Research & Innovation 2015-16 - Page 43

Thought leader
Do citizens trust the media to hold government to
account? Do citizens feel that the media represents
their interests?
These are some of the questions that academic
research in media studies seeks to answer, through
both theoretical explorations and empirical work.
Media studies research can help to assess how well
the media in a country such as South Africa are
performing these roles. Critics of the media often
point out that they are too elitist or commercially
minded, and therefore fail to ‘Ensure responsive,
inclusive, participatory and representative decisionmaking at all levels’, as described in one of the SDG
16 targets. The fieldwork conducted by a group
of researchers (Professor Herman Wasserman,
Dr Tanja Bosch and Dr Wallace Chuma, as well as
several student research assistants) in the Centre
for Film and Media Studies (CFMS) on an European
Union-funded project called Media, Conflict and
Democratisation (MeCoDEM) has shown, for
instance, that the media does not pay enough
attention to community protests aimed at giving
communities greater say in policymaking. Poor
communities often feel excluded from news agendas
and have expressed frustration at not being listened
to by journalists.
MeCoDEM involves research projects in four different
countries, all transitioning from authoritarian rule to
more democratic government – South Africa, Egypt,
Kenya and Serbia – and the role of media and ICTs
accompanying these transitions. Findings suggest
that in all four countries, citizenship conflicts
tend to be portrayed through a judicial
or rights-focused lens, rather than
with focus on social and cultural
factors. The South African branch
of the study reveals systemic
problems underpinning news
agendas and coverage.
Case studies covered by
researchers from CFMS included
media coverage of the ubiquitous
community protests in South
Africa, xenophobic attacks and
conflicts erupting in parliament
around the state of the nation address.
The investigation into community
protests included content analysis of major
publications, and interviews with journalists and with
community activists. Anger over unemployment,
housing, water and sanitation, electricity, corruption
and crime have all been listed as reasons for the
rising number of protests, which started in the early
2000s. However, they are about more than just a
struggle for basic public services; they are also an
attempt by the poor to be heard and included in
democratic discourse and policymaking.
The study found that even in the media coverage
of these protests, the voices of the protesters often
remain unheard. Coverage of protests is often
reduced to reports on traffic disruptions, and some
communities report that photographers are often sent
to document the protest without being accompanied
by journalists to conduct interviews. Activists also told
researchers that they only get media attention
when they go to extremes. According to
protesters, media first ask if ‘anything is
burning’ in order to decide whether it
would be worth sending a journalist
to report.
This study reveals that while a free
media has gone a long way towards
ensuring democratic accountability
in South Africa, there is room for
improvement. Activists interviewed
for the study said they believe the
media could play a bigger role in
boosting democracy, by highlighting
the issues poor communities face before
they spill over into violent conflicts. A focus
on community could shine a spotlight on the
most marginalised and vulnerable citizens, and help
focus government attention where it is needed most, in
order to achieve the SDG of creating a just, peaceful and
inclusive society.
Herman Wasserman is professor of media studies in
the Centre for Film and Media Studies. Feature image
of Tahrir Square in Cairo by Jonathan Rashad, Flickr.
Second image by Ramy Raoof, Flickr.
Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions 38


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