The Journalism Development and Democracy course in the third year Rhodes Journalism syllabus is the brainchild of Rod Amner who, inspired by theorists such as Haas and Christians, set out a public journalism project for us. Separated into groups of roughly twenty students (from different journalistic specialisations like writing, design, photography, radio and TV) each group was given two Makana Municipality wards in which we had to practice methods of public journalism in order to discover the issues important to these wards. Our group Masithetheni (Let’s Talk) decided from the outset to embrace the project and really dedicate ourselves to it being a community strengthening project instead of just going into the wards finding stories and leaving.
The process of dealing with just two wards per group follows Haas’ idea of dividing both town and township into multiple domains in order to provide many spaces for people, who do not always have the same issues, to freely voice their opinions and concerns without fear. In our wards we hosted a community meeting in which the citizens of ward 5 and 6 directed the agenda. In other words we as student journalists did not go into the wards with preconceived ideas of what the residents of these wards problems would be. Instead we were there in a facilitative role to help the citizens’ form a deliberating sphere in which they felt comfortable to raise and discuss issues important to them. Thus we gained a better understanding of what the real issues in these communities are and we began laying groundwork for meaningful interaction between these citizens and us as journalists by using public journalism methods.
One of the concerns that was raised by the community in the meeting was that of the lack of recreational activities available to the youth in the area. A youth from ward 5 even went as far as to stand up and relay how the younger generation resort to joining gangs and participating in criminal activity when their options are limited. He offered details about how they, the youth, engage in these illicit activities as positive alternatives are not always available. Stemming from this concern and having in mind our goal to strength the community and help develop sustainable solutions we decided to pursue a soundslide story on the ward 6 Indoor Sports Centre.
We chose to focus on the Indoor Sports Centre which may seem contradictory in regard to the concerns that were presented in the meeting. However we felt that the sports centre, although not functioning to its full potential at the moment, it stands out as what could serve as a sustainable solution to the problem of the youth not having adequate activities. We produced a soundslide that will promote the development of the centre as well as highlighting the centre’s shortcomings. Our target audience for the soundslide was therefore potential sponsors and organisations that can work with the centre (or donate equipment etc). The target audience influenced the way in which we packaged the soundslide. The audio pieces that we selected leaned more towards illustrating the state of the centre, its potential and the need to maintain it. We chose what to retain and what to discard depending on how it would fit with the agenda of the piece. In short the goal of the piece was basically to show what the Indoor Sports Centre does and how it is a good thing for the community, but that in order for it to continue and more centres to open up further assistance is needed.
For the soundslide we spoke to the centre’s administrator Lennox Habana, sports coaches and local boxing coaches that train children at the centre. As well as interacting and chatting to many of the children that visit the centre on a daily basis after school. We spent many hours at the centre observing firsthand the potential that the centre has as a solution to the concern over the youth. We included mobilising information in the soundslide in the form of appeals to aid the centre as well as information on how to do so. These appeals came in the form of underlying the inadequacies of the centre and showing how if they are corrected the centre can act as a community solution.
We feel that in producing this soundslide we as media producers mostly took what Christians would refer to as a facilitative role in democracy. In other words we tried to improve the quality of public life for the communities of wards 5 and 6. We attempted to open up the public sphere to possible solutions, interaction and active participation by members of the community and outside forces like potential sponsors. In exposing the fact that the sports centre has not been maintained, which is the responsibility of the Parks and Recreation Department of the Makana Municipality, we have an element of the radical role in our approach to the soundslide. We chose not to focus heavily on the shortcomings of the municipality as this would detract from our role as facilitators. We made this decision as we felt the facilitative role would help more in our goal to enhance democracy and development in Grahamstown and particularly in wards 5 and 6. As a group we not only produced soundslides but also TV documentaries and wall newspapers in an attempt to engage audiences, strengthen the community and help them find solutions that can be sustained. Masithetheni as a whole made use of the facilitative role in democracy as we tried to provide spaces for public deliberation and problem solving.
The ideas and methods used in public journalism are different to that of traditional journalism which is what we have been taught since first year at Rhodes University. This course has impacted the way in which we view our identities as professionalising journalists or media producers as it has shown us that there are alternative ways to approach the task of creating awareness and spreading information. We have become aware that journalists in fact have a much larger role to play in democracy and development than just reporting on issues that they or the media institutions believe are newsworthy. The traditional journalistic methods of only reporting on stories that ticked certain news values are not the dominate features of story selection in public journalism. Public journalism instead helps people speak for themselves and really listens to what they have to say. This course as has changed what role we think the media should play in democracy. We believe that the media should take a more accountable and facilitative role in democracy. This has affected the type of journalism that we produce - and in our opinion, positively so.