In his blog this week, which tracks his experiences as a Roving Reporters intern, Thabiso Goba grapples with some big philosophical issues and the role of the journalist in a post-truth wold.
I HAVE started my GetSmarter-UCT online course on feature writing and it got me thinking about the role of journalists.
Should journalists, as public watchdogs, have a primary agenda to change or influence the way people think or behave?
This is my take:
Traditionally, the role of journalists was to report the truth and let the public decide for themselves what they do with that information. Unfortunately we now live — perhaps it’s always been like this, I can’t comment for previous generations — in a post-truth world, meaning the role of a journalist has shifted.
For example, when former President Jacob Zuma went around asking, “What did he do?”, to crowds of thousands (and thanks to the mass media a wider public of millions), It was up to the journalists to say: “Hey people, this man is gaslighting you and trying to portray himself as a victim when he has dozen of unanswered court charges he has not answered and has been deliberately trying to avoid for over a decade, plus his improper relationship with the Gupta family, etc, etc.”
This is stuff already out in the public sphere, that has already been reported. So if journalists had stuck to their traditional role, they should have let Zuma be and anyone who wanted the truth could look it up — previous reports — for themselves.But it’s not as easy as that, especially when taking into context the subject and his pull.
This is happening all over the world, where journalists have to push back against misinformation.
It even applies with dodgy pastors who spray insect repellent on people’s faces. Journalists have to enlist all kind of experts to explain why this is dangerous, wrong and needs to be stopped.
Both examples illustrate how journalists do set out “with the aim of changing people’s thinking and behaviour “.
It is paramount that misinformation is fought.
As for the cons, where media set out to influence people and their behaviour… well history is littered with them. And they don’t come bigger than Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines and Der Stürmer.
I am referring here to the Rwandan radio station that was the mouthpiece for Hutu sympathisers who used it to incite genocide from 1993 to 1994 and the Nazi tabloid newspaper.
On balance, the cons appear to outweigh the pros, But that said there are also countless examples of ethical media organisations fighting against misinformation without straying into the path of inciting violence. – Roving Reporters
- Thabiso Goba is a final year Durban University of Technology journalism student enrolled on Roving Reporters environmental journalism training programme convened in association with the Human Elephant Foundation.