Journalists as democratic communication professionals
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Journalists as democratic communication professionals

Wandile Fana (right) founder of Skawara News talking with roadside saleswomen. 80% of Skawara News is written in the local language Xhosa.
Photo: Contributed

Public Journalism was a US-led reform movement that spread to newsrooms in at least 15 countries in the 1990s, which aimed to sustain a public sphere to which all citizens have access and in which all topics of concern to citizens can be articulated and deliberated.

In the new century, some journalists and academic-advocates have battled gamely to keep the ideals of the movement alive through initiatives like Public Journalism 2.0, which aimed to incorporate Citizen Journalism and the tools of the digital age in a reboot to its core mission, and other incarnations, like Solutions Journalism and the Guardian’s “Open Journalism”. But, the early optimism surrounding public/citizen journalism has largely evaporated in the dustbowl of “fake news” and hollowed-out newsrooms. Certainly, Public Journalism as a recognisable movement is now defunct. But, not in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa.

In recent years, a number of “legacy” and “emerging” community news organizations in this poorest part of the world’s most unequal country have attempted ambitious experiments under the banner of Public Journalism. Most notably, they have hosted scores of town hall meetings in a range of formats, all ostensibly aimed at reengineering in some way relationships with and between the people they formerly knew as their audiences.

Mainstream media houses like Nelson Mandela Bay’s Eastern Province Herald and Buffalo City’s Daily Dispatch, along with community outlets like Grahamstown’s Grocott’s Mail, Skawara News in the rural hamlet of Cofimvaba, and radio stations like ZQKM, have for years been convening public platforms for engaging citizens in political and civic discourse.

As far back as 2007, a series of highly successful public lectures and panel discussions, called the Dispatch Dialogues, were initiated in Buffalo City. Held about once a month in the city’s Guild Theatre, these dialogues were intended to create a platform for a broader public discussion about public issues and to bring audiences into that discussion. Later, a new, citizen-centric version of the dialogues emerged.

These hyperlocal Community Dialogues attracted large numbers of ordinary citizens, in stark contrast to the poor attendance at other public meetings in these communities. In the midst of a visible breakdown in basic service delivery in these hyperlocal places, the Community Dialogues provided a rare link between those elements in local government still committed to public service and an increasingly exasperated citizenry.

The Dispatch’s work did not go unnoticed by other media houses in the province, including its sister newspaper, the Eastern Province Herald, in Nelson Mandela Bay. When Heather Robertson was appointed editor of the Herald she was instructed by Times Media that she would need to work hard to shift the paper from a suburban white audience base into one that served the whole city.

According to Robertson, one of the key reasons for the transformation was the launch of a series of engagements with communities all over Nelson Mandela Bay. In March 2011, Robertson persuaded the Eastern Cape education department head to listen to the concerns of 600 principals, teachers, parents, and community members in a giant community hall.

A recent global survey found that 78% of Grade 4 learners in South Africa could not read for meaning in their home language. One of the most important ongoing dialogues covered by the Herald in response to this dire situation was in partnership with the local university’s Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy (CANRAD). The Herald engineered a unique format for these dialogues – “fish bowl” dialogues, which had about 80 officials, educators, learners, parents, and ordinary citizens attending each. The fish bowl consists of a small group who have speaking rights in an “inner sanctum”, with the rest of the participants observing in radiating circles. The sanctum is constantly replaced by fresh rings from the outside.

In response to the questions of “what can be done?” practical action on the part of participants included committing to get teachers and parents to work together, presenting a parenting skills program, showing teachers more appreciation, and initiating focus group interventions to get to the nitty gritty of specific failings and teacher grievances at a particular school.

Robertson said the Herald’s fish bowl reporting was different from previous reporting because “it was more solutions oriented”. Also, a number of dialogues have led to follow-up stories and Robertson says the journalists are “out there showing that we are not just highlighting the problems but that we have attempted to be part of finding solutions. It does change the perspective of who we are as a media organization.”

Both the Herald and the Dispatch are commercial entities operating under very difficult economic constraints, but neither can be accused of pandering to the wealthy and powerful segments that are supposedly most attractive to profit-driven news managements. Through these dialogues these news organisations have learnt about public problems and shared their agenda-setting function with the public. But, to the extent that solutions were found to any of these problems, it is illuminating to consider who exactly acted (if acting is defined as either designing or implementing solutions).

More sustained engagement

The mediated town halls described here have often fallen short of the ideal, which sees citizens share a commitment to engage in sustained deliberation that leads to effective public problem solving. To help sustain a public sphere to which all citizens have access, and in which all topics of concern to citizens can be articulated, deliberated, and critiqued, we at the School of Journalism and Media Studies in the Eastern Cape University currently known as Rhodes Eastern Cape believe that journalists would need to engage citizens in a more sustained way. (This is not to deny the power of what has already been achieved.)

We are convinced that journalists could be doing much more to encourage citizens to continue their deliberations – and act upon their outcomes – within the institutions of the wider civil society. To aid this process, journalists could offer mobilizing information – for example, information on how to join relevant civic organizations. They could also describe what citizens in other localities have done in the past or are doing to address similar problems; create spaces for citizens to deliberate about those problems among themselves; encourage citizens to join existing or create new (local or larger scale) civic organizations; and publicize citizens’ application for resources.

Of course, while some problems are potentially resolvable by citizens themselves, deep wicked problems like dysfunctional schools require more deep-seated, systemic intervention. In these cases, journalists should encourage citizens, in consultation with experts who have particular knowledge about the problems in question, to formulate possible solutions that would include what they might do among themselves, as well as to lobby relevant government officials to enact policy solutions. The Herald’s fish bowl dialogues began this process – but, this work was not sustained, and policy has not shifted.

In our School of Journalism-owned local media organisation, Grocott’s Mail, our (mostly student) journalists are committed to the idea of nurturing a more dynamic and inclusive public sphere in our city of Grahamstown, and are using the Communication for Social Change concept of communicative ecologies to help realise this vision.

We are cognisant that news organisations like the Herald and Dispatch were not very clear about the imagined purpose and ultimate real-world outcomes of their town hall engagements. Were they principally designed and executed for strengthening journalism or for strengthening the work of citizens in communities? In our current “post-truth” political environment many journalists say citizens should be taught “news literacy” as an inoculation against “fake news”, but conversely are journalists in possession of a “civic literacy”? Can journalists recognise the work that citizens do, offer opportunities for deliberation, provide mobilising information, and all the while facilitate meaningful and engaging journalism?

Equally important to ask is how and by whom shared public problems were named and framed in these public dialogues and in the subsequent journalistic and civic/political processes that developed. Did journalists name problems to reflect what people hold valuable? Did citizens see a role for themselves in the way these stories were named and framed – if not, who were the imagined principal actors in these stories and processes, and why? And what was the ultimate democratic value of this work? Did citizens get involved in these processes and build long-term civic capacity?

One of the key weaknesses of Public Journalism was that it was always a model of the press, rather than a model of the myriad democratic communications in the wider public sphere. And one of the problems with a press-centric conceptualisation is the deep crisis journalism now faces. In South Africa, much of the output of the press, especially at the local level, is simply inaccessible to the majority of citizens. Of course, this does not mean that citizens do not get information/opinion about shared public problems or share this information/opinion with each other. It is just that this communication is complex and multidirectional and happens in ways and in venues that often lie outside mainstream journalism.

The Kettering Foundation’s David Mathews imagines democratic life itself as analogous with a natural ecology – a system that includes all living organisms in an area as well as its physical environment functioning together as a unit. Seen in these terms, the South African political system can be seen to be in a state of ecological crisis (unsurprising given that it has historically been ruptured, poisoned and disfigured through processes of colonialism, capitalism, apartheid, and, more latterly, by neoliberal economics). The ongoing and acute economic and social inequalities in the democratic era have created communicative imbalances, disconnects and tensions in contemporary South African civic life: vertically, between the state and civil society; horizontally, among citizens themselves; and between the media and the citizenry.

We have thus been exploring the possibilities of “communicative ecology” as an asset-based approach to mapping, “repairing” and enriching citizen access to information flows and communication channels that enhance active and engaged citizenship, and accountable governance. We are interested in building a model for aligning the media’s framework for decision making around shared public problems with a genuinely public framing. This would require a more nuanced model for journalism’s democratic role which is responsive to the specific local civic contexts they might encounter, but also sensitive to the enormous political and economic challenges that journalists now face.

What are the various democratic roles that journalism can and should play? How do these roles relate to each other – are any of them in tension with one another? How can journalists and institutions better align the way they work with each other and with the way that citizens work?

Watchdogs of deliberative democracy

The work of political philosopher, Albert Dzur, is particularly useful in this regard as he has argued for a different and more circumscribed role for journalism in deliberative democracy than that imagined by Public Journalism. He believes that journalists do not necessarily have the expertise or resources to host effective forums for public deliberation and, instead of putting themselves at the centre of the deliberative process, they should think about the specific contributions they could be making in helping public life to go well and partner with others to ensure that the required deliberative work is done. He believes that journalists are particularly well placed to act as “watchdogs of deliberative democracy”, ensuring that deliberative processes in the wider society are rational, accountable, inclusive and fair.

However, this is still a journalist-centric conception of normative roles. We are attempting to “decentre” journalism by arguing that a genuine public framing of problems requires a paradigm shift away from what Michael Schudson refers to as the “trustee model” of journalism in which professional journalists provide news they believe audiences should have to be informed citizens (a perspective that is upheld by professional journalists who “speak truth to power” and view the public as too preoccupied to be sovereign of its own citizenship). We are striving to outline what a genuinely “public model of the press” (where true authority is invested in the public) might look like and what would be required to co-produce public knowledge with citizens.

To do this, we are beginning to understand that “the press” just one small component part of a much greater “communicative ecology” required by publics if they are to be truly self-governing. For example, we are attempting to align our work as education journalists and the work of professional educational institutions with the way that citizens work on education. One key part of this “alignment” is in playing a watchdog role in relation to the rationality, accountability, inclusivity and fairness of deliberative work around educational issues in Grahamstown.

In turn, this has necessitated an inquiry into the health of the communicative ecology of our community – what barriers are there to participation and are there any unjustifiable inequalities in the opportunity to influence others in this ecology? This might require that we play both an adversarial “watchdog” role, but also a more facilitative role in becoming part of, and contributing to the development of, a holistic and inclusive communicative ecology in the city.

We are motivated by an interest in “repairing” some of the ruptures, disconnects and imbalances in the ecology and consequently have begun to develop participatory projects in partnership with local communities ultimately aimed at generating healthier communicative ecologies.

To maximise the availability of relevant and credible public information and opinion about education to communities, we are developing ways of working that would facilitate both its creation and distribution. The point is not to create a single information destination, but to allow for many and varied touch-points for people who are stepping into and making their way through public life. It is important not to try to “own” the space, control the flow of information, or dictate change, but to help generate and aggregate the multiple information sources of the community. In an ecology, all parts of the system are critical to the functioning of the whole.

For example, some of our third year journalism students are producing education-themed beat journalism for Grocott’s Mail, but they are also hosting online forums and building an online repository of educational resources for learners, teachers and parents. In addition, they produce a regular education newsletter which is distributed to as many learners, teachers, parents, officials, experts and interested parties as they can sign up. They have partnered with community-based organisations for the semester and are seeking out citizen conversations and soliciting citizen contributions to their work, especially from more marginalised groups and communities.

They do this by “embedding” themselves in the activities of their partner organisations, by immersing themselves in related online ecologies, but also by creating more impromptu venues for interaction with citizens – in public libraries, coffee shops, pop-up news cafes, and forums in public spaces. In so doing, the journalists are co-creating knowledge through journalistic platforms around educational problems with citizens.

One strategy we have adopted is to co-create education-related content from a learner perspective through the work of ten learners attached to the Upstart youth development project, who write for Grocott’s Online and for their own website. The Upstarters also produce an education-themed radio programme on two community radio stations every Saturday morning.

Meanwhile, a Masters student will co-produce education-related content – including an audio drama, which will be presented at a national Science Festival – with 8 Grade 10 Ntiska High School science and maths learners. Another Masters student has been co-producing content about the role of parents in the literacy development and education of their children (often with spectacular results) with a group of six service staff workers at the university who are part of the Intsomi family literacy project. This content will also be actively shared on WhatsApp and Facebook groups with 1350 Grade 1-5 workers at the university, as well as with the wider community.

At the same time, group of 13 primary school teachers will produce educational content as part of an ongoing ICT training course offered at a community development centre by local NGO, Awarenet. And two community journalists will staff a community information kiosk outside the same venue. They will sign up community members to the education newsletter and elicit qualitative feedback from them. They will use an outside broadcasting unit to facilitate live debates in this space to discuss education related issues.

Through these initiative, we are imagining ourselves as “democratic communication professionals”, who build boundary-spanning partnerships in an existing communicative ecology in the service of inclusive and effective citizen-led civic deliberation around education problems. We are interested in what possibilities unfold when citizens are given mediated access to information about, and platforms to express the views concerning education, and opportunities to work out solutions.

Emphasis is being placed on how knowledge is generated in a community and on its quality and flow, not solely on counting and increasing sources and volume of information. The key starting point is to place citizens, their aspirations, and how they live their daily lives, at the centre of planning and action. The communicative ecology brings together the community’s discourse about itself together with enhanced social networks and improved technologies to enable people to act on the real, everyday challenges they face, to connect with one another, and to reach for their individual and shared aspirations.

To do all this we will continue to lean heavily on the potential of a developing communicative ecology that exemplifies the undiminished desire of Eastern Cape citizens to have both voice and agency in a hard-won democracy. 


Anthea Garman is an associate professor and deputy head of the School of Journalism and Media Studies and editor of the Rhodes Journalism Review. She holds a PhD from Wits University and her publications include the monograph Antjie Krog and the Post-Apartheid Public Sphere – Speaking Poetry to Power (UKZN Press, 2015) and the edited book Media and Citizenship: Between marginalisation and participation (with Herman Wasserman, HSRC Press, 2017). 

Rod Amner is a lecturer in the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University. He teaches praxis-oriented courses that explore the theory and practice of a range of alternative approaches to journalism (including public/ civic journalism, citizens’/participatory journalism, development journalism, literary journalism, and radical advocacy journalism), as well as experiential reporting courses based at Grocott’s Mail, a community newspaper owned by the school

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