Syracuse and South African journalists meet in Newhouse symposium

by Jishnu Nair

March 7, 2019

Editors and reporters from Syracuse and South Africa sat down to discuss issues facing the media around the world.

“Communication—No Easy Walk to Freedom” was the third of the three panels in “No Innocence This Side of the Womb,” a symposium hosted by the Newhouse Center for Global Engagement Feb. 28 at the Newhouse School.

Newhouse associate professor Ken Harper sat down with South African freelance journalist Niren Tolsi; WAER general manager Joe Lee; Khadija Patel, the editor-in-chief of South Africa’s Mail and Guardian; and Paul Botes, Mail and Guardian’spicture editor. Harper began the discussion by asking whether the media has failed their consumers.

“What is the media’s role?” Tolsi responded. He spoke about his interpretations of various roles held by the media, such as gaining and verifying information from sources and communicating with marginalized communities.

Lee said that in America, local journalism has been in decline while national affairs are getting more media coverage.

“There’s nothing wrong with journalists and news organizations partnering with the community to find out what those pain points are,” Lee said, referring to issues such as crime and local economies. “That’s one way to rebuild trust in media.”

Lee showcased WAER’s own community journalism initiative, “City Limits,” which addresses the issue of poverty in Syracuse. He talked about the struggles WAER leaders faced as they tried to gain funding and support for the project, as many community figures were worried that it would portray the city in a negative light.

Patel worries about media independence, as wealthy investors buy up media outlets. Patel said that at the end of the day, media organizations could be undermined by the “ego of media moguls,” mentioning countries like Hungary and the Czech Republic, where wealthy investors buy news outlets and use them to represent their views.

“There’s almost no trace of independent journalism left in these countries,” Patel said. “What we need to do is constantly assert the value of this kind of independent journalism in those nations.”

Harper shifted the conversation to talk about how young people in both the United States and South Africa react to advances in journalism. Tolsi said that because media is now primarily consumed through phones, stories are designed to give people “endorphin kicks” while keeping them within their comfort zones.

“It’s unethical,” Tolsi said. “We’re not reading past what we’re comfortable with.”

Broadcast and digital journalism associate professor and associate dean Hub Brown offered a contrasting viewpoint, arguing that mobile journalism is part of a movement that is bringing larger audiences to news. Brown mentioned “random acts of journalism,” saying that giving citizen journalists the power to reach an audience broadens the scope of topics that get covered.

Botes said that even though there is potential in mobile journalism, news consumers in developing nations still face barriers to access. Botes highlighted his own experience working in Liberia, where he met an aspiring producer who tried to launch a web-only publication, but the work was limited by its inability to reach the audience. According to Botes, only 4 percent of Liberia’s population can access the internet. He added that people who can read publications are usually the people those publications target.

“In situations like that, you end up with a voice that speaks only to the ones controlling the majority, and will they listen?” Botes said.

Harper concluded the panel with a look at Tolsi and Botes’ work investigating a massacre in Marikana that had been incorrectly reported by German investigative outlet Der Spiegel. Tolsi highlighted the incident as an example of how Western media can distort facts about events that occur outside of North America and Europe.

Read about the first panel, “South Africa to Syracuse—A Common Struggle”>>

Read about the second panel, “The Arts—Ordinary Acts, Extraordinary Promise”>>

Jishnu Nair is a junior in the newspaper and online journalism program at the Newhouse School.