By Stephane Meintjes and Jane van Doorene
During the course of the Journalism, Democracy and Development and Critical Media Production course, as student journalists, we have learnt a great deal about public journalism and how to incorporate this way of making media into our own soundslide production on the RDP housing situation in the Transit camp in Ward 5. Furthermore, the concepts raised in both of the courses have impacted and challenged our own ideas regarding our identities as professionalising journalists or media producers.
In Tanni Haas's book The Pursuit of Public Journalism, Haas asserts that before one can begin to speak of or understand what is meant by a “public philosophy” one needs to look at how the public is envisaged by journalists and the role which journalists play in the public sphere. He discusses the liberal and communitarian framework but comes to the conclusion that neither offer a feasible conception of what the public is.
He proposes that one should draw on Habermas’s proceduralist-discursive notion of a “deliberating public”. Here, the primary responsibility of the journalist is to bring about engaged debates and discussion. Although this function of the journalist is a fairly mainstream concept, active audience participation is encouraged rather than sought out by the journalist in most mainstream media productions. The concept of the journalist embedding himself in a community while being active in creating platforms for debate and discussion was a new and different role which we had not previously seen as the role of a journalist. This function, thus, altered the ideas we had regarding the identity of a journalist and his/her objective stance in the production of news. Instead of being objective and unbiased, during the JDD and CMP course we were required to be professional journalists who were active participants collaborating with communities. In doing so, we engaged with a variety of different individuals in our predetermined communities finding ways in which to engage these citizens in debate and discussion on a variety of different platforms, for example, community meetings and focus group interviews. Haas (2007: 28) believes that by drawing on this model committed to “common deliberation” a genuine public comes into being”.
This genuine public comes about “when citizens subject their own opinions, and their underlying reasons for espousing those opinions, to rational-critical evaluation by others and, at the same time, subject the opinions of others, and their underlying reasons for espousing those opinions, to rational-critical evaluation”. (Haas. 2007: 28-29). At the start of this course we held a public meeting in which individuals were given the chance to voice their opinions about topics or issues which concerned them. In this way we were able to make an informed decision when it came to choosing a topic for our soundslide. We realized during this public meeting as well as by speaking to individuals from the area that RDP housing was a subject of great debate in Ward 5. From this debate at the public meeting, problems regarding the RDP housing in Ward 5, and in the Transit Camp specifically, were brought to our attention. Haas goes on to say that in a deliberating public the views of individuals should not be the only norm, but the insights of others should also be included and given the same weight or value as those of the journalist.
The role of the journalist in a deliberating public is to help to bring into being an “open-ended, unbounded public sphere to which all citizens have access and in which all topics of concern to citizens and all opinions available can be articulated, deliberated, and critiqued” (Haas. 2007: 29). This bottom-up approach also influences the identity and the role of a journalist. Instead of identifying ourselves as news providers who predominantly rely on authority voices and a top-down approach to news gathering and reporting, in this course we were encouraged to give all people an equal opportunity to voice their concerns. As a result, the professional role of the journalist was, again, altered and shaped by Haas’ Public Philosophy. Furthermore, whilst the role of the journalist is to help create this space for public deliberation, the journalist must also help to sustain this created space. During this course we created a public space where individuals were able to come and voice their opinions and views. Furthermore, the journalism productions which we created were produced in such a way that the story being told could be criticized, deliberated and talked about. To this end we held a focus group in which members of the community came together to watch and talk about the soundslide we created. Furthermore, other members in our group who were involved in the production of wall newspapers had a specific space in which community members could comment and provide them with feedback. This communication between communities and journalists is unlike mainstream approaches to media production. Instead of the identity of the journalist being shaped by the potential power he/she has to inform and educate a community, the community is also given some of that power and has an active role in public deliberation and the production of news. By bringing community members together and sparking debate, we have been able to not only create but also sustain a space where deliberation and debate could continue long after we have finished our project.
This created space becomes a place where public dialogue can take place, which every citizen has access to and can participate in (Haas. 2007: 29). During this course we found that this ideal was not fully attainable as there will always be individuals who will not have access to or the chance to participate in the dialogue opened in our productions. The ideal would have been to have had another public meeting where a greater number of individuals could interact and debate the problem of RDP housing in Ward 5. However due to logistical problems and time constraints, the ideal to engage an entire community is perhaps a little ambitious. However, in making our soundslide we have tried to incorporate and get the views of a wider community.
According to Carey (1997: 12) the function of journalism is to be the voice of the public and to assist the public to position itself in the world. Journalism therefore, creates a “public space” in which communication can take place. For our media production we were hoping to voice the plight of the people living in the Ward 5 Transit Camp. We wanted to use the soundslide as a means of shedding light on the situation and creating awareness with the powers that be. In the practice of our journalism in this course, however, we were met with unwilling and unhelpful individuals in the Municipality. Nevertheless, in talking to the Ward counsellor we were able to get his take on the situation and get the comments from an authority voice in the community.
When reporting on the problems, topics or issues brought to the fore in this deliberating public, journalists need to include a wide variety of voices in their reporting. They should also highlight the reasons why citizens are championing certain opinions. Even though the focus of our story was using one family's story, we utilised this family as a means of telling the story of a greater community as many of the people living in the Transit Camp live in small cramped dwellings.
What became clear whilst reading Haas was that journalists should involve “citizens in shaping a news agenda” (Haas. 2007: 31). In other words, journalists should not give up their authority but rather share that authority with citizens when setting up the news agenda. This idea challenges the traditional identity of the professional journalist in terms of the sources that one approaches, the power dynamics between the journalist and his/her sources and the newsworthiness of story ideas. Haas goes on to say that journalists should also promote a “form of public discourse that combines the strengths of face-to-face dialogue and mass-mediated deliberation” (Haas. 2007: 36). At our public meeting we opted to let the people of the community who know their issues and concerns voice them and, in so doing, create the news agenda. As a result, our story idea was determined by citizens who shaped the news agenda during our first public meeting. From this face-to-face dialogue we were able to produce mass media for the consumption and deliberation of an even greater public.
Christians et al. outlines four normative theories. Our own soundslide production is founded on the facilitative role which aligns with Haas’s public philosophy of public journalism as it speaks of a deliberative public and calls on the media to assist civil society. It “promote[s] the cultural conditions conducive to democratic life”. (Christians et al. 2009: 126) Here the media involve citizens and ask them to participate in the news making process. Christians articulates this saying that the media “promote[s] inclusiveness, pluralism, and collective purpose”. (Christians et al. 2009: 126) The facilitative role advocates citizens to take part “by way of debate and participation” and therefore lines up with the public philosophy of public journalism as defined by Haas (Christians et al. 2009: 126). Our public meeting, face-to-face interactions and focus group are a testament to this.
With regards to Christian et al.’s normative theories and our particular role throughout these two courses, it is clear that we have fallen into the facilitative role as we have collaborated with community members and have promoted deliberation and debate.
Our approach to this story was a combination of development journalism, public journalism and investigative journalism. We identified the community members of Wards 5 and 6 as our audience and our potential sources. They used the public meeting as a platform to provide us with concrete story ideas and raise issues and concerns of the community. In particular, through our soundslide we wanted to bring awareness to the issue of RDP housing and impact that this issue has had on the community members through our soundslide. With this purpose in mind, we hoped to focus on the individual over the collective and highlight the issues of the community by drawing on certain individuals through active participation and collaboration with the community. As a result we could possibly uncover wrongdoing or problems (and possible solutions) with current policy.
Although some of these ideas are mainstream practices of journalism, others are not. Using these unconventional ideas such as focusing on one particular family rather than the broad social problem, helped shape our story and made the RDP housing problem more personal which has been useful in getting the message of the community across. Thus, our ideas about the practice of professional journalism have changed because we have seen how successful alternative ideas could be in producing journalism for the JDD and CMP courses.
Our aim and objective for this story was to enhance democracy and development in Ward 5 as it raises an issue which not all of the community members fully understand. As a result, it could promote and strengthen a previously divided community (on this topic at least). It brings awareness to wrongdoing and might provide solutions to the community’s issues. For example, the project let the community know more about the committee which has been founded by individuals in the community in response to the poor delivery from the contractors and the government sectors involved in the RDP housing projects.
From Haas’ “public philosophy”, the normative theories of Christians et al. and other ideas raised throughout the JDD and CMP course, it is clear that the role of the journalist is more complex and multifaceted than one would think at first. Furthermore, this role influences and shapes the identity of the professional journalist. Our work during the JDD and CMP course has altered what it means for us to be a professional journalist or media worker. As a result, the way we go about conceptualising and generating story ideas, finding news, gathering information, speaking to sources and involving the community will in future be considered differently as a result of the ideas presented to us in the JDD and CMP courses. Our considerations about the treatment of stories and who we considered to be our target audience influenced the way in which we approached the story, the people we spoke to and the chosen language of our soundslide.