Special Report: How Does the South African Media Report on the Economy?

By SACSIS · 13 Nov 2010

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Picture: SACSIS
Picture: SACSIS

In Spring 2010, The South African Civil Society information Service (SACSIS) co-hosted a roundtable discussion with the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) South Africa Office. The meeting sought to get a better understanding of how the South African media reports on the economy.

One of the key reasons behind hosting the event was that as a country and indeed as the world, we live in precarious times.
Given the financial crisis of 2008 and the global recession that followed, 30 million people around the world have lost their jobs, according to a co-authored International Labour Organisation report.

The impact of the crisis on South Africa has been significant too with more than a million people having lost their jobs since its onset.

It is now a commonly held view that the crisis was caused by the excesses of capitalism driven by orthodox economic values propping up inappropriate policies. Thus, the crisis has provided the perfect opportunity to re-think how economic development should take place, not just globally, but also in South Africa.

And, as the media holds the key to shaping and informing public opinion, it became important for SACSIS and FES to determine how the media was framing the debate about South Africa’s economic development in a post-crisis world.

As a result, we invited senior editors from some of South Africa’s major newspapers to come and share their views with us about how the media reports on the economy.

Nic Dawes (Editor in Chief, Mail & Guardian), Alide Dasnois (Editor, Cape Times), Mondli Makhanya (Editor in Chief, Avusa Media and Chairman of SANEF) and Reg Rumney (Head of the Centre for Economics Journalism in Africa, Rhodes University) honoured our invitation.

But as editor of Cape times, Alide Dasnois, pointed out at the meeting, for many of South Africa’s people this crisis is nothing new, the vast majority of our country’s people have been living in poverty and in crisis anyway.

Well aware of this fact, we asked editors in advance how they thought South Africa’s economy could be made more inclusive. We also asked editors to tell us if they thought the South African economy was on the right growth path and if the media had a particular vision for South Africa’s economic development.

We got a diversity of views, but overall some of the assumptions held by civil society activists were proven true. For example, SACSIS’ Fazila Farouk, posited that the media has polarised the debate on the economy, and indeed Nic Dawes of the Mail & Guardian elaborated at length about how the media sets up the debate between ideological poles when it has to report on and provide analysis for important macro issues, such as the nationalisation of the mines.

Avusa’s Mondli Makhanya controversially asserted that advertisers wield no power over editorial content. This remark was roundly challenged by many participants at the event.

Equally controversial was our civil society respondent, Prof. Haroon Bhorat from the School of Economics at the University of Cape Town, who argued that every issue should not have to be a normative one when framing questions about the economy -- even with respect to the question of inequality. Is inequality good or bad? “It depends,” responded Bhorat to much consternation in the house.

Nevertheless, and ultimately, as SACSIS columnist, Richard Pithouse, pointed out, newspapers are commercial entities and there are certain ideological biases that are inherent to them being in that position. Thus, it was clear that while editors don’t deliberately set out to undermine poor people and their concerns, they do have to pander to a market that helps them meet their newspapers’ bottom lines. And, it is in trying to look after the interests of this market that the issues of the poor get marginalised.

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule and the Cape Times is one such exception, having boldly started a series titled “The Next Economy” in December 2009, precisely to broaden the debate about South Africa’s economic development.

There was a lively debate that took place at the SACSIS/FES roundtable discussion and it is not possible to do justice to all the arguments and counter-arguments in this brief report.

Thus, we invite you to dip into our video booth to view the inputs of the editors that participated in the discussion as well as the responses from SACSIS’ columnists and some of our other participants.

Click on the links below to watch video excerpts from the SACSIS/FES roundtable discussion about how the South African media reports on the economy.

Alide Dasnois: The South African Economy Is Not on the Right Growth Path

Nic Dawes: The Media Is Pretty Bad at Covering the Economy, But...

Mondli Makhanya: The Media Provides a Great Platform for Economic Conversations

Reg Rumney: Focusing Only on Social Responsibility Aspect of Journalism Can Lead You Astray

Haroon Bhorat: Is Inequality Good or Bad? It Depends

Essop Pahad: The Media Could be on the Side for Progressive Change

Axel Schmidt: The Misunderstanding between the Media and Civil Society

Fazila Farouk: The Media has Polarised the Debate on the Economy

Leonard Gentle: Surely the Starting Point is to Take a Moral Position on the Question of Inequality

Saliem Fakir: The Media Lacks a Grand Narrative on the Political Economy

Richard Pithouse: The Thinking about Social Change is Structured In a Fundamentally Elitist Manner

Jane Duncan: The Unreported Story of Marginalised Communities in South Africa

Liepollo Pheko: Does the Media Only See What It Wants To?

Ebrahim-Khalil Hassen: Newspapers Should Give Progressive Activists a Fair Chance to Get Published

Editor's Note: You may also be interested in this report from HUM News about the event, "South African Media Gets Low Marks on Reporting on the Economy and the Poor."

You can find this page online at http://sacsis.org.za/site/article/580.1.

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