Broader education on media policy needed for student and working journalists to unlock ethical practice: the South African experience

In South Africa, media law and ethics education for journalists is lacking, as is ethical media practice.

In South Africa, media law and ethics education for journalists is lacking, as is ethical media practice. This is a finding of an extensive review of media practice. In this article, using South Africa as a case study, I argue for the necessity of educating journalists not only on ethical codes, but also on the consequences of poor ethical practice on the entire news media ecosystem.

In this text, I refer to two crucial reports published in 2021. The first is the African Media Barometer (AMB) report for South Africa. The second is the Inquiry into Media Ethics and Credibility, an independent report commissioned by the South African National Editors' Forum (SANEF) and written by Judge Kathleen Satchwell and two experienced journalists. If these two reports are read together, some patterns emerge. Largely, these patterns show the need for an ecosystemic approach to thinking about media freedom and ethics as interlinked.

By ecosystemic approach, I refer to how ethical lapses and mistakes pose risks for the entire media environment and the sector, rather than only impacting one person or one outlet. As an analogy, water carves its way into rocks over time.  One drop makes little difference, but more over time erode the rock.  In a similar way, ethical lapses and mistakes work their way over time to erode the media policy environment that journalists rely on to operate.

Yet, this is seemingly not how journalists and editors experience the decisions they take in terms of ethical practice. Rather ethical practice is viewed as an individual or market-based choice motivated by personal or corporate enrichment. The risks of mistakes and ethical lapses are not considered to impact the sector as a whole but rather individual and publication credibility or finances.

Ethical journalism is difficult; journalists must check and recheck their facts and not rely on already published news or press releases. In the words of the South African press code:1

The media exist to serve society. Their freedom provides for independent scrutiny of the forces that shape society, and is essential to realising the promise of democracy. It enables citizens to make informed judgments on the issues of the day, a role whose centrality is recognised in the South African Constitution.

Ethical journalism ensures that people have accurate, balanced and credible information that does not cause to, or perpetuate harm on individuals or groups. It is a media culture with accountability and transparency. It is the basis of democratic decision-making and should protect and promote human rights.

Why are South African editors concerned about ethical decision-making? According to SANEF's press release on the media ethics inquiry:

The Inquiry was proactively set up following the events surrounding the publication and subsequent retraction of a series of stories by the Sunday Times between 2011 and 2016, and public debates about reporting and processes followed in newsrooms across the country. The terms of reference of the inquiry were to look at possibilities of ethical lapses within the industry and to find solutions to enhance quality, ethical journalism.2

The 2021 AMB for South Africa3 and the Inquiry into Media Ethics and Credibility make for interesting side-by-side reading as both provide much-needed context to the South African media. They also point towards the fallibility of ethical decision-making by South African journalists, who are overworked and underpaid due to the sharp reduction in the number of newsroom staff. Both reports quote the Wits University State of the Newsroom report of 2018 that the 10,000 journalism professionals in 2008 have been halved due to retrenchments and centralisation. Note that this was before Covid-19 when many print publications became digital only.

Not only has the number of journalists lessened, but the eleven-year review of patterns in the media notes that:

In countries such as South Africa, junior journalists are preferred in place of experienced ones to cut costs, lowering the quality of content.

Several ethical lapses prompted the commissioning of the SANEF report, which was only published in late 2021 and is therefore unfortunately not referenced in the AMB report.

The threat of these lapses is that they serve to undermine the entire media policy ecosystem expressed in the methodology of the AMB which measures for all countries:

1. Freedom of expression, including freedom of the media, is effectively protected and promoted.

2. The media landscape, including new media, is characterised by diversity, independence and sustainability.

3. Broadcasting regulation is transparent and independent; the State broadcaster is transformed into a truly public broadcaster.

4. The media practise high levels of professional standards.4

Ethical media is rooted in media policy and the institutions they create. South Africa uses an independent co-regulatory5 model for print and electronic media. This is a form of regulation where members of the public and media practitioners get together to hear complaints from the public on news media stories based on a code of conduct that most media in South Africa have agreed to.

Ethical lapses or mistakes leave gaps for powerful government and private actors to undermine the media policy ecosystem. Should media distort facts or otherwise get them wrong, there are likely to be calls for tighter controls on media through increased statutory regulation (regulation enforced by law). This lessens the scope for independent- or self-regulation (regulation by a third, independent party or regulation by media players themselves).

Good media policy is not developed in a vacuum, as the Inquiry into Media Ethics and Credibility notes:

The news media in South Africa emerged as a product of our long history of colonial imperial conquest and the relatively short period of apartheid capitalism. Print media and subsequently radio and television have developed within an environment of constant tension between political control and struggles for freedom of expression and of the media. Those tensions and struggles continue today and remain the context within which the South African media is situated.6

Civil society organisations and journalists got together to ensure that media freedom was central to the statutory framework in South Africa. This process is ongoing as new threats arise and civil society organisations like Media Monitoring Africa, the SOS Coalition, SANEF, the Press Council, the Association for Independent Publishers and others continue to defend media freedom.

However, the digitisation of news sources and the decline of revenues from advertising has led to a sharp decline in the numbers of newsroom staffers and the appointment of more junior journalists.  These ongoing challenges to the sustainability of media mean that many journalists now in newsrooms are unaware of the need to defend the media policy framework that was so hard won.

This is not a South African problem. The Namibia Media Trust created the Teaching Media Policy in Africa: Handbook for Journalism Educators to better prepare journalists for their careers by developing a thorough understanding of the media policy ecosystem7. This handbook is based on the long-running course on media policy, until recently on EdX and was inspired by the late media activist Jeanette Minnie.

Why should journalists be trained in media policy instead of the general approach of teaching them media law and ethics? The answer is because ethical decisions are not made in a vacuum, and they can potentially undermine the entire policy sphere. Whether ethical standards are dropped unintentionally or on purpose, they impact various factors in the ecosystem.

Firstly, mistakes and lapses increase public distrust of the media. This directly impacts the sector's ability to be self-sustainable and increases the concentration of media ownership, as it is cheaper to mass-produce news for various titles. Increased concentration tends to reduce news media audiences further as the news created does not speak to growing parts of the population. This has been seen in South Africa as most news media speaks to a middle-class urban population, not the majority.

Secondly, while powerful people may always try to suppress a news media that contradicts narratives they would like to spin, mistakes and lapses give government authorities the ammunition they need to push legislation through.

Yet, in journalism schools, students learn that ethical decision-making and media law are individual decisions. Sure, the company lawyers may need to be consulted to ensure that lawsuits are less likely to arise, but it is the media company on whose behalf the decision is made. Individual journalists are not taught about the ecosystemic consequences that individual decisions can have.

Likewise, internal training as per the AMB for South Africa does happen:

Media houses generally have internal codes of conduct, and there are also regular training sessions at some media houses on media law and ethical principles.

Such training is likely to focus on the Press Code and some laws, but may not provide the depth needed to understand the impact individual decisions about ethical conduct can have on the overall ecosystem. If the training were effective, journalists would see themselves as parts of the larger environment. This would lead to better ethical practice and would change the newsroom-level discourse around ethics.

Unfortunately, current approaches to educating journalists about ethics give the impression that journalistic ethics is an individual decision.

There is a definite need for both student and working journalists to understand the precarity of the ecosystem that allows for the production of news. This can be done through an understanding of all the elements of media policy, embedded in the country's international commitments through their signing on to United Nations and regional body treaties. These treaties should be reflected in media law and regulatory frameworks within the country, which should acknowledge the media's role in informing the public. While civil society organisations constantly lobby for this, they need the partnership of media to likewise act in the best interests of citizens through maintaining good ethical practices.  Without this, civil society’s arguments for a free and independent media are undercut. Simultaneously, powerful people who wish to have their misdeeds hidden have more basis to lobby for increased media controls.

The choice to be ethical – to vet press releases and have multiple sources, confirm facts before publishing, and refuse payment for stories – may seem like a personal decision, but it has far-reaching implications which can affect media freedom and freedom of expression.

Media freedom is under threat in South Africa, and all media practitioners should be aware of practices that can undermine it. The NMT Media Policy Handbook for Educators and the principles therein are crucial for the South African media sector to ensure that all journalists know the consequences of their actions. Media freedom is never a given. It must be constantly fought for.

1 Press Council of South Africa (no date) The Press Code. Available at: https://www.presscouncil.org.za/ContentPage?code=PRESSCODEENGLISH (Accessed: 11 April 2023).

2 SANEF. (2021) ‘SANEF welcomes launch of Media Ethics and Credibility Report’, 18 January. Available at: https://sanef.org.za/sanef-welcomes-launch-of-media-ethics-and-credibility-report/ (Accessed: 4 April 2023)

3fesmedia Africa (2021) African Media Barometer: South Africa 2021. Windhoek: fesmedia Africa. Available at: https://fesmedia-africa.fes.de/news/south-african-african-media-barometer-2021 (Accessed: 4 April 2023).

4 Santos, P. (2021) African Media Barometer: An Analysis of Trends in AMBs for 28 Countries over 11 Years. Windhoek: fesmedia Africa. Available at: https://library.fes.de/pdf-files/bueros/africa-media/19711.pdf (Accessed: 4 April 2023).

5 Press Council of South Africa (no date) The Press Ombudsman, Press Council of South Africa. Available at: https://presscouncil.org.za/ (Accessed: 6 April 2023).

6 Satchwell, K., Bikitsha, N. and Mkhondo, R. (2021) Inquiry into Media Credibility and Ethics. Available at: https://sanef.org.za/programmes/media-ethics-and-credibility-inquiry/ (Accessed: 4 April 2023).

7 NMT (2021) Resources, Namibia Media Trust. Available at: https://www.nmt.africa (Accessed: 6 April 2023).

The views expressed and conclusions made in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of fesmedia Africa, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), or the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA).

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