WHEN social media clash with traditional media and, in a strange twist, trained journalists seem to rely solely on social media for leads on juicy and often unverified stories, institutional reputations and the principle of giving the other side a fair hearing get thrown into the bin.
The advent of digital media
Just over a decade ago, it was fashionable for discussions to be had about how social media would soon take the place of and annihilate traditional print media. The fear began in first world cities like New York and slowly made its way to places like Cape Town and Johannesburg, where media professionals were addressed about the changed world that would come about after digital media tentacles would have found their way into every reading community around the world.
I was first invited to one such discussion while in New York a number of years ago. The “beast” that is social media had just put its head through the door and it was standing half inside and half outside the room. No one seemed to know what to make of it.
The media traditionalists who had been socialising over wine and spirits in the room quickly moved over to huddle in a corner directly opposite the door from where the beast had just entered, eyes darting from the beast to the nearby window, as if measuring the distance from their corner to the half-open window, clearly fearing for their profession.
Slowly, the realists in the room began to see another possibility, a cohabitation of sorts. There will be no room for ‘winner takes all’ in this game, they seemed to be thinking.
Over the years since then, digital media – specifically social media platforms – have proliferated throughout the developed and developing world and, thanks to the parallel reach of smartphone devices in even the poorest of societies, social media has become the most reliable way to propagate information. But the information it propagates is often user-generated and factually unverified.
Citizen journalists have also entered the space to contest it with traditional journalists and the two groups have no choice, especially the traditionalists, but to find ways to work together.
Unlike citizen journalists who can afford to snap away and write a subjective opinion appearing as ‘breaking news’ to quickly share with the world without the risk of being hauled before the press ombudsman, trained journalists still have to exercise patience and fact check their stories, eg through interviewing all affected parties or inviting their comment, before going to print.
Each story has to go through the rigours of tested fact-checking methods that have constituted key pillars of journalism for hundreds of years.
Navigating perspectives around #FeesMustFall
There are many voices and perspectives around the ongoing FeesMustFall protests. The students’ seemingly insatiable demands touch on several short-, medium- and long-term goals.
Depending on who one speaks to, the short-term goals would be more affordable/less expensive tertiary education, the medium-term aims would be free education and, in the long term, some students are adamant, the education curriculum should be decolonised.
However, no consensus seems to exist about what is meant by a “decolonised” curriculum. No one seems able to give a clear ‘before’ and ‘after’ picture. For every ten respondents, there are ten answers to the question.
Enter the institutions
Discussing this topic over a drink, a friend from the University of the Western Cape (UWC) bemoaned what he described as “misinformation about the impasse at UWC”.
Pressed to explain himself, my friend mentioned incorrect media reports, for instance that “UWC abandoned the academic year”, or that it was the first tertiary institution to do so. It is untrue, he insisted, that UWC management has not been willing to engage prior to the campus riot that happened last Wednesday.
My institutional reputation-conscious friend was worried that most observers do not seem to appreciate the national nature of the fees protests, ie that there is a ‘solidarity’ element to all of this that cannot be resolved by any one institution. For him, no single institution can reach agreements with the #FeesMustFall movement that will bind students in all other institutions.
He worries that even members of the Fourth Estate do not seem to get it at times.
Like other institutions, UWC has had classes disrupted, gates blocked and the university community intimidated. My friend tells me that the institution kept a minimum security presence on campus to protect people and infrastructure, but even this did not prevent the deluge of student and staff concerns over personal safety.
That is when, he continued, university management decided to take the decision to suspend classes while continuing with the online system to allow students to submit their tests and assignments.
The role of media
Going by my friend’s concerns, it seems reasonable for all observers to take a step back and cast an objective glance at the cacophonous discussions around the #FeesMustFall. Who are the winners and who are the losers? What are the real issues and whose voices are louder and, by extension, whose voices are being suppressed by the Twitter and other social media slogans, at what cost?
Whichever way one looks at this, the whole country has reason to be interested in this ongoing ‘mini revolution’. It not only concerns the future of our education system and the young South Africans currently going through it, but also government’s budgetary priorities and the extent to which state capture and rampant corruption can be tamed to channel more resources into assisting poor and so-called missing middle students.
It calls for serious reflection about redefining our curriculum away from emotional, revolutionary slogans. What exactly does a decolonised/ more Africanised curriculum look like? What, of what we have, gets kept and what gets thrown into the dustbin of history?
Once more, what should the media do to communicate a more balanced view of these complex developments?