the communitarian conceptualisation of the public. However, he is not satisfied with the liberal viewpoint either, as this view sees journalists pandering to the concerns and preferences of a few individuals (Haas 2007: 27). Between these two unsatisfactory viewpoints, Haas finds a middle ground, suggesting that journalists conceive of the public as active deliberators, capable of contributing to democratic process through valuable deliberation and dialogue (Haas 2007: 28). In this more acceptable view, Haas suggests that the journalist’s key role is to foster the supply of deliberative and dialogical spaces to the public.

The work which has been produced through the CMP (Critical Media Production) module in our group thus far, takes on a strongly communitarian conceptualisation of the public. As much as the Journalism, Democracy and Development course may strive to achieve Haas’s preffered version of the “deliberating public”, our group has decided that the most effective means of public journalism, in this particular time and place, are those that take a communitarian slant.

This viewpoint of the public is most beneficial to us because the decision makers (the municipality, ward councillors and other community officials) are largely, and rather flamboyantly, unwilling to create or participate in public spaces for dialogue and discourse. An example of this denial to create public debate can be found in a recent meeting between colleagues of ours in the School of Journalism and Media Studies, and certain members of the Makana Municipality in early October. The journalism students were advised to leave the meeting by the decision makers present, and told that they should stop all media production as they were doing nothing more than making trouble. From this reaction it is plain to see that the municipality and other officials would rather see problems in these communities go unreported, so as to cause less trouble, or work, for themselves. By keeping the community they are meant to serve muted, they are able to coast along, seeming like a well operated operation, simply because their inadequacies are unheard of.

Another incident that served to prove that Haas’s preferred conceptualisation of the public is impossible in our current socio-political context could be noted at our Masithetheni public meeting, held in August within one of our wards. As about 120 citizens of the community engaged in lively and fruitful discussion, the ward councilor in attendance walked out of the meeting while it was still in progress, claiming that it was chaotic and unprofessional. This, as all evidence would plainly show, could not be further from the truth. It is more likely that this individual was offended by the proof that his department was not living up to basic expectations. Once more, it is clear that municipal powers and decision makers do not want discursive spaces accessible to the public, as these spaces rightfully seek out those ways in which they are lacking and things that they would rather keep out of the greater public’s eye.

Thus, the best angle that Masithetheni could identify was the communitarian viewpoint of the public, and due to the similarities between the communities in both of our assigned wards, and their geographical and geo-political proximity, we decided to cover stories in both wards under the Masithetheni banner, and conflate both wards into one larger news generating arena. The individuals who spoke at the public meeting, as well as those interviewed separately, seemed to all share similar concerns, the three most pressing of which being (i) health and Sanitation, (ii) crime and (iii) unemployment.

Through these very related issues, a definition of the “common good”, which Haas attempts to problematise, can be roughly outlined. Our journalism, therefore, strives to further the action needed to attain this greater good by inspiring action on the behalf of charities, NGOs, and forces from within the community itself, through the visibility of the community’s problems.

It was decided at the outset of the JDD-CMP course that Masithetheni’s outputs in Wards 5 and 6 should form a kind of “community strengthening project”: in lieu of adequate governmental and municipal deliberation, our outputs would be used to generate and reinforce positive aspects of the communities – thriving informal industries, community watches, etc. – in which we worked, regardless of whether or not decision-makers would support us in creating a deliberative public sphere to solve larger problems. Of course, as people who did not come from and who were not familiar with the exact make-up of the communities in our wards, we had no explicit goals from the outset. Rather, we could only take this spirit of developing and strengthening the positive aspects of our communities and attempt to manifest it in our outputs as best as possible.

Perhaps the most important part of this was establishing an identity that would invite people in our community to engage with the issues in their lives and deliberate with others to find solutions to their problems. The identity “Masithetheni” (isiXhosa for “let’s talk”) was created, an imperative and invitational command that demands attention and promotes community dialogue. The emphasis of the journalism, as such, wasn’t so much an attempt to simply relay events to the community, but rather to foster constructive discourse surrounding them: we are, after all, outsiders, and the majority of conversation must originate within our target community. They set the news agenda, and they are, in essence, the gatekeepers; we simply tailor our outputs to their needs.

As such, our approach to news generation is completely different to other publications in Grahamstown, or, indeed, the majority of South Africa. While East London’s the Daily Dispatch pioneered the practice of a kind of public journalism in South Africa last year, this is the first time it is being conducted (to our knowledge) on a hyperlocal scale within the region. Conducting this kind of journalism has been refreshing and, at times, thoroughly overwhelming, due to the radical nature of the news generation and gatekeeping processes, and also because of the gravity of the issues that we have uncovered through these processes. Some of the people in our wards are extremely desperate for services and amenities promised to them by a government that has been in power for 16 years; their stories are heartbreaking and yet, unfortunately all too common in our country’s poorer communities.

Having defined our outlook, then, our mission was to strengthen the communities we were assigned. Our main goal for the outputs is to make the problems of these communities clear to the larger public, and inform people as to how they can go about contributing or helping out in the communities. As such, part of the work that has thus far been produced by the two of us, and our group as a whole, is aimed at creating publicity for the Community Policing Forum (CPF) of Wards 5 and 6.

The article aims to inform the community that the CPF exists, and that they need help in trying to stop crime in the area. The article focuses on the idea that because of crime, people who would be willing to create better infrastructure in the community are deterred – creating the impression that those who commit crime are, in fact, stealing from every member of their community, as well as themselves. This angle was provided by an interview with a member of the Grahamstown Police force, who is in charge of overseeing the activities of the CPF of Wards 5 and 6. This gentleman told us that he is in contact with numerous individuals and businesses who would be interested in donating both time and money to the communities, but cannot due to the high crime rate in the area. Firstly, he told us, one cannot build a playground in the area when there is a very high chance that it will be stripped down by thieves and sold as scrap metal. Secondly, he said that he cannot liaise with these individuals and businesses, because he is constantly out trying to stop crime. As such, crime can be seen as one of the main reasons that development is not occurring in these communities.

Sadly, none of this information can be exposed in an article, because the police officer was very scared that his identity could become apparent. If this did occur, it is very likely that he would lose his job, as the commentary did not come from an approved source. In order to publish any information from the police, one must speak directly to the official police spokesperson. The spokesperson for the Grahamstown police, however, is woefully difficult to get hold of, as her phone is constantly off, or unanswered. Yet again, it is clear that public deliberation is nigh on impossible in this context – there is no transparency or chance for candid discussion between officials and citizens.

Another challenge we faced with the production of the article was the style we had chosen as a group. A tabloid-esque tone was chosen, meaning that we had to render our outputs in simple language and a great deal more emotion than we have been accustomed to doing in writing an article in our journalistic training. As much as this made us initially uncomfortable, the end product (the wall newspaper) was well tailored for the target audience.

Our target audience, we felt, was largely homogenous: a working-class, predominately isiXhosa-speaking, predominantly black community with high levels of unemployment. Like much of the country, however, we expected most people in our wards to be multilingual, and it turned out as such: isiXhosa, English and Afrikaans were all spoken in varying degrees of proficiency and formality throughout our target audience. As such, different productions use different languages: wall newspapers were written solely in English, the language of the country’s biggest-selling tabloid The Daily Sun, and multimedia productions utilised both isiXhosa and English, to broaden their appeal both within and outside our Wards.

Language always would have been an issue, but we decided to implement a tabloid style, as mentioned above, in creating our news content for the wall newspaper: a slightly informal register was used, making frequent use of imperatives and conversational language. This was done for two reasons: to make the stories easier to engage with for those used to the style of writing in other English-language publications popular in such working-class demographics, and also to establish the fact that our media outputs are of the community, for the community, and not laden with the high register and jargon thrown around with ease by students and many professional journalists.

However, even though the story was perfect for the target audience, the simplistic style and my restrictions in terms of source material use make it difficult for us to properly evaluate the piece, without input from the readers themselves. That being said, we know that it is important to remember that we come from a biased perspective afforded to us by an education in journalistic practice – a perspective that we do not share with the readers of this piece.

That last sentence really captures the entire point of what we set out to do in producing the piece about the CPF. We wanted to create visibility for their cause, and encourage people to utilise their service, support the work they do, and be on the lookout for crime, thus helping to stop it. In the community meeting, one member of the CPF stood up and pleaded for more support from the community, stressing that the few members currently involved could not make a difference if the community continued to defend criminals, simply because they knew these individuals on a personal basis.

This sentiment was echoed by Mr. Yawa, a member of the CPF, who Terri conducted an extensive interview with. Mr. Yawa revealed that, when the police or the CPF are attempting to arrest an individual, it is commonplace to experience resistance from other members of the community, yelling at the CPF or begging them to unhand the criminal. Thus, the article aimed to encourage support for the CPF, and I feel that it has achieved this aim.

As such, the experience of producing this article, and the wall newspaper, has been very enlightening for the both of us, not only because of the different methods we have had to use to produce our outputs, but because of our inability to rely on official sources or most of the usual gatekeeping and news sourcing techniques drilled into us during our journalism education. Being in a large group of 20 people, with no real leader, has made editorial decisions interesting but, with a team of dedicated and hard-working individuals, who all consider the work of their colleagues and adjust their work around them, has made producing Masithetheni relatively enjoyable. The work is equally shared around the group, and we believe that everyone in the group shares the same vision and the same drive to produce compelling public journalism, which lends to more coherent and effective outputs. The fact that everyone has some sort of editorial control, and that almost everyone is open to constructive criticism and suggestion, is testiment to a mature operation that will continue to produce good work as long as this project goes on.

1 comment:

  1. Good interrogation of Haas’s theories in the SA context. Haas also mentions the necessity of having multiple discursive domains where subordinate social groups can discuss their issues amongst themselves before trying to create spaces of joint problem-

    Good discussion of name of group, Masithetheni, which shows clear awareness of deliberative and discursive space of public journalism.

    Very well written. It integrates the theory you’ve read and makes clear connections to your experience of the practice. Thoughtful about your roles as students and the limitations of your interventions.