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 na├»ve 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.

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