It’s Journalism 101 time this week – well, mostly – and I will cut to the chase: what is the difference between reporting and journalism? The two are not perfect synonyms.
Reporting, or simply the passing on of news, is as old as the hills, as every society that has ever existed has had a mechanism for monitoring current developments, et cetera. Even in the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve were the only humans on Earth, reporting did take place.
Journalism, on the other hand, is an ism – in other words, it is a belief system that defines the practices and values of news practitioners. Its evolution has been in line with what social scientists call path dependence. This simply means that the entrenchment of certain practices obstructs an easy reversal of those initial choices. A simple illustration of this is the use of direct quotations in news reports to enable newsmakers to be heard in their own voice, which is as commonplace today as it was when the practice took hold during the formative years of modern American journalism – from 1876 to 1916.
As someone whose news repertoire consists of publications in South Africa and elsewhere in Africa, I can safely say that there are some on our continent who call themselves journalists but are not. Thank heavens, the number is not so big as to assume alarming proportions.
South Africans would recall, not so long ago, reports about a so-called journalist who rummaged through rubbish bins at a guesthouse where Julius Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters comrades had stayed, ostensibly in search of evidence of profligacy by a political party that claims to be a champion of the poor. She then dished up rubbish which she passed off as journalism.
More recently, another South African ‘journalist’ wrote a piece about a woman who had given birth to ten babies in a Pretoria hospital, thus setting a world record. The story, which later turned out to be fake, captured the world’s imagination, with top broadcasters such as the BBC and the CNN latching onto it. Had the writer bothered to apply the basics of journalism – verifying the ‘facts’ presented to him, et cetera – he would have discovered that this was all a hoax.
Do I hear someone querying why I am ‘boring’ readers, who, in all likelihood, are non-journalists, with a discussion on the inner workings of the journalism trade? (Yes, journalism is a trade, and not a profession, unlike law or medicine, for example, where practitioners have to be licensed and are required to abide by a strict code of conduct.)
My response is: the consequences of disregarding acceptable practices and values, codified or not, can be dire for people in any field of endeavour – not just journalists. In these days when cancel culture has come to the fore, it won’t surprise me if scores of people stopped reading any stories written by the two rogue journalists. Quite alarmingly, following the publication of the ‘ten babies’ story, a well-known journalism academic called out three leading supermarket chains for continuing to advertise in newspapers owned by the company that employs the writer of the fake story.
It all boils down to reputation – that all- important intangible asset. Anything that is not journalism can potentially destroy the reputation of a publication. As print media increasingly come under pressure from the Internet, the last thing we want is seeing them lose their reputation. With a good reputation, those in the know tell us, magazines and newspapers can still woo the best available talent. It’s also easier to secure investor dollars when reputation is intact. With good journalists and the financial wherewithal, print publications can still produce content that appeals to readers, and compete against online publications, thus prolonging the survival of this journalism genre.