SABC: Marikana and the problem of pack journalism

Please visit the SABC site to see the pie chart that was published with this important story.

Marikana and the problem of pack journalism

The televised images of armed miners rushing towards the police in Marikana on the 16th August, and the police opening fire on the miners, will haunt South Africans for many years to come.

Reporting from behind the police line in relative safety, journalists presented to the world images that on the surface of things vindicated the police’s view of events, namely that they shot in self-defence.But subsequent academic, journalistic and eyewitness accounts have called this narrative into question, with evidence having emerged of a second ‘kill site’ where miners were allegedly killed in a far more premeditated fashion by the police.

Journalists were not present at this site. This alternative narrative emerged after miners were interviewed by the University of Johannesburg and subsequently by the Daily Maverick. Up to that point, journalists had completely missed this alternative account.

Hopefully, the truth will emerge from the Farlam Commission of Enquiry. But how did the media fare in reporting on the massacre, and how has it assisted the public to build their own understanding of what happened and its significance?. Why did journalists miss such a crucial dimension of the Marikana story, which called into question very fundamentally the official version of events?

In an initial attempt to answer this question, a representative sample of printed newspaper articles provided by News Monitor via Media Tenor, for the dates 13 – 22 August were analysed for their sources of information: 153 articles in total.

Most miners were interviewed in relation to the stories alleging that the miners had used muti to defend themselves against the police’s bullets, as well as the miners’ working and living conditions.

The source analysis included people and organisations who were quoted directly, or who clearly provided information that formed part of the basis of the article (such as Lonmin annual reports or a report released shortly before the massacre by the Benchmarks Foundation). Many articles had several sources.

Of the 3 percent of miners who were interviewed independently of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), only one worker was quoted speaking about what actually happened during the massacre, and he said the police shot first. Most miners were interviewed in relation to the stories alleging that the miners had used muti to defend themselves against the police’s bullets, as well as the miners’ working and living conditions.

So in other words, of all 153 articles, only one showed any attempt by a journalist to obtain an account from a worker about their version of events. There is scant evidence of journalists having asked the miners the simplest and most basic of questions, namely ‘what happened’?

A more comprehensive analysis of the media coverage over this period is being planned, but so far, it appears that it was only after the Maverick coverage that many journalists realised that the miners actually had a story to tell, independently of the unions or any other organised formation. Journalists seemed to assume that by having interviewed the unions, they had somehow ‘covered’ the miners’ story; an incorrect assumption, as many miners who initiated and sustained the strike action did not feel represented by either union.

This initial sample of the press coverage during the week of the massacre raises some serious, unavoidable questions, about the state of South Africa journalism, which likes to portray itself as the watchdog of the powerful, and on behalf of the powerless.

However, the bureaucratic and social organisation of news in contemporary media organisations often leads to journalists prioritising the dominant groups in society. It is not coincidental that, apart from being a representation of journalistic sources, the pie chart also mirrors quite accurately where the power lies in society. Those with the most power and money have the biggest voice.

In fast-paced newsrooms, where journalists are required to meet more and more deadlines, it is tempting to rely on sources of information that are more readily obtainable and have been validated by other media, while avoiding sources that are less ‘trusted’ and require more validation. Known as ‘pack journalism’, these tendencies can give journalism a sameness that reduces diversity of voices.

The most easily validated sources are likely to be organisations with the resources to maintain a constant flow of information to the media, such as government agencies, big business and ‘think tanks’. Organisations or individuals representing working class or unemployed interests are likely to be less well resourced and lack the capacity to communicate proactively, which can lead to them dropping under the journalist’s radar.

Many media organisations have dedicated business reporters or even publications. Yet there are hardly any labour reporters anymore; this beat has practically disappeared from newsrooms, which makes it even more likely that workers’ perspectives will be sidelined.

Journalists pride themselves on their independence. Yet if the first week of reporting on the Marikana conflict is anything to go by, many journalists allowed themselves to become mouthpieces of the rich and powerful, reproducing the official versions of events, and silencing the voices of the workers as rational, thinking beings with their own stories to tell.

Such reporting is an indictment on journalism and all that it stands for. It does not help society understand the scale of the social unrest gripping the country, the levels of police violence in response, and overall, the extent of the drift towards outright state repression. A society can ill-afford to sleepwalk through a period in history when it risks collapsing under the weight of its own internal contradictions.

When the Daily Maverick’s Greg Marinovich was interviewed about his stories on the massacre, he was asked what advice he would give to journalists to improve their reporting, and his response was simply to ‘…go take peoples’ stories’. If journalists are to rise to the task of reflecting accurately the most troubled period in South Africa’s post-apartheid history, then journalists should take this advice seriously. If they do not, then they will continue to fail South Africa.