Thursday, October 7, 2010

Reflections on Public journalism : Andiswa Leve and Kyle Robinson

Haas states that public journalism should revolve around the idea of a deliberating public, as first announced by Haberman (2007). What the idea of a deliberating public argues that all citizens share the obligation to be involved in a public deliberation. The role of the journalist is then that of creating and sustaining a public sphere that is accessible to all citizens. In this public sphere of deliberation, it is the journalists’ role to point out and specify the views that could potentially exclude other citizens from having an equal opportunity to participate in the public deliberation process. To do this journalists have to be open and honest with the public and thus they must disclose their agenda and promote a dialectic relationship.

In terms of our own CMP work, we as a collective and then as a pair have worked in the same light that the public journalism philosophy states. From the initial stage of holding a meeting, which was where we facilitated the public sphere and where the different members of the community came to express their views and concerns. Advocates of public journalism state journalists should be involved in the “processes”, rather than the “outcomes” of citizen’s efforts (Haas, 2007: 44). Haas states that it’s up to the journalist to decide what is the best course of action to achieve change in the community, if that means allowing the community to solve their own problems or having municipality or government to step in. Journalists must act in what they perceive to be in the best public interest. Thus, we knew we had to find a way that could best solve this particular community’s problems.

The main goal of our project was to experiment with new forms of journalism that would better serve the community. We wanted to stray as far as possible from the “conventional” television documentary, and produce something that did not rest on a top-down approach between the journalist and the community. This needed to come straight from the citizens themselves, with as little interference from the journalists as possible. This is in accordance with Haas, who states that that journalists need to engage citizens as “active partners” to determine news. For the most part the problems faced by members of our ward 6, were problems that needed intervention from decision makers. We hoped that something that seemed more authentic – more genuine to the community life that the journalist wouldn’t be familiar with – would have a stronger effect on the municipality or the decision-makers watching it. We also wanted to empower the citizens, to make them feel that they own their story, and they could tell it however they chose. We, as journalists, were only going to provide the vehicle for them to tell their story.

This course has altered our identity and perceptions on journalism as a whole. In our first two years of study, we learnt what we perceived as the sole conventions of journalism. The places we retrieved our stories, the types of stories we wrote or produced, and the way in which we presented them, all were part of a singular, universal journalistic code. This term we were given the opportunity to digress from that code. We decided to try something different, to approach stories differently. We were unconventional, but without losing our foundation as professional journalists. It showed us that different types of journalism can be achieve positive outcomes. We felt that by getting down to grass-roots level and not coming in with a top-down approach, people in the township could be incredibly open and willing to participate. Yes, there is always a place for conventional mainstream documentary making. But this experience has taught us that there are other forms of documentary that might work better for the citizens, and these must always be considered.

It has altered what it means to be a journalist. It has made us feel more philanthropic about our work. This is because of the fact that we took that unconventional route. However, is the idea of a student journalist having an identity even a reality? Does it even exist? We experienced how difficult it was even to get in touch with the decision makers, even when following the correct channels, because they seemed to not take us seriously and our authority was undermined.

We set out to find individuals in ward 6 who felt strongly about an issue and had something they wanted to say – a story or message they wanted the municipality to hear. We wanted to give the citizens all the room they needed to tell their story. This meant giving them a small and easy-to-use handy-cam so that they could do their own filming if they wanted to. It also meant constantly talking to them, asking them what they wanted to come out in the story or emphasise. We hoped by the end the citizens would feel it was their story told by them – not their story told by us as journalists. We wanted to be reflective, we wanted to give a platform, we did not want to probe or construct things in the way that would suit us. For once we were not that concerned about how pretty the piece was but how well we have reflected the reality.

Nevertheless, we made sure we did not mould or shape the story to our liking, which is one of Haas’s criticisms when journalists come with their own agendas and assert themselves over the story. We had four stories, with no fancy TV documentary cuts or effects, that were simple and straight-forward and from the citizens themselves. We had intro and outro narration that explained to the audience that this is not the conventional TV documentary – that this is something more authentic and direct from the heart of the community. We felt that in this regard we achieved our objective of limiting the journalists’ influence over the output of the story. Yes, we did have editorial control and it was up to us to put the story together, but the message was not tailored in any way at all.

We have put a face to the faceless, given the voiceless a voice. Whether or not a change is going to happen is altogether a different question. This should not be the case but it is an unfortunate reality. We for instance have been given the run around by Ward councillors, and there is nothing more aggravating than having those people who should be held accountable, be unwilling to hear the plight and see the situations of their own people. Our work as a pair and a group has thus allowed a democratic process of freedom of expression to occur.

The target audience for this piece is the decision-makers in the municipality. The point of our documentary was to present them with an alternative form of journalism that would hopefully have a more powerful impact on them, because it is more direct from the citizens. There are no fancy edits. The citizens are looking straight at the camera speaking to the audience. The stories are simple, with one principle interview and then cut-aways to shots of the problem being discussed. Thus a “grassroots” feel to the documentary might cast the story in an authentic light and make it more compelling. The tension comes from the audience realising that these are individuals who must face these problems every day, and the plea being made to the municipality must be taken seriously.

The story was researched by driving into ward 6 and spending a couple of afternoons walking around and talking to people. We used participant observation and immersion as the principle techniques. We had to get a true sense of the area and who lives there. We were aided by citizen journalists from Grocott’s, who knew some of the locals we could speak to, as well as prevalent areas. Only be putting ourselves on the streets and talking to people could we recognise suitable characters.

We wanted to target those who are experiencing real and salient problems in this area that need to be addressed, but that who often don’t receive the due attention because of the other major issues in the entire township. The sources all experience different problems (from housing shortage to crime and unemployment). They all live in ward 6, and are not part of the “middle class”, or higher earners, that live in those areas. We also made sure to choose strong characters or personalities who conveyed themselves well on camera. Obviously, these were the only sources we used, and did get perspectives from the municipality or any “elites”. That is not the point of this story. It is only meant to give community members a voice.

The important aspect to this piece is that it not only aims to evoke a response from the municipality, but it also sets up a platform for other citizens to agree or disagree, and discuss their own problems. This piece is meant to be authentic to the community of ward 6, but do the other residents agree? Are there important elements in this portrayal that have been left out? Thus, the second part of this story is just as important as the first. We took a laptop and sat down residents to view the story and comment on it. Their reaction and opinion is also important, and the municipality needs to see this too. In this way, we have set up a platform for deliberation.

We attempted to work with decision makers but to no avail. In terms of other organisations, in the production process we were completely independent. Sometimes organisations have their own agenda’s and we wanted the initial stages of this process to be in our hands, where our facilitating role could be well done. Maybe aligning ourselves with a social organisation would have been beneficial just in terms of creating what could be a sustainable and long term relationship, but there is still time to do this. We did present news to make it more accessible and easy to engage in the issues. For instance, our group’s wall newspaper had a space for responses.

Christians outlines two roles for journalists that may pertain to the journalism we produced. The first is collaborative journalism (Christians et al 2009:127), where the media and the state have a mutual relationship. Developmental journalism asks for a facilitatory role, and there are similarities between collaborative and developmental journalism. However, the difference is that in the collaborative role the media may end up becoming the lap dog of the state. The state may take over or not allow there to be a democratic platform in the public sphere. The concepts are valid in SA but exercising them is a challenge because, as we have found, the municipality does not want to work with us. It seems as though there is now an antagonistic relationship between state officials and the media. Our ward councillors, for instance, did not want to meet with us and see what we have produced in order to work towards some changes that are much needed.

The next is the Radical role (2009) where the media’s role is to focus on exposing what is going wrong. It is where the journalist unveils the inequalities and abuses of power by those who make the decisions. Public journalism is not necessarily set out for this; there is more to it than that. We all are familiar with the lack of service delivery, the high corruption in this country etc. Thus this style would be appreciated and valid in South Africa. However being purely radical would not be a viable option. This is because, the people you are exposing, still have more power than you as a media practitioner. They are still the ones who have the means to bring changes, so the journalist should be tactful when being ‘radical’. What could result is that the journalist might end up shooting himself and the community in the foot, because the decision makers could then ignore the plight of the people all because the journalist exposed the misdemeanours.

Overall, this has been a rewarding experience. We set out to experiment with a form of public journalism and not stick to strict conventional norms. We found that there are still many avenues in TV journalism to be explored that may better serve the interests of the community.

1 comment:

  1. Clear statement of aims of public journalism. Good understanding of Haas and the journalist’s role. Good discussion of own choices in journalistic practice. Made original choices for narrative freshness. Good analysis of developmental vs radical journalism in SA.