Fear and Loathing in the Media: Dealing with Racism

Fear and Loathing in the Media: Dealing with Racism

In August 2000, a group of journalists and editors at a national newspaper sat around a conference table during a regular editorial meeting. The subject of discussion was the South African Human Rights Commission's recently published report on its inquiry into racism in the media. More precisely, the subject of discussion was how the newspaper would cover this report. What was not being discussed was what lessons this report held for the newsroom, for the individual reporters and editors working in post-apartheid South Africa.

In the aftermath of the publication of the controversial report, it became apparent that an opportunity was being lost. The fracas over the contents of the report detracted from one of the core debates that should have arisen from the inquiry: racism in newsroom structures and interpersonal relationships. A reluctance to tackle these complex and uncomfortable issues persists until today.

The SAHRC report acknowledged that while companies comply with the Employment Equity Act of 1998, "much racism occurs at the institutional or structural level". According to the report, racism "occurs as historical reliance is made on commonsense methods and systems without interrogating what messages these conveyed about the cultural diversity of our country, about the history of inequality and about the dominant knowledge systems that create a unipolar view of the world." (SAHRC report, p 80) The report did not define what these "commonsense methods and systems" are, nor did it interrogate the root causes of the culturally insensitive messages sent out by the media, beyond merely blaming apartheid and its legacy.

In writing about the SAHRC inquiry in 2000, Eve Bertelsen, a lecturer in journalism at the University of the Witwatersrand, commented: "To be valid and reliable, a study of racism in the media needs to address the whole media cycle, engaging moments of production, distribution and consumption. In short, to acknowledge that news is generated by an organisational complex: media ownership and control; gatekeeping mechanisms; professional codes of conduct of journalism; marketing and distribution; and audiences." (Rhodes Journalism Review, 2000, p 19)

Since then, there has been much debate about media ownership and control as well as about journalistic codes of conduct (primarily around issues of plagiarism), marketing and distribution. The questions that have thus far been overlooked, or ignored, focus at the microcosmic level: are newsrooms "racism-free zones"; how culturally sensitive are the interactions between reporters, between reporters and editors; what effect do latent racist attitudes have on interpersonal relationships in the newsrooms and on media output?

The focus on media ownership and the racial composition of newsrooms, though important, has distracted individual media practitioners from engaging with the legacy of a racist past on a personal level. Journalists have been quick to call other sectors and institutions to task when allegations of racism or lack of transformation arise, but have been less willing to take a hard look at themselves, to acknowledge the possibility that the past and how they experienced it on a personal level still influences their interactions and their work today. There still remains a considerable amount of "baggage" from the apartheid era that has gone unaddressed – and not only in South Africa's newsrooms – because of the country's emphasis on reconciliation. A reluctance to make the political personal is evident.

In a paper delivered at Queen's University in Canada in 2004, Nahla Valji of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in Johannesburg, wrote: "In the same way that one would be hard pressed to find a South African who voted for the National Party in the past, it is equally improbable that any South African would openly admit the influence of a racialised past on their own attitudes and behaviour. This is not to say that the demonisation of racism is not a progression or that a common moral denunciation of such attitudes is not positive. However, when coupled with a failure to address the legacy of historical racism, an unwillingness to see racism in its everyday manifestations means ironically that this legacy is only preserved through a premature celebration of reconciliation." ("Race and Reconciliation in a Post-TRC South Africa", Valji, 2004)

Valji also referred to a study by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in which it is reported that 46 percent of South Africans never socialise across racial boundaries, a further quarter (23 percent) do so only rarely. "The pattern of interaction amongst South Africans has been described by one analyst as one of 'daytime integration and nocturnal withdrawal'." (Du Toit, 2003, in Valji) In my observations, working as a foreigner in the South African media since 1994, this situation pertains to the majority of interactions among black and white journalists and editors.

The SAHRC report recommended that journalists participate in programmes that promote trans-cultural dialogue in order that they "appreciate the value of cultural diversity in our country" (SAHRC report, p 80). Two years later, the skills audit by the South African National Editors Forum found that 20 percent of media surveyed lacked "sensitivity" in reporting. However, an appreciation for another culture is difficult to define and, more significantly, does not necessarily require personal engagement with individual – conscious or subconscious – racial attitudes.

In 2004, prior to embarking on a Press Fellowship at Wolfson College, Cambridge, I interviewed a number of journalists and editors to understand how they viewed transformation in the media and to get a sense of the changes that have taken place in newsrooms since 1994. While by no means a formal survey, it became clear that transformation was measured by the mix of black and white faces in the newsrooms and by the number of previously disenfranchised members of South African society now at the helm of media management. Changing the face of South African journalism does not mean that the agendas that are being set or the output that is being produced reflect the new, non-racialised order. Nor does a visually transformed newsroom signify an emotionally transformed newsroom staff.

It is at the first level of media production where ingrained and latent racial stereotypes and attitudes play out most significantly and affect media products in terms of the selection, content and placement of stories. In describing working at one of the country's largest newspaper groups, a black journalist said there was no "encouragement of robust debate" among journalists and editors about transformation and what it means. He said newsrooms were "still quite segregated" and the environment was "very staid". As a consequence he felt that the group's largest newspaper was not "a transformed product" despite the editor and deputy editor being black.

In this context, it is interesting to note excerpts from Pamela Newkirk's study of the media in the United States, Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media (New York University Press, 2000).

  • "Despite their heightened visibility, African American journalists and their minority counterparts, woefully underrepresented in the industry and in news management, are far from integrated into the newsroom culture, largely because of status quo assumptions about race. While black journalists occasionally succeed in conveying the richness and complexity of black life, they are often left (…) restricted by the narrow scope of the media, which tends primarily to exploit those fragments of African American life that have meaning for, and resonate with, whites. For while the media has allowed the complexion of its newsrooms to better reflect society, the target audience of the major media has changed little. News continues to be constructed for a primarily white audience." (Newkirk, p 5)
  • "While black reporters, like other members of the black middle class, must gain an intimate knowledge of cultures other than their own, few whites are required to grasp the intricacies of black culture, since their very survival does not depend on such an understanding." (Newkirk, p 7)
  • "The unspoken expectation was for blacks and other minorities to fit into an established culture that was not expected to bend to accommodate them…..(S)ome bitterly complained that they were expected to leave behind any traces of their culture and ethnicity and adopt the mannerisms and attitudes of whites." (Newkirk, p 80).

These observations find resonance in the South African context, despite numerous differences between the United States and South Africa, including the obvious fact that blacks are in the minority in the US and in the majority in South Africa. Some of the people I interviewed reflected similar views, though reluctantly because they do not hold with the popular vision of a transformed media in a transformed South Africa. An almost tangible reluctance to address any latent racism in newsrooms, coupled with a genuine sense of confusion about the meaning of transformation was notable in most of the interviews.

There are, of course, examples of South African media targeting a black audience and where the face of newsroom management and ownership has changed from white to black. Some of these changes have been meaningful, some less so. However, a common understanding of what transformation means at a personal and professional level is still lacking – an understanding that can only be gained by engaging in "robust debate" in an environment where fears, resentments and confusions can be addressed freely.

Prior to the SAHRC report, another opportunity to delve deeper into apartheid's continuing effect on the media had been lost after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's sectoral hearings into the media in September 1997. The TRC found that the English mainstream media engaged in "self-censorship", that the newspaper industry "reflected the racial and gender discrimination that characterised South African society" under apartheid and that the media, with "the notable exception of certain individuals", sustained and prolonged the existence of apartheid by failing to "report adequately on gross human rights violations". In some newsrooms some individuals responded with a heartfelt mea culpa, in many flickers of lingering resentment surfaced, but in most, real debate, involving all levels of media production, did not take place. The response was predictable: apologies and staffing changes to reflect South Africa's demographics.

My interviews formed part of preliminary research for the Wolfson fellowship during which I planned to design "diversity and sensitivity" workshops. It became evident that engaging journalists and editors in a constructive examination of racial attitudes, in the newsroom and on a personal level, presents a challenge. Many of the interviewees were uncomfortable with the idea of holding such a workshop in their newsrooms. Editors, in particular, felt such workshops were unnecessary as their newsrooms already were transformed, while some journalists thought such workshops could be useful but doubted management would participate.

Among the people I interviewed in the United Kingdom were officers from the London Metropolitan Police which conducted "community race relations training" after the debacle of the enquiry into the racially motivated murder of the black youth Stephen Lawrence in April 1993. The inquiry that was instituted in 1997, following the controversial police investigation, uncovered racism within a police force that was dominated by a "white macho culture", as one of the officers put it. Here an excerpt from a Metropolitan Police report on diversity in the force:

"We found that there is much more sophisticated understanding at senior levels of the reasons for engaging with diversity issues, with a strong articulation of acknowledging diversity as essential to modern policing. Senior officers are also clear that the focus of activity is now diversity rather than simply race equality. Operational staff, however, tend to be much more cynical and believe that the service is seeking to 'cover its back' and ensure that staff rather than the organisation are held accountable. They also feel that the emphasis on the initiatives in place is still strongly focused on race, and whilst some believe this to be the right approach, many think it is overdone."

The Metropolitan Police's experience holds some valuable lessons for the South African media, which, some argue, is still dominated by a white and male – if not macho – culture. Those conducting the community race relations training found that buy-in from and participation by the top echelons were crucial for its success and that separate workshops had to be held for management and staff. By examining personal values and prejudices, the training sessions highlighted that knowledge and understanding of other cultures is important not for warm and fuzzy reasons, but because they improve the work of the police and its relationship with the communities it serves. The response from participants was positive – the majority said they had gained valuable insights into other cultures as well as into their own attitudes towards them.

Subniv Babuta, the editor in charge of diversity at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), said the public broadcaster's workshops highlight that diversity does not equal uniformity. As Newkirk's comments from the US media show, too often diversity means subjugation to a white standard. According to Babuta, the BBC has come to realise the value of using cultural differences to improve the broadcaster's product. He added that any reluctance on the part of editors was overcome by pointing out the economic imperative, by "making the business case". With £140 million in annual licensing fees coming from ethnic viewers, it makes good business sense for the BBC to ensure that it reflects a diversity of views.

While media owners in South Africa have no doubt grasped the business imperative of targetting its majority audience, the media still grapples with embracing cultural diversity in a meaningful, non- cosmetic manner. It has not yet fully come to understand what transformation means in terms of the daily production of news and how individually held attitudes influence media output: which stories are covered; who is and who isn't interviewed during the reporting process; which angle is chosen; how are the stories prioritised?

These questions can only be answered if media practitioners and newsrooms examine their own cultural and racial attitudes. The SAHRC inquiry and the TRC media hearings must be brought to their logical conclusion through a process of self-examination that asks journalists and editors to engage with their individual belief systems. An understanding must be reached that one of the functions of the media is to reflect society back to itself. Until that understanding includes personal journeys into the heart of diversity, race and cultural sensitivity, the process of transformation in the media will not be complete.


Within the Veil: Black Journalism, White Media, Pamela Newkirk (New York University Press, 2000).

Riding the Wave of Culture: Understanding Cultural Diversity in Business, Frons Trompenaar and Charles Hampden-Turner (Nicholas Brealey Publishing).

"Faultlines: Inquiry into Racism in the Media", South African Human Rights Commission Report (August 2000).

"Racism in the Media", Rhodes Journalism Review (Rhodes University, August 2000).

"Race and Reconciliation in a Post-TRC South Africa", Nahla Valji, Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, presented at "Ten Years of Democracy in Southern Africa: Historical Achievement, Present State, Future Prospects", Queen's University, Canada, May 2-5, 2004.

The London Metropolitan Police Diversity Report http://www.met.police.uk/foi/pdfs/performance/Diversity/Final/MPS_Diversity_Report.pdf.

Christina Stucky is a freelance journalist, media trainer and consultant with the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.

Originally published in Gumede, W. (ed.), Democracy, Transformation and South Africa's Media, Zebra Press, 2005.

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