By Luke Spiropoulos
On the 11th May 2016, the Human Sciences Research Council ran the first in a series of ‘Racism Dialogues’ on the role of media regarding racism.
The session discussed how racism has become so important in our lives today, how the media makes inputs regarding it and how the media should make an input.
Panellists Justice Malala, Angelo Fick, Khadija Patel and Piet Rampedi spoke about issues largely surrounding the decision making processes of media houses, individual newsrooms and editors of various kinds.
The greatest concern was with the extent to which editorial decision making tends to focus its attention on things that concern white people and in doing so, tend to represent issues concerning white people differently than they do when concerning black people – a kind of differential discourse analysis.
Examples included the focus on the Pistorius case on the idea that he might have been innocent, the massive coverage of the Cape Town fires to the exclusion of other topics and the concern with the Panayiotou murder in Port Elizabeth to the exclusion of major crimes committed at the same time elsewhere in the country. Similarly, media houses tended to centre black subjects largely as perpetrators of crimes, and when they are involved in political scandal.
The greatest difference of opinion regarded the beginnings of a solution to these problems. Justice Malala suggested that the greatest concern was within the workings of individual newsrooms, that these were set up to act quickly and with minimal dissent, that there are various editorial gatekeeper positions that make final decisions about what gets covered and how. He argued against Piet Rampedi, who said that the reasons that this was happening was basically a failure to transform ownership structures of the major media houses, citing specifically the backtracking of a number of these houses in their ownership transformation agenda. Malala argued that it was not true that it was better to work under a conservative black male editor than under a progressive white female one, for example, and that transformed ownership of does not necessarily lead to improvements in coverage or press freedom.
Angelo Fick pointed out that the issue was larger than either of the aforementioned were admitting to and that the real issue of racism in general, and thus as it relates to the media, was that it exists within a constantly evolving political-economy. He used examples of the shift from nation state centred power to that of multinational corporations, the rise of transnational social media being a part of that trend. He argued that a big part of the problem with dealing with these issues was that people were not keeping up with these changes – as the political economy evolves, so does racism – and that as a result we use 19th century language that validates the existence of race whenever we speak about our differences. Interestingly, this led him to the conclusion that racism should be treated as a social disease and thus, like any other disease, should only be addressed by those who are qualified to understand it.
Of concern was the fact that none of panellists explicitly spoke to the fact that media does not simply set the agenda of what we talk about but that it responds to these trends – it is a business that must attract the attention of an audience to survive, after all. This was however, illustrated in Khadija Patel’s input – she spoke of the importance of social and online media and the declining circulation of traditional newspapers, but went on to talk about a regular segment on the Daily Vox, which they call a social media roundup. This is a piece that consists entirely in the embedding of tweets that have appeared on the newsfeed of the writer, in this case Patel, and what she thinks is important regarding a topic. It is a curation of what people that the curator deems opinion makers (mostly people with large followings or capable of producing pithy, if not deep analysis) have tweeted – it is easy, quick, has a built in audience and, most of all, doesn’t require the labour expense of producing actual reportage.
While media does structure and inform public conversation, it does so within limitations. The extent to which its representations, its focus and discourses, exhibit a racial bias is an indicator as much of the bias of its consumers, as of its producers.