Would the real journalist please stand up?

New York Times

Can newspapers meet today’s challenges? The media is criticised for sloppy journalism in an era when rampant racism and seething conflicts make every word important

CAN the media be trusted? The New York Times this week criticised its own editors for sloppy journalism regarding how they dealt with an op-ed on Sunday by a Palestinian leader jailed in Israel. It coincided with a well-known South African online paper, Huffington Post SA, being slammed for a racist blog post headlined “Could It Be Time To Deny White Men The Franchise?” written by someone who it was later shown did not exist.

It’s tough to hold up high standards in journalism today, when fake news is everywhere and the onslaught of mediocrity and mob rule through social media has so shaken the industry. A story in the Israeli online paper YNET reports that only 26 per cent of Jewish Israelis have faith in the press, according an Israel Democracy Institute survey. This probably reflects low regard for the media today in many other places.

Both of the above cases relate to highly charged political contexts – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and racism in South Africa – which should make editors doubly concerned with journalistic credibility.

Sunday’s NYT op-ed by Palestinian Marwan Barghouti criticised Israel and justified a mass hunger strike which he had organised by Palestinians jailed for security-related offences. It is perfectly appropriate to publish such a piece, it is part of the debate on the issues, and Barghouti is an important figure in Palestinian politics – some people have described him as a Palestinian “Mandela”.

However, the op-ed’s tag line described Barghouti as a “parliamentarian and leader” without mentioning that he was in an Israeli jail after being sentenced by an Israeli court to five life terms for murder and terrorism.

After an outcry, the NYT’s public editor responsible for monitoring its journalistic integrity, on Tuesday criticised the op-ed department, saying “skimping” on key background information on opinion writers – Barghouti’s terror activities in this case – discredits it. Papers need to “fully identify the biography and credentials of authors, especially details that help people make judgements about the opinions they’re reading.” Failure to do so suggests an inappropriate agenda.

Outraged Israeli officials said the way the paper referred to Barghouti was akin to calling murderous Syrian President Bashar Assad an eye doctor, because he had studied medicine.

The NYT admitted its mistake. An online clarification on Tuesday said the article had “…neglected to provide sufficient context by stating the offenses of which he was convicted….”

In the South African case, the HuffPost ran the anti-white racist blog from one “Shelley Garland” without being rigorous about determining who she was. It later turned out she didn’t exist; it was a race hoax performed by a self-described white man in Johannesburg which HuffPost had fallen for. The story went viral internationally when American right-wing papers spread it on social media to illustrate their view that people of colour posed a threat to white people.

The HuffPost editor initially defended the posting of the piece, but later removed it and admitted she didn’t know who Shelley Garland was and had not done sufficient checks to determine this.

It might be some consolation to the HuffPost’s editors that they are at least in good company with the NYT, when that illustrious paper also neglects journalistic obligations for which it is criticised. An editor’s job is a hard one and all papers sometimes make mistakes.

But that should not comfort them. Freedom of speech is essential and they can defend it in those terms, but in the current volatile environment, allowing a racist post onto a news and opinion website which proposes denying white men the franchise detracts from the seriousness of their platform, and suggests a political agenda. Would they have run the story if the headline had suggested that blacks, for instance, should be denied the vote for 20 years?

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

Deafened by the dark laughter of our times

Zapiro and Uys

South Africa in chaos: tragic or hilarious? Satirical performer Pieter-Dirk Uys and cartoonist Zapiro confront the identities and sensitivities of South Africa and its political turmoil, provoking outrage and praise

AS anxious South Africans take sides for or against President Jacob Zuma and his clinging to power, it is often artists who show the true nature of the dilemmas. Ever since the worst days of apartheid one of the best has been Pieter-Dirk Uys, who lampooned and enraged apartheid leaders such as PW Botha. His latest show at Montecasino last week, Echo of a Noise, shines a light on the torment of having to choose who you are and what you believe in as an individual or society.

Illustrious cartoonist Zapiro – Jonathan Shapiro – in his latest work this week, shows how Zuma has ‘raped’ the country and handed it to his patron the Gupta family. The cartoon has evoked outrage as well as high praise for its use of violent sex against a black woman as a metaphor for the plight of this country. It follows a previous cartoon in 2008 about the president ‘raping’ the justice system, which resulted in serious threats by Zuma to sue him.

The racial monster is rising again – the truth is, it never left, but was hidden for a while under the spell of Mandela – exploited by Zuma’s rants against whites and ‘white monopoly capital’ to hide his government’s corruption and ineptitude. South Africans are questioning their identity and how to relate to fellow South Africans who may be different. Sadly, many know only to shout at each other rather than listen.

Uys, who developed a stage persona as an Afrikaans woman, Evita Bezuidenhout, needs no introduction here. In his current show he tells the story of his own life, on a set containing a single black plastic chair in which he sits for an hour and a half facing the audience, as a 71-year-old man, stripped of make-up and wigs, in the intimate way one talks to a friend.

He didn’t know when he was a child growing up in Pinelands near Cape Town that his mother, a gifted pianist, had come from Germany in the 1930s to escape the anti-Jewish tide before the war. She brought her piano with her. She married an Afrikaner, Hannes Uys, who believed in church, discipline and racial separation. Hannes was the church organist and a piano teacher. Pieter’s sister Tessa later became a world-renowned concert pianist, returning the piano to its origins in Berlin in subsequent years. Mozart’s spirit filled their house.

Their coloured domestic maid, Sannie, was a central character in his life, adding to the rich mix of identities he grew up with.

One day a visitor arrived for his mother, a childhood friend from Europe. He hears them speaking German as they drink tea. He asks the woman what the tattooed numbers on her wrist are – perhaps a telephone number? She smiles wryly and says yes, and perhaps he should call that number? She couldn’t begin to explain to such a young boy what had happened in Germany.

Uys recounts how his mother confided to a German friend who had helped her immigrate to South Africa, about how to make sense of the laws forbidding blacks to sit on park benches, work in certain jobs and live in certain areas, when similar laws against Jews were what she had fled Germany to escape. She suffered from depression and later committed suicide by jumping off a cliff at Chapman’s Peak.

Uys found apartheid South Africa both tragic and ironic and even made us laugh at its absurdity. Zapiro has similarly portrayed the multiple identities of the country with all their ironies and sensitivities, but very few people are laughing.

Hard choices face South Africans today about who they are, as they did when Uys was growing up. Will those who still believe in a great country eject Zuma and his evil and heal what he has damaged?

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

  • For a review of Echo of a Noise click here

Churnalism – the death of good journalism?

Many Israelis and Diaspora Jews tend to believe the international media is biased against Israel, subjecting it to unrelenting, critical scrutiny no other country gets. Palestinians and Muslims, however, tend to believe it is instead biased against them, calling them ‘terrorists’ when they are fighting for their freedom from Israeli rule, and fuelling the Islamophobia sweeping the world. And the old conspiracy theory that “Jews control the media” still has wide currency, not just in the Middle East, but other places.

A particularly sensitive point in journalism is the headlines given to articles, which shape how most people understand the news, since they generally don’t read all the actual stories, but only scan headlines.

Claims of bias against Israel received fresh impetus on Saturday from a sloppily-worded BBC headline, following an attack in Jerusalem’s Old City by a 19-year-old Palestinian who caused the death of two Israelis. The headline said, “Palestinian shot dead after Jerusalem attack kills two”, thus failing to convey that the person shot dead was not an innocent victim, but the actual attacker who carried out the stabbing and shooting of the Israelis. After being challenged, the BBC admitted “that the headline didn’t accurately reflect the events, nor the details reported in our online story”. They changed it to: “Israelis killed in Old City ‘by Palestinian'”.

One is not surprised when sloppy reporting – or blurring of the line between news and opinion – appears in small, overtly partisan publications which make no pretensions about objectivity. Or when the ‘news’ comes via the cellphones of ‘citizen journalists’ or amateur bloggers pretending to be journalists. A local Palestinian paper in Gaza, for example, saying all Israelis are colonialists, or one published by a settler group in the West Bank saying all Palestinians are terrorists.

But the expectation remains that the big, reputable news organisations like the BBC, Associated Press, Reuters, etc, for whom ‘objectivity’ is their main selling point, still adhere to basic principles of good journalism, such as reporting based on credible sources, rigorous fact-checking, balance, and so on. Their main drawcard is their credibility, and being able to brush aside the deluge of informational garbage flooding cyberspace today, and provide their readers with the real story.

But the Internet has disrupted the modus operandi of the traditional news networks. In the midst of their financial crisis, media outlets have had to slash costs. Many now have smaller, inexperienced staff, and demand of these staff to produce more articles, faster, to keep up with the 24-hour immediacy on which the Internet is based.

The phenomenon has even evoked a term called “churnalism”. In the past, this is what characterised local newspapers and free publications, which relied on a tiny staff who did everything from writing articles and checking spelling to running errands, and whose aim was simply to fill the paper’s pages with local gossip and information.

Media analysts comment that “churnalism” seems to be gradually penetrating the big news organizations. Special correspondents or specialized editors with expertise in particular areas or topics – such as a special Jerusalem bureau chief – have been replaced by a news desk consisting of generalist editors. They are often required to tackle a wide range of topics, and don’t have the experience or expertise their predecessors did.

Last year, after Israel’s much-criticised Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, Israeli-Canadian journalist Matti Friedman, who was Jerusalem correspondent for Associated Press until 2011, published an accusation against his former employer, saying that in his opinion the international media is clearly biased against Israel. In many cases, however, this bias is unwitting and based on ignorance, rather than intentional. The journalist who wrote the headline for the BBC referred to above, was not necessarily anti-Israel or anti-Semitic. He could just as easily have been simply inexperienced and ignorant about the general context of Israel and the Palestinians, and therefore unable to immediately understand the basic elements of the story.

Sadly, with all the bloggers and amateur ‘reporters’ pretending to be journalists today, a culture of dilettantism has taken over the media, in which a supposed journalist, cellphone in hand, can simply parachute in – metaphorically – and write the story and the headline, without the hard, careful work that underlies true, good journalism.

(First published in SA Jewish Report, October 9, 2015)