Daryl Ilbury

Posts Tagged ‘news’

The newsroom as an ER

In Eish!, media, Science on March 8, 2016 at 11:50 am

“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.

“What the f…, Daryl?”

In Eish!, Politics, Science, Scoundrels on April 23, 2014 at 4:51 pm
Fodder for the South African media consumer. Image: The Guardian

Fodder for the South African media consumer. Image: The Guardian

It took a tweet from @ScienceWTF quoting British biophysicist and X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin to jolt me back to writing – that and a full six months in my current position as Media Coordinator at SAASTA. I have over that time come to realise that the only way to get more science into the public domain is not with a gentle nudge but with a silk-enrobed sledgehammer.

That may sound a little blunt, but in my travels across the country and in my interaction with South Africans – both creators and consumers of media content – I have noticed two things: the relative lack of imagination and maturity in the South African media landscape, and a lack of critical thinking in the typical South African media consumer.

I am not surprised given that I am intimately familiar with the editors’ mantra “our readers/listeners/viewers don’t have an appetite for science”. This is of course highly inaccurate because we are all voracious consumers of science (albeit largely unknowingly so). But more about that later.

So what does the average South African media consumer have an appetite for? If we are to judge by the content currently peddled by the conventional media, it’s the following: Oscar Pistorius, politics, crime and – trailing at the back somewhere – sport.

Let’s examine those one by one by asking a couple of basic questions about their relevance:

Oscar Pistorius

Who will be directly affected by the outcome of the Oscar Pistorius trial and therefore has a proper reason for following it? Outside of Pistorius and his family, the family of Reeva Steenkamp, and the prosecution and defence teams, few, if any. So why are so many people glued to it? For the same reason Romans used to pour into the Colosseum to watch Christians being eaten by lions. There’s a word for it: schadenfreude – and it represents a particularly nasty side of human nature. Therefore the deafening coverage of the trial in the media actually speaks unflattering and uncomfortable volumes about the (lack of) humanity of the South African media consumer. So therefore why cover the trial to such an extent?


Who is directly affected by the detailed coverage in the media of the actions (or more accurately inactions) of politicians? Outside of the politicians who rely on remaining in the public attention in order to remain relevant, few, if any. Unless, of course, by their actions (or inactions) being covered (uncovered?) in the media, they receive their justified comeuppance. However, in South Africa such accountability is virtually absent, otherwise half the players in politics would be in jail. So therefore why cover it to such an extent?


There’s no denying crime, especially violent crime, is rampant in South Africa; so much so that rape and murder hardly make the headlines any more. That’s a shocking state of affairs, but not so much as the fact that it’s not considered sufficiently so by the Government to warrant any decisive intervention (see point above on inaction). It’s fair to say the typical South African media consumer has become inured to reports of crime. So therefore why cover it to such an extent?


There’s also no denying that South Africans have a passion for sport, especially football (that’s real football by the way, where players actually put foot to ball, not American ‘football’, where they don’t). With so much passion, you’d think South Africans are good at playing the game; however, a quick glance at the FIFA rankings would show otherwise (hint: we’re buried on page 3). Granted, we are good at other sports, like rugby and cricket; but let’s face it, sport’s hardly a matter of life and death (and please don’t quote Bill Shankly is if to prove it is). So therefore why cover it to such an extent?

However, there isn’t a single element of our lives that isn’t examined by science – not one; and it’s usually with the purpose of improving our lives. Science isn’t 18th Century Greek architecture – the domain of specialists with niched scopes of interest! We consume it – it’s in the food we eat, in the technology we use, in the clothes we wear, in the natural and built environments in which we live, in the medicines we use, in the air we breathe, in the behaviour we display, in the way we think and in the way we move. We are also the very embodiment of science – in the chemistry of our blood and organs, in the physics of our limbs and in the electricity that courses through our brains; and we exist in a universe that is composed of the very same chemicals that are the building blocks of our bodies.

In short: science is the core of our very being.

The discipline of science also encourages critical thinking. Let’s not forget South Africa is a country where an ignorance of science is fuelling rampant levels of HIV infection, and where the belief in spirits and untested ‘traditional’ medicine is fuelling a plethora of miscreants offering everything from miracle cures to “bringing back lovers, lengthening penises and winning the lottery”. Don’t laugh – have you read your stars today? Do you really believe swirling balls of high density gas thousands of light years away move with the specific aim of determining when you should buy a lottery ticket? Of course not…and you don’t believe in fairies, either but you’d buy a lottery ticket and pray to some mythical god to help you win.

“Our readers/listeners/viewers don’t have an appetite for science”? What utter bollocks! They NEED science.