Dear Zimbabwean Media At Large,
I am writing to you as a member of the profession, and so I feel somewhat strange addressing this as a letter to the media, as though I am not a part of you. I am. But like a family with members who have their differences, there are some things that I need to say; things that have been bothering me for far too long for me to continue to keep my silence.
I have officially been in this profession for eight years now; and I can truly say that it remains a great passion of mine. In many ways, this passion was set in motion when I was growing up, as I spent a lot of time around my mother who was a newspaper editor.
I have clear memories of my time in the newsroom; how I would listen to typewriter keys chattering away to the beat of a new story, the woody smell of the big rolls of newsprint that would eventually become the next day’s newspapers, and also the many journalists who would file through my mother’s office with copy to be reviewed.
But I will not romanticise journalism, for it is hardly always so poetic.
Journalism entails meeting a lot of deadlines, working and making constant revisions to one’s work. It opens practising individuals to many dangers, especially where they expose information that others would rather keep unknown. And it is often also thankless work with poor remuneration.
When I undertook my Journalism and Media Studies degree about a decade ago, I was constantly reminded by people that journalism was a profession of great risk and great poverty. This was the early 2000s when journalists were being routinely detained by the state, when printing presses would get bombed, when inhibitive laws such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) were new to the statute books.
This was the time in Zimbabwe when journalism became just as good as a synonym for propaganda.
But still, I soldiered on. Because I believed that working in the media was a standard to aspire to.
I still believe this about the profession, but at times I am disheartened by what I see and read in the local media.
Yesterday’s NewsDay carried an article about former ZiFM DJ, Tinopona Katsande, which opened as follows;
“BATTERED television and radio personality Tinopona Katsande has revealed she suffers from endometriosis, a gynaecological condition that causes cells from the uterine lining to flourish outside the uterine cavity.”
When I saw this, I could not believe it.
Yes, many of us know that Katsande was beaten by her then boyfriend towards the end of 2012 in what became a very public issue documented by Zimbabwe’s media.
As far as I know, this is the only instance of Katsande being beaten that is recorded within the public domain.
But ‘battered’ – NewsDay’s choice adjective here – operates in value-laden terrain with the insinuation that Katsande is being continually beaten. This, as far we know publicly, is not true. Additionally, it creates the idea that her beating has become a permanent marker of her identity. It is judgement and victimisation both at the same time.
In seeking clarity on this unwarranted use of language, Her Zimbabwe sent a tweet to NewsDay’s Twitter account. Below is our tweet and NewsDay’s response.
As the number of participants in the conversation grew, it became obvious that many others shared similar sentiments to us.
NewsDay, however, chose to stand their ground and tell us, “We are merely stating that she has been subject to repeated pain and punishment. We are actually taking a sympathetic side.”
Our followers again took NewsDay to task, as you can see from tweets below.
It is baffling to me how such copy passed through an editorial team, especially when the offending word is right at the beginning of the article. More importantly, the content of the article – which was about a serious health issue faced by many women – became less important than the fact that the newspaper had decided to pass judgement over Katsande’s life.
While there were some participants who stood in defense of NewsDay, the majority did not, some even demanding an apology from the publication.
If not for the public, then for whom does NewsDay write? If the public is dissatisfied with the publication’s reportage, and we collectively voice our concerns, why are we then met with silence as though we do not exist? Their tagline, after all, is ‘Everyday news for everyday people’.
During this same debate, Her Zimbabwe received some comments from participants who thought we might be overreacting, since NewsDay is allowed to enjoy editorial freedom in choosing how it frames it issues. But if you read the newspaper’s pledge to its audience in the ‘About Us’ section, you will note that it states the following;
“Our tone will be non-judgemental, objective and fair. In all cases we strive to include all relevant opinions and ensure that no significant strand of thought is neglected.”
The use of emotive adjectives is definitely not non-judgmental, objective or fair for a mainstream newspaper, where such content is neither classified as opinion nor commentary.
Like I said, this incident is foremost in my mind because it is so recent. But I have many other examples of un-professionalism that I have come across.
I have many instances of my work being plagiarised by bigger media companies; a really disheartening state of affairs. A picture of Edith WeUtonga which I took last year – and watermarked – found its way into H-Metro with my watermark cropped and without acknowledgement of original source (see below). Articles I write for the platform I founded in 2012, Her Zimbabwe, find their way onto other news sites which repost them without seeking out any kind of consent. Last year, a Daily News reporter wrote an article about a Her Zimbabwe video that had been posted over seven months earlier and proceeded to make false assumptions about its origins and purpose.
Where are the ethics in this work?
The amount of partisan reporting that we have in Zimbabwe, reportage that treats audiences like children who are unable to use their own discernment, is frustrating. Yes, you may tell me that this is the global trend in a world where corporate and political interests continue to eat away at the media’s ethics and societal obligations. And then you may throw an eloquently framed question back into my face; a question along the lines of ‘What are ethics and what obligations does the media have to society?’
It is insulting to be asked to pay TV and radio license fees, only to learn that we are paying these to maintain executives’ luxurious lifestyles while the viewing and listening experience continues to suffer. It is demeaning to have blatant falsehoods and hearsay passed off as fact.
I do not write as a ‘perfect journalist’; I make mistakes too, while continually seeking to improve. But I write, bearing in mind that there are young people – like the young girl I was all those years ago – who need dreams to aspire to. And yet if all they ever associate our media with is gossip and photographic exposés which blatantly invade privacy (yes, H-Metro I am talking to you on the latter), then journalism is cheapened in their eyes. It is not noble, not a profession of excellence, not worth pursuing.
I appreciate that you may never read these words. After all, you are out there chasing the latest scoop or getting on with it. You may remark, “But who is she and what is Her Zimbabwe anyway? Look at how small their following is.”
But this is the digital era. And you might, for some serendipitous reason, bump into my words one day and entertain them. My sincere hope is that by then, things will have changed and this letter will sound outmoded.
Until then, I will continue to speak up in the spaces available to me; both as a consumer of the media and a producer thereof. Because I write this letter from a place of deep reverence for the power of the media. And because I am tired of the abuse of this power.
The media’s is a power to inform and enlighten society. The use of this power is a responsibility we ought to approach with the requisite respect.
Yours in all sincerity,
The photograph of the Zimbabwean flag is from www.osisa.org