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How THE NEWS fell from grace

Newspapers in Tanzania reflect the death of Nelson Mandela. Picture: Aletta Harrison

It was one of the first psychological obstacles I had to overcome in my career… I was a newsroom novice, having recently been appointed as a Broadcast Assistant at a small local radio station. It may have been a tiny speck of an office, but to my mind I had ‘made it’. The pace, the punctuality the pips - all contributed to the authoritative atmosphere emanating from the building.

I walked proudly past the BBC sign outside, gazed admiringly at the journalists in the morning news meeting, furiously scribbled notes and performed my duties - from answering the phone to reading the weather report - with utmost seriousness.

I was doggedly pursuing the title of ‘broadcast journalist’ and my writing was good enough that I got my opportunity to contribute to the bulletins before too long.

But I had been so busy working towards writing the news... that I had given little thought to the fact that I would be responsible for writing ‘THE NEWS’.

That was the terrifying moment it dawned on me.

THE NEWS had seemed - up to this point - like an untouchable, divine stream of unquestionable facts, emanating as if from the heavens; Supremely accurate summaries of important events, relayed with poise and authority by agents of the truth.

But suddenly I was faced with the reality that it was in actual fact a worryingly fragile thing, vulnerable to all manner of human errors and misinterpretations and - worst of all - drafted by NORMAL PEOPLE LIKE ME.

Realising human beings were the ones penning the things I had taken as indisputable facts up to this point made me feel quite uncomfortable.

And realising little old me would be the one scripting the things thousands of people would accept as The Truth from now on made me even more uneasy. After all, what if I got it wrong, made a mistake, messed it up?

My respect for THE NEWS was almost paralysing. I had to get over this, of course, before I could carry on. I also had to get through my first terrifying delivery of a radio news bulletin. Imagining the thousands of ears tuned in to nothing but my voice, for up to 7 minutes, had given me stomach cramps the whole week leading up to my first anchoring stint.

I went on to read many radio news bulletins, sometimes without nerves dancing in my stomach. And almost ten years on, I've written reams and reams of news copy, without being freaked out by the responsibility any longer.

Which brings me to 2017. Fake news dominates the real news headlines in a perverted turn of events. In both the USA and here in South Africa, accusations fly between news organisations and those who don’t like what they read and hear. Audiences are confused - who do they trust? And to top things off, media outlets are fighting for financial survival while facing this unprecedented battle for credibility.

THE NEWS seems to have fallen from its lofty position and with that lost its reputation as a bastion of Truth. Instead it's now engaged in a dirty mud-fight to the death - a far cry from the revered industry I entered almost a decade ago.

There are certainly many causes for concern, but I also see a couple of small silver linings:

The fact that audiences seem increasingly critical, disappointed and disgusted by the media may not be a terrible thing - it means the Press is falling short of an ideal that the public still believes in and they are holding media organisations accountable. But as long as people still believe in the role of the media, there’s something to grasp onto, something to strive for.

Secondly, it’s good that people question the news. Yes, I said it - it cannot be a bad thing to have a populace that is a little sceptical, that doesn’t accept everything it hears and reads as the gospel. Maybe they’ve also realised it’s normal people like me who are responsible for generating much of what they see and hear, not some omnipotent higher power - and quite sensibly they're asking more questions. As unnerving as this may be for journalists who aren't used to being challenged by their audiences, it is not a bad thing per se.

But here lies the BIG BUT: People, I cannot emphasise enough how important it is to apply the same cynicism to your leaders too.

Save a bit of that healthy scepticism for Trump, for Zuma, for Malema. Don’t be so charmed by the delivery that you omit to question the message. Hold them to account too, for they are also normal people who are capable of mistakes and lapses in judgement, no matter how well-intentioned or charming they might be.

At a time when information is so widely available, and Twitter manages to make traditional media seem obsolete, news organisations are floundering. Many are shedding staff and stretching their remaining resources to report on what is widely available to read to anyone with access to the internet. It doesn't take long to realise they are stumbling down a dead end. There are many examples of publications being duped into reporting on staged or fake stories in the race for clicks.

In fact, they should be doing the exact opposite. The reality is that well-researched, fact-checked news stories are the ONLY thing that will set media organisations apart from the flood of sources on social media.

More resources, not less, need to be allocated to proper journalism. It is the only way to restore some credibility to a wounded industry and cast some light in the increasingly gloomy mess that is the Information Age.

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