Start main page content

Stabilising the crumbling walls of the Fourth Estate

- Ufrieda Ho

Journalism as an institution is facing a bleak outlook. It needs to dig deep to find ways in which to pull itself out of the well.

Media and journalism | Curiosity 17: #Democracy ©

Journalism has been burnt by big tech, extractive owners and their gatekeepers, shifting revenue models and a falling out of love with its audiences. It’s left journalism singed and with dashed hopes of a phoenix-rising moment any time soon.

Bad news for journalism is also bad news for democracy. This is particularly true for South Africa, which faces elections at a pivotal moment in its 30-year recent history. At this point of deep reckoning, it leaves the two golden questions of journalism for journalism itself to answer – so what? And, what now?

Professor Glenda Daniels is Head of the Department of Media Studies. In 2012, she headed the first State of the Newsroom project, based at the Wits Centre for Journalism,. She says: “We are in a crisis; we have seen big tech dominate and gobble up all the profits with their global social media companies."

The promise of the internet resulting in more plurality of voices in society and as a leveller for the information agenda being hogged by traditional media channels didn't materialise.

Daniels says: “Sadly, mainstream legacy newspapers and the world of traditional journalism have been conflated with a misinformation and fake news era. What we have now is something quite chaotic in the media-scape.

"We've seen massive job losses and the loss of experience in newsrooms; a loss of sub-editors and fact checkers when we need more, not fewer of these skills."

Holding up society’s mirror

The role of a free media is to provide credible information and news, to be a reflection and record of society, to be a watchdog and to speak truth to power. In 2023, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, called freedom of the press the "foundation of democracy and justice - press freedom represents the very lifeblood of human rights."

Daniels says that journalism as a guardrail for democracy is being pushed to the limits in a dispirited and depleted media landscape, and that this is particularly significant in a year in which 64 countries are holding elections.

"The world seems split into binary opposition and democracy is being squeezed out. You see more authoritarianism and shrinking press freedom. Around the world journalists are being jailed, shot and killed. We see governments turning off the internet during elections, increased cyber bullying and cyber misogyny."

And in the end, it is the public that is failed. "Consumers of news suffer when journalism and journalists are no longer the conduits of reliable factual information and analysis. What we see today in traditional media is a lot of opinions which are not backed by facts that help the public make informed decisions about things like elections.

"Media think that people are not interested in the small person's point of view and struggles. But showing the struggles highlights what the powerful political elite is not doing. The media can be a lot more imaginative," she says.

A spark of hope

Daniels does see sparks of hope though in the strengthening of the idea of journalism as a public good. A shift from competitive and retail-based business models opens up opportunities for alternative funding, including through donors, philanthropy and reader subscriptions. 

Another positive is policy reform and legislation. Daniels is Secretary General of the South African National Editors’ Forum. She was part of a series of presentations to the Competition Commission that sought the imposition on tech giants such as Facebook and Google of a tax for using content and news produced by local media outlets which they had been reproducing for free on their platforms while earning ad revenue for every click.  Australia has successfully tested this model with their News Media Bargaining Code that came into effect in March 2021.

Revenue generated by such a tax, Daniels says, could be channelled into newsroom-based training for junior journalists, reversing sector job losses and improving low freelance rates. There is also a need to revive community-based media that in the past decade has shrunk from 586 titles to under 200.

Professor William Gumede of the Wits School of Governance is Executive Chairperson of the Democracy Works Foundation and former deputy editor of The Sowetan. In reimagining and innovating for journalism he says that there must be a reckoning of how journalism in a democratic era has been impacted under an ANC-led government. Gumede chaired the talks that led to the formation of the Multi-Party Charter, a coalition of opposition parties that will contest the May 2024 elections.

"We have seen a decline in the quality of leadership in South Africa and in Africa at a time when we have needed it most. The ANC since 1994 has also been hostile to media," says Gumede. He cites as an example the withdrawal of government advertising from newspapers critical of government and the refusal of successive presidents to take live questions during press conferences.

Vanity projects

Gumede says that another threat for democracy has been the purchase of media houses by those intent on using them for their own political agenda and bias. "Newspapers have being stripped and exist as vanity projects for owners. They have become part of corruption, capture and patronage," he says.

Gumede says that something like Norway's Media Ownership Act, which is meant to curtail political interference and propaganda through media channels could rein in this practice. The Act also sets up frameworks for fund disbursement to support media plurality and media freedom and Norway now ranks first in press freedom in the Reporters Without Borders index.

Gumede adds that another damning failure is that even after 30 years of democracy, South Africa has a weak mass reading culture. The consequence of this, he says, is an electorate less able to interrogate news or discern propaganda from credible information. He says: "Supporters of political parties that run on populist slogans and ideology imbibe these slogans as if they were a set of commandments."

The situation is bleak, Gumede concedes. But he still believes that journalists have a role to play as pillars for strong democracies, the so-called Fourth Estate. He adds that media will have to adapt and master new tech platforms in order to serve the broader interests of new generations of news consumers.

Fort mentality

Dr Dinesh Balliah, Director of the Wits Centre for Journalism believes that journalism must face up to some harsh realities. She says: "Journalists are holding on to an idea of journalists as the custodian of journalism; that they somehow hold the line. But it’s the people who will decide what journalism will be, not journalists."

Balliah says that once journalism and journalists become less tied to the idea that journalism is a vocation and an identity even, the industry has a chance to "break out of its fort mentality".

"When we can move away from these hard boundaries of what journalism is and what it is not, we can have a leaking in both directions that allows us to learn about the audiences that exist outside of the boundary and to learn what types of storytelling people want to access," she says, adding that traditional media could also have better insights into how social media achieves its audience reach and revenue streams.

In turn, Balliah says that a more welcoming space for content creators who do "information work" means that they can be more exposed to the incorporation into their work of the fundamentals of journalism, without necessarily having to be practising journalists. This is a way to push back against the tide of mis- and disinformation and for audiences to strengthen their critical discernment of content, she says.

Balliah acknowledges that it's a tough message that she brings to a deflated industry. There may be no phoenix rising soon, but gazing into the ashes won't help either.

The crisis of sustainability in the industry calls for this reality check and for a plan that is multipronged and pragmatic, she says.

"We are ultimately about the business of journalism. We have to attract the people, train them with the right skills and the ethics of journalism so that they can become journalists in the traditional sense, but also so that they can enter a wider range of professions. The more people who may not choose to work as journalists but who understand the fundamentals of journalism, the better it is for building strong democracies," she says.

  • Ufrieda Ho is a freelance writer.
  • This article first appeared in Curiosity, a research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office
  • Read more in the 17th issue, themed: #Democracy, we turn to our academics and professional staff for their research, perspectives and commentary on both the progress and shortcomings in our democracy, and democracies elsewhere.