Thursday, October 7, 2010

Working for the Public good: Bradley Janssen and Chwayitisa Futshane

Over the last five weeks, Brad 'my partner in crime' and I, have been working inside the Ward 5 community in Grahamstown, putting our television story together about the efforts of the Community Police Forum to try and alleviate crime in the area. We wanted to produce a short television insert which would profile the CPF, looking at the problems that they face and how effective the team has been in their crime fighting crusade. To make this experience more interesting and engaging for our target audience, which is essentially the men and women who live in the community and are affected by the rising crime rate, as well as members of the Grahamstown police force, who would be imperative in providing assistance for this community based initiative, we decided to produce a piece that would border on tabloid journalism.

As student journalists we went in with our cameras, filming from inside the community, speaking to individuals who have been affected by crime as well members of the police forum who are in the fight against crime. This was part of the initial phase of our research. This was also our way of engaging the community in public journalism, which encourages citizens to come together and deliberate issues.

According to well known media theorist Tanni Haas, the idea of public journalism revolves around the notion of a deliberating public, which means creating some sort of public sphere where a number of citizens across all boards have the chance to come together and deliberate on issues. The function of journalists in this space, is to create an atmosphere conducive to this sort of deliberation as well as facilitating it so that all citizens have equal participation and the opportunity to formulate solutions for the common good. After these talks have taken place journalists should then align themselves with civic organisations so as to promote the idea of problem solving. For the community, this can either be through sorting the problems out themselves or seeking help from people who have the power and resources to do so. Crime in the area is rife and the police do not have the resources to attend to all the complaints and protect the people. Therefore, they call on citizens to try and get involved in helping the police. However, there are problems with this as many of the citizens do not know what the CPF is and how to contact them. Also we discovered that the police do not get themselves involved as much as they should and that members of the CPF do not have the necessary protective gear and training to be effective. Therefore, after interviewing the people of municipal ward 5 in Grahamstown we approached police to hear what they had to say about this issue and as of yet, we have had no response from them.

The first problem here with taking a public journalism stance on a matter is that we had a public meeting and we heard what the people have to say, but since we have had no response from authorities, we have been unable to include all the relevant sides of the story.
As journalists we were able to come to the conclusion that this was out of the community’s hands and needed to be taken to the proper authorities and as we mentioned, we were unable to get comments and suggestions from authorities. We even changed our angle and decided that instead of interrogating the police on the matter we would give them the final piece and get them to comment on the matter in a focus group manner, where we could also discuss possible resolutions to the problems facing the CPF. Unfortunately, despite all our efforts, the police have been unable to comment. The result is that, not speaking to the police has limited our success as public journalists.

Essentially one of the major requirements of public journalism is that the citizens set the agenda about the issues they deem relevant to them in their community, as such the community should be given the platform to design and produce their own stories in a citizen journalism initiative. This in itself was a major downfall as ordinary citizens do not necessarily have an adequate understanding of producing good journalistic stories that get to the heart of the issue. Another hurdle is that individual have their own very individual issues and as such their stories are very subjective dealing primarily with their own individualistic needs as opposed to Haas’s idea that the community’s problems as a whole should be taken into account and solutions to these problems should then be formulated.

The idea of public journalism is that the public gets involved in the stories that the media produces at a very hyper local foundation and during filming of this piece, much work was done to achieve this ideal. The CPF is a pertinent aspect of the community, especially considering the increasing amount of crime in the area and as such by giving them a platform through this work, where a number of problems and solutions were raised, much of the requirements of Public journalism were achieved. Another successful achievement is that the story we designed helped set up deliberation in the focus group as it ended off in a manner where people would think about what they had seen and also exposed many members of the community to the existence of a police forum in their area.

For me, the idea that journalists have a far bigger role to play in our society, than merely producing stories about events that have happened or will happened, forced me to re-evaluate my views on this profession. In as much as Public journalism appears to be a good concept, especially within a democratic country like South Africa, I personally struggled with the idea of intruding on people’s lives in our efforts to find stories at a very hyper local level, which would be relevant to the community itself. It initially felt like we were disturbing the status quo, stirring up trouble and uncovering problems that we knew we had no resources to resolve. I felt that we were entering people’s private spaces and leaving them with the hope that once ‘journalists’ had heard their problems, then they would be resolved. In the end however, I concluded that the point is not merely to get people’s stories, but to provide ordinary citizens with the platform to have their issues heard, to put a face to the housing, sewage or crime problems that plague so many communities in our country.

If one’s vote is their voice, then journalist’s task is to be the means through which such voices can be heard, so that these voices may reach the ears of the relevant authorities. A democracy means that all sectors of the state need to work together to achieve the goals of equality and human rights for the people, but there needs to be some way to facilitate this relationship and that for me is the task that journalists also need to set themselves. In terms of how the concept of public journalism has affected our identities as journalists, Brad also has his own views.
Brad: I think the ideas proposed in the course have a lot of relevance and need to be implemented in today’s world. However, it has also shown me that as a community journalist in Grahamstown, producing quality media is difficult. This is mainly due to the language and cultural barrier where during production I found myself less involved then what I would like to be in terms of interviewing people and just having general conversations. I felt that I could never get to the root of the problem and forward my views because of these issues. On the other end, working in this course has shown me the critical link that journalism can make between the public and the authorities. This is because as journalists we can produce media at a hyper-local level and then inform the authorities about it, therefore, making the crucial link between the community and the people in power.

Since we have been unsuccessful in making this link it has shown me that there is an even greater gap between the community and authorities that seems impossible to resolve. This is where the hyper local community and public journalism becomes important. It also showed that the authorities do not take us seriously as seen in a meeting where the municipal manager was meant to be show-cased a number of media outputs. With the municipality refusing to watch and become involved in what we produced it shows an even bigger and scarier gap between the community and authorities. We as journalists studying at an academic institution hold more authority than people in the communities and when we try and expose the issues and have people with power turn their backs, it basically sums up the problems that need to be addressed.

After weeks of hard work, this is the video we completed.

1 comment:

  1. The CPF is not only a matter for the ‘proper authorities’. Wasn’t the aim of your piece also to create public awareness of the CPF and to get the people of the ward to collaborate with and support the CPF?
    Good discussion of the limits of success of your project and limits of public journalism when authorities will not engage with journalists.
    Well structured. Good start with your own journalism to lead into the theory.
    Does public journalism say citizens should ‘design and produce their own stories’? Honest description of how own identity had been affected.