Daryl Ilbury

Archive for the ‘Eish!’ Category

Why context is still King Kong

In Eish!, media on May 26, 2016 at 11:18 am

Kong_oldWhen I was a journalism student, I embraced the mantra ‘content is king, context is King Kong’. This is especially the case in science journalism. Today, as I watch the world of the media mercilessly upended, the essence of context seems even more important, but for a reason possibly lost on many people.

‘Content is king, context is King Kong’ has several meanings – all connected:

  1. The accuracy of content only emerges when examined against the backdrop of the associated context;
  2. Whereas content may be powerful on its own, the significance only emerges when examined against the backdrop of the associated context; and,
  3. If you dig around in the context, you may find more stories.

In essence, it underscores the value of the journalist as a creative but disciplined storyteller, someone who sees the big picture and can therefore present a more comprehensive and accurate portrayal – something that is lost when compressed into a simple soundbite thoughtlessly shared by those not schooled in the rigours of the journalistic regimen.

However, it’s a mantra that’s sounding increasingly faint and anguished. In his excellent book Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News, Jeff Jarvis, head of Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York, paints an excruciatingly frank picture of an industry undergoing dramatic change. In brief, the era of vertically-structured powerful media organisations being the sole creators and gatekeepers of copyrighted content, is collapsing; the organisations desperately scrambling around in the debris for a viable business model.

Stepping in to take their place are myriads of smaller collectives, comprising former consumers hastily generating and sharing their own bite-sized content. Jarvis sees an opportunity for media organisations to tap into that content to learn more about their consumers so they can better serve them. ‘Serve’ is the key phrase here, because Jarvis insists that as content creators, media organisations separate themselves from the public while creating that content before making it public. If they are to survive, they need to adapt to providing a service that taps into, rather than competes with, those collectives.

However, I believe there is still a need for journalists to provide context, because without it these ‘new’ media generators and disseminators remain, to varying degrees, in what I call ‘content generation servitude’. Here I draw a distinction between content generation and content creation.

Let me explain through the example of a weather forecaster standing before a map of where you live, and telling you about the weather. You are interested in what the forecast is, so you can generate content, e.g. tweet, “Another sunny and warm day today!” You rely on the forecaster for you to generate that content. However, if the forecaster explains the context of her forecast – why the weather is going to be as it is – it can empower you. You begin to understand the bigger picture, and could get to a stage where you examine the local weather conditions – wind direction, air moisture content, barometric pressure – and forecast the weather yourself, and share that with others, with increasing authority and depth. Your content can become more creative.

Being able to fire off a tweet or share a story in a couple of lines may make you a content generator and disseminator, but it will keep you reliant on other people for content. Being able to see the big picture – knowing and understanding the forces at play – will help you be a better content creator, to tell a richer, more accurate, bigger and more powerful story.

And that’s why context is still King Kong.

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Let’s exorcise anonymity from social media

In Eish!, Fools, media on March 31, 2016 at 1:10 pm

freddy-krueger-vinyl-mask

‘CrispySkin69 has sent you a friend request’

It’s one of Shakespeare’s most enduring lines: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose”. Perhaps it’s time mainstream media did their best to exorcise unnecessary anonymity from social media.

I have a love-hate relationship with social media. I love the fact it’s encouraging change in the media landscape, but I hate that it’s driven by people generally unqualified to sit behind the wheel; especially mysterious people with unknown qualifications. In fact, I find that quite scary, because in the media a name is important.

This is especially so for a young journalist, because there’s no bigger thrill than when they first get their name in a byline – that part of an article that carries the name of the person by whom it was written.  It’s not a given for a journalist that every piece they write will automatically carry their name. That right has to be earned through an initiation of anonymity. 

They will have to bloody their notebooks, scribbling their way up through the ranks from, say, ‘staff reporter’ through being attached to a ‘beat’ such as ‘court reporter’, before finally cracking sufficient acknowledgement to be anointed with their own name in the byline.

It’s only at that stage that, it could be argued, they become recognised by their peers as qualified to carry the mantle ‘journalist’.

The name is important not only for the purposes of recognition, but also for accountability. For all the titles I wrote it was made clear that if my name was on the byline than I was accountable for what I wrote. It was the same when I was in radio – my name was on the show, so I was on my own. If someone took sufficient umbrage with what I said, legally the station would step back and let me take the fall.

Such is the responsibility for being a ‘name’ in the media.

But social media has changed all that. There seems to be the belief that anonymity goes hand in hand with ‘democratisation’, that not only is it permissible to opine without restraint, but that this should be done behind a curtain of secrecy. No names and clear head-and-shoulder shots on the byline taking full accountable credit for what was said; instead commentary should wear the scab of mysterious characters shielded by fictitious epithets and avatars.

And this is my beef: if you want to play the media game, you play by the rules; and one of those rules is the issue of accountability. If you want the credit for what you say, have the balls to attach your real name and image to it.

So what can the grown-ups of mainstream media do? Exorcise the anonymity. Don’t give credit where it’s not due. If you’re going to publish a comment or pull one off social media and put it on-air, online or in print, only choose those by people playing by the same rules as yourself. So you don’t quote ‘DragonMistress’ and ‘KnobHead69’; only real people. And you make this clear in your media guidelines. It should be carried above your comments section, on your website and mentioned on-air.

Anonymity has a place in social media: the damp and fetid dungeons of the dark web.

 

 

Another sad day for science journalism

In Eish!, Fools, media, Science, Uncategorized on March 30, 2016 at 11:47 am
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Where the nasty little fekkers like to play

I was recently faced with two events that animated the science journalist in me, opportunities to write compelling stories for the South African media consumer; but instead I chose to walk away. Actually I used another phrase; but more about that later.

The first was when I recently caught an Uber to the airport. I always make a point of chatting with the driver, and on this occasion he was a final year software development student. Interestingly, he had just won a competition to secure an internship with Google at their Googleplex HQ in Mountain View, California. He had designed a piece of software for the iOS platform that could help identify when people using a certain dating site were lying (“I’m an astronaut, nearly 2m tall and built like a Greek god”). My head almost exploded as the story started to scribble away amongst my synapses. In the 15 minutes it took to get to the airport I pommeled him with a barrage of questions.

He was generous with his answers and seemed genuinely excited that a journalist was interested in his story. Importantly for me, he was humble about his achievements. I started making a mental note of people to contact to verify and develop the story, how the narrative could be framed, what emotive triggers I could use to help the reader connect with it, etc. All I had to do was get his number and start with a proper interview over a cup of coffee. But I didn’t ask him for his number; instead I thought, “Nah, fuck it”.

The second was more recent. After my family (including our two dogs) were rendered ‘man-down’ with a rather virulent bout of gastric nastiness I suspected something was amiss, and interrogated a local pharmacist. If this was a bigger issue, there would be a run (‘scuse the pun) on diarrhoea and antispasmodic medication. She confirmed that suspicions were about that a pathogen – possibly an algal toxin – had found its way through Cape Town’s water-supply filtration mechanisms, and was running amok within the gastric passageways of the city’s citizens.

My mind started running like a fishing rod reel feverishly releasing line to a hooked marlin (I do so love my analogies). This was a big story. The implications, if the suspicions were true, were vast. Thousands of people – especially the elderly and very young – were at serious risk: diarrhoea can be a killer. I knew I’d have to contact the local health authorities, speak to a couple of specialists I had in my contacts list, and…then I thought, “Nah, fuck it”.

The unfortunate truth is that I have lost the promethean spark of science journalism that used to burn in my brain. The gradual evisceration of science coverage in the South African printed media*, which I have touched on previously, and which reached a nadir in September last year, has effectively extinguished any interest I have for contributing to the intellectual evolution of the South African media consumer. It seems the lifestyle choices of mindless celebrities and the self-serving machinations of political half-wits are their preferred fodder.

I know this is part of a bigger picture – the evisceration of highly skilled and experienced journalists from mainstream media; but where pseudoscience and misrepresentation of science is spreading like a virus through social media, there’s an urgent need for qualified science journalists to calm things down and provide evidential insight. I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

So, if such stories as the two I have mentioned here pop onto my radar in the near future, begging to be written and shared, unless there’s a sign mainstream media have changed their minds about science, I know what I’ll say to myself.

[*Before I left my position as Media Coordinator for SAASTA, I facilitated a meeting with Combined Artists (the producers of Carte Blanche), which is one of the reasons for the increased coverage of science on the programme. Most credit must go to them for grabbing the ball and running with it.]

Could a return to freeform radio be the answer?

In Eish!, Free-thinking, media on March 24, 2016 at 12:14 pm
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Legendary radio DJ Meg Griffin, from the documentary ‘I Am What I Play’

As radio stations battle an ever-crowded media space to remain relevant to an increasingly ‘connected’ media consumer, could an answer to their predicament lie in the return to an early concept of radio entertainment now considered ‘radical’?

It’s called ‘freeform radio’, and it’s a style of radio that recognises the host* as a music authority and therefore qualified to dictate the music content of the show. Importantly the music played is interlaced with speech that, together, provides the show with a narrative. This is critical, because without a narrative the show is simply a random collection of songs. The added advantage of a narrative is that it holds the attention of the listener, as any good story (and radio show) should.

Freeform radio was the foundation of today’s commercial radio. It started in the U.S. and parts of Europe in the late 1950s and early 60s, and typically featured radio DJs (as they were called then) playing singles and album tracks of their choice, and adopting the role of music authority. Importantly, they helped expand the music experience of their audiences.

Unfortunately many of these DJ’s became vulnerable to the approaches of record companies and their packed wallets. The resultant payola scandal in the U.S. devastated freeform radio in that country. Programming measures were put into place to wrest control of the music from the DJs. However, freeform radio did continue at certain stations, and their key hosts became ‘legends’ of the medium, mainly because they ‘bucked the system’. There’s a film out at the moment (but on limited release), titled ‘I Am What I Play‘, which salutes four of these legends and the importance of freeform radio.

The very idea of freeform radio is anathema to today’s radio industry, packed to the rafters as it is with hyper-formatted music stations, where presenters stray from the music scheduling at the risk of immediate suspension. However, this strict programming is now running the risk of becoming redundant. The core content – music – is now available and easily accessible elsewhere beyond competing terrestrial radio stations – think online radio stations, YouTube, Vimeo, SoundCloud, iPods and MP3 players, smartphones, etc. These can all provide expanded selections of music, mostly without advertising.

It’s a foolish programme director that thinks listeners still believe traditional radio presenters choose the music they play. Listeners are now shopping around, looking to have an experience with the music they consume, and the best way to do that is for them to believe there is a purpose behind every piece of music a radio host plays on his or her show.

I believe there’s an opportunity for the reintroduction of freeform radio. The question though is, do we have the radio talent with the discipline and authority to champion it?

*Although terms are often used interchangeably, generally a ‘host’ is normally someone who ‘anchors’ a ‘show’ (which has a defined structure); a ‘presenter’ is someone who provides links and content between scheduled songs on-air; and the term DJ is now more commonly used to refer to someone who plays (recorded) music in clubs.

The newsroom as an ER

In Eish!, media, Science on March 8, 2016 at 11:50 am
ER-TV-Series-Season-1---1-007

“Give it to me straight doc, where’s my final edit?”

To understand why the evisceration of newsrooms is dangerous for public health, it helps to think of a newsroom as a hospital’s ER.

Like an ER, a newsroom is staffed by specialists, it never sleeps, and its main function is the provision of critical, specialised services to the community it serves. This is as true for a small town newspaper as it is for a global brand such as The Financial Times. A newsroom’s role is to quickly analyse what comes in – information – assess its condition and then process it; in effect provide the information version of triage. Occasionally a dedicated team works together on a story that requires deeper investigation, because it is considered significant. This is the hospital equivalent of being bumped up to intensive care.

You may smile, but the analogy of an ER is realistic for two reasons:

  1. A newsroom performs a watchdog function; i.e. it protects the interests of the community it serves by investigating and exposing ill-practices by government and organisations that could harm the community; and,
  2. The people who do this are specially qualified, disciplined and experienced.

It’s the last point that’s so important, because without it the first point is moot. Without properly qualified, disciplined and experienced journalists in newsrooms, the result is the same as equipping an ER with people who only know how to apply plasters to paper cuts.

And yet that’s where we are. Social media – the so-called democratised media – has flooded the media space with people who are not qualified, disciplined or experienced enough to do the job of trained journalists. People with cellphones are opting themselves into an unaccountable corps of so-called ‘citizen journalists’. It’s like calling a chef a surgeon because she can hold a knife.

Creating and disseminating content may empower the former media consumer, but, power without responsibility and accountability invites either chaos or control, neither of which is in the best interests of communities. Journalists are schooled in the discipline of responsibility, around issues such as libel, the difference between reportage and opinion, and the inviolate status of sources.

As newsrooms bleed experienced journalists, they expose the communities they serve to all manner of hazards, too many and too serious for a layperson with a cellphone and a box of plasters.

There’s a new radio station in town, and it’s going to fail

In Eish!, media on March 4, 2016 at 8:36 am

radiomFirstly, forgive the hiatus in posting. I have been immersed in writing my next book, which is now finished and due out in July.

Now let’s talk radio. I think it’s fair to say that over the last decade no other industry in the world has been as disrupted as traditional media. For that you can thank two things: technology and social media. Technology has provided the tools to disintermediate traditional media organisations from their role of providing media content to consumers, and social media has further empowered those consumers, making them fellow media content creators and effectively competitors to traditional media organisations. Whereas printed newspapers are the most obvious victims, the vulture are circling over terrestrial radio.

So, it takes someone either very brave or very foolish to dip their toe into the traditional media space, especially radio.

This is why I was excited when I read back in 2014 that a new radio licence had been awarded in Cape Town, where I live. I immediately wanted to know who had the won the licence and what format they had proposed. The name Tony Sanderson popped up together with Cape Media and Sekunjalo Investments (part owners of Independent Media). I also noticed they had been awarded an AM licence, and the station was to be called ‘Magic’. But it was the format that surprised me: “mainly music”. Further digging around uncovered plans for a classic hits format. My heart sank. I had an idea what was coming.

Tony Sanderson is a highly experienced radio man and was a big name in the 1980s and 90s. But that was an unfortunate time for radio. Music programmers were taking centre stage in content creation, and on-air talent were being sidelined.  The key programming phrase was ‘more music, less talk’. Radio stations became beige wallpaper. When, as I predicted, the iPod revolutionised music content consumption, music radio stations found themselves lacking the creative on-air talent to engage with a listener who had all their favourite songs – without any ads – nestled in their pockets.

The arrival of social media empowered the listener further, and I saw how it was going to affect radio. In 2012 I told Omar Essack, then head of broadcasting for Kagiso Media, that radio stations would need to become social media hubs, recognising their listeners as fellow content creators, incorporating their presence and aggregating their content into programming. He agreed. He’s an industry visionary, so I wasn’t surprised.

Back in Cape Town, Magic 828 decided on a quiet launch in September 2015. I only found out early in 2016 they were on-air. I tuned in – I occasionally still to do, and almost immediately tune out again. It is a snapshot of 1980s/90s formatting of familiar songs delivered according to a strict ‘more music, less talk’ mantra. The station’s website – which should champion its programming and promotions – is almost sterile of active content (check out their photo galleries). The on-air talent, mainly seasoned radio people are delivering station-dictated content, with no little or no attempt to connect with, let alone include, the listener; and they believe playing Tina Turner’s ‘Simply the Best’ and then telling me it’s Tina Turner’s ‘Simply the Best’ is not insulting my intelligence. All this on a muffled AM signal. Opposition stations, including Smile 90.4 and Heart 104.9 are playing similar content but in ‘crystal clear’ FM stereo. If Magic is to differentiate it needs to be creative, adaptive and entrepreneurial. In their defence, they can be picked up on the TuneIn radio app.

According to industry news Sanderson is banking on DRM technology to produce a better quality signal; but that would require listeners forking out for DRM receivers. And they’re not cheap. My belief is that by the time that comes about, if it comes about, the station will be bleeding money. Let’s hope its owners* have deep pockets.

*This has been edited to reflect that Sekunjalo Investments is part of the Western Cape Black Media Consortium, which, together with Cape Media, owns Magic 828AM.

South Africa takes a further step back into darkness

In Eish!, Science, Scoundrels on September 17, 2015 at 12:02 pm

CandleWhat do the following have in common: cheese, butter, coffee and oral sex? If you’re a science journalist you’ll probably know. The answer: they’ve all been ‘linked’ to cancer. The word ‘link’ is contentious at best.

The list is by no means complete. It’s a long one and includes such gems as air fresheners, bras, hot dogs, talcum powder, and…well, Ross Pomeroy, the author the blog Real Clear Science, has attempted to track them all down.

I was reminded of this because of two recents events, coincidentally linked. The first was the Mail & Guardian’s decision to drop its science desk as part of a series of retrenchments in the face of a cashflow crisis. I learned about this – the day before it happened – when chatting with the title’s (now former) science editor, the award-winning journalist Sarah Wild. It couldn’t have come at a more absurd time – Sarah has just published a book that champions the work of South African scientists, expertly putting science into context for ordinary South Africans.

The second was a piece in the Daily Maverick by one of the few journalists still bothering with employing an investigative eye – Ivo Vegter.

Ivo’s point, and it’s an oft-ignored one, is that science doesn’t know everything (if it did it would stop), and that it’s not so much a repository for knowledge as a process for learning about our natural world. More importantly science acknowledges this (as opposed to religions that claim to know the absolute truth), and so it’s quite comfortable with making mistakes along the way – after all, as I’m sure your mother told you, ‘we learn by our mistakes’.

Now this wouldn’t be the problem if more people knew this when reading the paper or going online. Instead they’ll read a ‘science story’ and just believe it, because a) it’s in the news, and b), well, it’s science.

Editors know this, which is why they like ‘science stories’ that ‘link’ something everyone fears (cancer) with something that everyone consumes or does (coffee…sex…etc.). It’s also why science journalists – real science journalists, not inexperienced journalists given a science ‘beat’ – are sorely needed. They can expertly cut through the research clutter and correct the claims (the ‘links’) editors want to make. That’s how they get in the way of tabloid content dressed up as ‘science’, and why they’re often the first to go in any title’s shake-up.

But in South Africa there’s an added reason why science journalists are needed, but paradoxically not: We’re a nation that still believes in spirits, ‘throwing bones’ to diagnose maladies, and that a man who calls himself ‘Doctor’ can help you win the lottery while making your penis bigger. This would be quaint if it weren’t culturally protected under the title ‘traditional healing’. So any journalist that forces uncomfortable questions about the merits of cultural claims, is, in such a politically and culturally sensitive media environment, bound to get in the way.

The Mail & Guardian’s decision to drop the science desk – claiming the decision is a purely economic one – risks dragging the country deeper into ignorance; and that’s not only short-sighted, it’s wholly irresponsible.

Why the destruction of Palmyra is a good thing

In Eish!, Fools on September 2, 2015 at 1:36 pm

UNITAR-UNOSAT imagery shows the Temple of Bel seen on August 27 (top) and rubble seen at the temple's location on August 31 (below) [AFP]

UNITAR-UNOSAT imagery shows (top) the Temple of Bel seen on August 27 and (below) rubble seen at the temple’s location on August 31 [AFP]

OK…it’s not, unless you see the more uncomfortable big picture.

According to the Wall Street Journal, satellite images released Monday by the United Nations confirmed that the main building of the 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel in Syria, one of the Middle East’s most important archaeological sites, has been destroyed by ISIS.

[If you’re going get editorially anal about the current name this terrorist organisation calls itself, believe me when I say I don’t give a fuck – I’m certainly not going to agonise over it].

Like many leading titles, the WSJ has been rather breathless (in it’s own way) about the destruction of the temple’s iconic main building; suggesting in no uncertain way it’s a bad thing.

I think otherwise.

Firstly let me underline something in case it’s not already clear: As a freethinker I object to oppressive ideologies dressed up in the guise of ‘religion’, and so I certainly have no sympathy for the cause of religious extremists. Does this mean I’m expected to add to the clamour of objection to ISIS’s destroying of a culturally treasured building?

No, I see it more as an opportunity for us to step in to the arena they have cleared and debate the merits of ideological justification. Sometimes it takes something this unsparing to expose hypocrisy.

According to Hassan Hassan, a Middle East analyst and co-author of the book “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror,” ISIS see what they’re doing as erasing signs and artifacts that represent ideas outside their strict interpretation of Islam. If that is the case then it’s justified – it’s justified through the lens of their ideology.

And there’s the rub – if we condemn them for something their ideology deems right, should we not do the same for other oppressive ideologies that consider their destructive behaviour justified? If someone claims what they do, or what they believe in, is legitimate – irrespective of how it impacts others – because it’s their religion, should we not challenge it?

For example, if a Kentucky state town clerk refuses to issue a marriage licence to a gay couple  because through the lens of her religion to do so would erase the ‘sanctity of marriage’, should we not challenge her?

If a father allows a knife to be taken to his newborn son or preteen daughter, despite their rights not to be violated, because through the lens of his ideology cutting around his child’s genitals is deemed necessary, should we not object?

And yet if we do, they’ll kick up a fuss and claim their beliefs are inviolable; more importantly others will rush to defend them.

And that’s when I smile, because you can’t condemn the destructive beliefs of one religion and claim persecution when someone challenges yours.

And if that makes you uncomfortable, then it’s a good thing.

TRUE freedom of expression – not a reality on SA radio

In Eish!, Free-thinking on August 26, 2015 at 9:06 am
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Thinking carefully before opening mouth

The question I am most often asked is, “Why did you leave?” It seems it’s still something of a mystery why I just ‘walked away’ from a highly successful career in breakfast radio. The ‘successful’ part is true – by the time I left East Coast Radio at the end of August 2009, my show delivered the bulk of the station’s 2 million listeners (the highest ever), helping make it the biggest English-medium independent radio station in Southern Africa.

It’s the ‘career’ bit that was a little wonky. The reality is I didn’t see a future in an industry threatened by the suppression of the freedom of expression.

Now that may surprise those who believe South Africa’s constitution champions the freedom of expression. It does, it’s just its citizens that don’t; they believe rather in what Mick Hume, in his brilliant book Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech, calls “freedom of expression, but…”. In short: a freedom of expression, but with restrictions. So, in effect, not free.

Case in point: Last month the Acting SRC President (of the Vacation Committee) at the University of Cape Town (UCT) made some disparaging remarks about gays on her Facebook page. In reaction to the US Supreme Court ruling that same-sex marriages be legalised, Ms Zizipho Pae posted the following: “We are institutionalising and normalising sin! Sin. May God have mercy on us.” I found her comments puerile, her sentiments towards gays archaic, and her invoking of a deity pathetic, but I respected her right to say what she felt. I also knew exactly what was going to happen next.

Sure enough, a Twitter-storm erupted, which was good; again – freedom of expression. Ms Pae was pilloried for being homophobic (arguably true), out of touch with the university’s policies around discrimination (debatable – she wasn’t discriminating against anyone), or engaging in hate speech (inciting violence? I don’t think so). Ms Pae would’ve received a brutal reality check; and things should have stopped there. But she was then kicked out of the SRC. Why? Because they found her comments offensive?

Tough! Because that’s her right, just as it was the right of others to challenge her.

That’s what most people seem to forget about the freedom of expression. Because opinions are diverse, expressing them invariably means crossing paths with people who think differently, even running the risk of offending them. So saying something that others may find offensive is interwoven with the freedom to express oneself. This is democracy in action.

Ms Pae’s case reminded me of my own brush with public rancour in February 2003. Sri Lanka had just knocked South Africa out of the Cricket World Cup in a controversial, rain-shortened match in my home town of Durban. In a misplaced act of national pride I went on-air the next day and made disparaging remarks about the Sri Lankan teams’ names and the size of the manhoods. In retrospect it was infantile and not my style of broadcasting at all. One of the listeners who phoned in hit the nail on the head; he said I had ‘crossed the line’. Worryingly, I was widely misquoted by people who never even heard the broadcast; and that did a lot of damage.

The fallout did me the world of good though: it pegged me down a notch or two, and I was genuinely distressed that I had clearly upset a lot of people. In the station’s defence they took me off-air until things died down, then put me back again, acknowledging, as the BCCSA later found, that I was simply exercising my freedom of expression. I saw out the end of my contract, went on a sabbatical, started focusing on my writing, and spent a couple of years in talk radio.

I returned to East Coast Radio in 2006, leaner, meaner and a lot more mature; but by the latter part of 2009 I was acutely aware that the radio industry was about to undergo fundamental change, forced by the growing empowerment of the media consumer through social media. I knew that if it were to survive, radio would have to engage directly with its listener; meaning more talk.

I was prepared for that, in fact I was looking forward to it, but I knew that in an immature democracy where everyone seems to lay claim to the status of ‘victim’ based on their race, religion, sexual orientation, culture, or whatever, South African listeners were not prepared to embrace true freedom of expression.

And I didn’t want to be part of that.

The irresponsibility of media framing around race

In Eish!, Scoundrels on August 12, 2015 at 11:29 am

Militarised policeIs highlighting race in the recent emotionally charged, media-covered riots and arrests in the U.S. newsworthy? The media would have you think so…and that’s highly irresponsible.

I have been following, with more than a little disquiet, how the media, especially in the U.S. frame recent events where police officers have been involved in what developed into high-profile engagements. Examples are the shooting of 18 year-old Tyrone Harris following protests commemorating the death of Michael Brown; the arrest of Sandra Bland, who was later found hanged in her cell; and the shooting of Walter Scott.

In each case, attention is drawn to the race of either the officer, the victim, or both; which is necessary, right? The answer is no, because it’s not necessary for reporting purposes. However, it is necessary if you want to frame the story for maximum impact.

I have been framing media content across different media platforms for over almost 30 years. There’s a secret to doing so successfully, and it’s the key message whenever I train media professionals: get a reaction. That’s because when your audience react they engage, and when they engage, you have a window of opportunity to develop a relationship with them; i.e. encourage their involvement, connect with advertisers, etc. If the audience is not reacting, the content is passing them by. And that’s not good, especially – and this is important – in an era where mainstream media is under pressure from social media.

Getting a reaction is easy – swear on air, show a naked picture on the front cover, and you’ll get a reaction – but there’s a more challenging caveat in mainstream media: you have to do so responsibly, intelligently and, if you’re very good, subtly.

And there’s that word: subtly. In the coverage of the stories listed above, the subtle subtext is the following: this is all about race, people.

Except it’s not. Police officers arrest people (if they started arresting animals, that would be newsworthy). White police officers arrest people who happen to be black. They also arrest people who happen to be white (and hispanic, Indian, Asian, etc.) Black police officers arrest people who happen to be black. They also arrest people who happen to be white.

Importantly, in the U.S. police mainly arrest white people. According to the FBI, in 2012, 69.3 percent of all individuals arrested were white, 28.1 percent were black, and 2.6 percent were of other races; white individuals were also arrested more often for violent crimes than individuals of any other race.

However, the media would have you believe otherwise – that white police officers target black people for arrest, often forcibly, and that this is part of a larger issue – hence the subtle – but purposeful – framing by referring to race whenever a suitable occasion presents itself. This, the media knows, will get a reaction; and in an era of active social media that can quickly whip up often violent sentiment, that is irresponsible.