Last year several requests came from two foreign media trainers to help them identify candidates for courses specializing in public health journalism (especially HIV/AIDS) that they intended to offer to journalists in the developing world. In both cases, my reply was that the handful of journalists who cover public health for public radio or various newspapers in South Africa had already been to courses that taught the science of HIV or explored how to “humanize” the AIDS epidemic. Unless the proposed training was going to offer something different, it would be a redundant exercise—at least in our country, where there has been no shortage of journalism institutes and nongovernmental organizations providing workshops and seminars on HIV/AIDS and coverage of the pandemic.
The plethora of courses on HIV/AIDS coverage is not to suggest that we, in the South African media, do not need to improve the way in which HIV/AIDS and other public health issues are covered. Far from it. Poor understanding of science and medicine among journalists has contributed to public confusion. Add to the mix unhealthy doses of AIDS denial, allegations of racism, the false dichotomy of treatment vs. nutrition, and the need for well-informed, contextualized reporting, and analysis is all the more acute.
But a handful of health reporters, however well trained, cannot alone address the shortcomings of newsrooms that don’t have dedicated health reporters nor influence the way in which political or economics reporters might understand or cover these issues.
Complex Journalism Issues
List the broader issues facing our society, and one quickly realizes that it is not just in the coverage of HIV/AIDS that the media is failing the public. The challenges confronting journalists in newsrooms in southern Africa are far more complex than can be addressed by preformulated courses based on external perceptions of what journalists in the developing world need.
In a survey of health coverage in print and radio in five African countries (Senegal, Cameroon, Kenya, Malawi and Botswana), the African Women’s Media Centre reports that while there was a high demand for quality health reporting and a healthy amount of selfcriticism among journalists, the desire for change was offset by a variety of factors that hamper the media, such as the pressure on state-owned media to toe a government line or the pressure on the commercial media to adjust their editorial content to keep advertisers and sponsors happy.
Profitability is a growing factor affecting how newsrooms function and the quality of news coverage. In the case of public broadcasters, the intention to “inform, educate and entertain” might be the stated mandate, but increasingly public broadcasters are under pressure to attract advertisers and audiences. In South Africa, the public broadcaster is as reliant on advertising as any of its commercial rivals. Quality program content on public radio that relies on research and time in the field to collect interviews and sounds is costly to produce. In the past two years, much of this kind of programming has been eliminated from the 16 public service radio channels making way for much cheaper program options such as phone-in talk radio.
Better training of journalists will not address such challenges that are management decisions but that contribute to a diminishing of the role of journalists and a shrinking space for informed public debate.
Bluntly put, our newsrooms are impoverished, and it will take much more than training courses to correct the situation. Beat reporters (with the exception of the political and economics desks) have all but disappeared. A handful of newsrooms retain a health reporter or an education reporter but, more likely than not, stories that require context and background are handled by a thinly stretched, revolving group of young reporters with minimum knowledge of the complexities of health or education policy and practice.
At a leading Johannesburg daily newspaper, the flagship in its group, the night editor can sometimes find himself with only two journalists to call upon to cover the news. Budgets for motor vehicles or drivers to take reporters into the field have shrunk, resulting in greater reliance on the telephone and Internet as principle sources of information. Such working conditions allow for little more than basic newsgathering in the quickest, cheapest way.
In these circumstances, it is unsurprising that “press release journalism” becomes commonplace as newsrooms simply react to events around them without exploring, probing and questioning.
Trainers might readily identify the problems with such practices and enthusiastically compile training courses to encourage investigative journalism, specialist coverage, or feature writing. However, in the context of understaffed newsrooms and a perpetual sense of plugging the gaps, there is little space for quality journalism to flourish, no matter how keen young journalists may be. And journalists will remain young, contributing to the “juniorization” of the profession. Poor salaries and the lack of any career path see many talented journalists, often the recipients of costly training, move out of the newsroom and into more lucrative opportunities in government communications, public relations, or the advertising industry.
In this environment, courses that are designed to inspire journalists or encourage creative approaches to the craft are more likely to be exercises in frustration if, at the end of the training, they return to under-resourced newsrooms running on skeleton budgets.
There are no neat answers, but perhaps it is time to consider alternatives to previous definitions of what journalism training courses can provide. We have to address the lack of resources in newsrooms and find ways to ensure that we keep journalists practicing as journalists so that we reap the benefit of experience and expertise. Concurrent with journalism training that emphasizes ethical, accurate, analytical news coverage, there has to be an injection of funds to hire sufficient staff to produce a quality product.
Does this imply greater focus on the need for innovative management training—not in how to squeeze greater profits from the newsroom—but in how to create the conditions in which quality journalism can thrive?
Are there short-term measures to encourage journalists to stay in the profession but to enjoy a respite from the daily grind through channeling funds into journalism fellowships rather than training courses?
Whatever the approach, it must begin with adequate recognition and understanding of the conditions in which journalists in the developing world are working. It cannot be business as usual. It should not come in the form of preconceived courses that satisfy the trainer but which fail to meet the needs and context of the trainees.
Sue Valentine, a 2003 Nieman Fellow, is director of The Media Programme at the Open Society Foundation in Cape Town, South Africa. It works to promote media plurality and the use of the media as a tool for sustaining democracy and promoting development in South Africa.