A plea for fairness and balance on e-tolling reporting

14 February 2013

Media reports on e-tolling and opposition to it make for interesting reading on how the media shape our thinking and leave us vulnerable to the duplicity and disinformation of various interest groups.

 Indeed, some sections of the local media have not simply reported on the opposition to e-tolling and the alleged rationale of such opposition, but have adopted it as their own cause. In the process, it has been hard to discern the difference between news media reporting on the issue and news media cheerleading for the opponents of e-tolling.

But it has not always been like that. There once was a time when reporting and editorials on the issue were fair and balanced. Take The Star for example. On 3 March 1999, it published an editorial comment titled ‘For whom the till tolls’ where it argued that “it makes good sense for road users to pay for roads”.

It went further: “South Africa has a long way to go, toll-wise. Disbelieving as the average Jo’burg-Durban driver may be, after paying what seems a fortune (actually R50) at what seems an endless array of toll gates (actually 4); we have a total of 860km of toll road. This is little league in relation to various countries comparable in terms of size and density. Spain for example has about four times more tolled kilometres; Italy has seven times.” The editorial ended with a sting in the tail: “Toll policy is on track.”

The day prior to the editorial, The Star’s Anna Cox had written a comprehensive article, titled ‘Ben Schoeman next to become toll road’ in which she outlined the reasons for the planned toll road, mentioned the then envisaged toll fees of between 10c and 15c per kilometre and quoted several people in it. Taking the consumer price index into account, those rates would have been higher than the proposed 30c per kilometre today.

The article was balanced and objective, satisfying the requirement of diversity in news sourcing. Notably, it stated that the now defunct New National Party (NNP) was opposed to the plan to toll some of Gauteng’s freeways and quoted its then spokesperson Nic Catrakilis. The NNP’s voice on this matter has not followed it to the grave. Quite the opposite, it has found latter-day resonance, surprisingly even with some from the left of the political spectrum.

But 1999 was probably the age of reason. Fast forward to 2011 and 2012 and what does one get in The Star? A leader article titled ‘Toll roads: a rising stench’ and another about the cost of operating Gauteng’s toll roads being as high as R14 billion – something factually incorrect and based on wrong assumptions.

Then there is this “stench” allegation, which was propagated not only by The Star but other media, social activists and interest groups. Where this stench comes from has not been determined but for its part, the South African National Roads Agency (Sanral) is on record as having said it would welcome a probe by any competent authority about its procurement practices on the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project or any of its projects.

Also, we have observed, rather curiously, the sources most journalists tend to quote on the e-tolling matter. A cursory look at a number of news stories confirms the media’s long-standing dearth of news source diversity. Apart from not quoting experts who support e-tolling, many stories serve as a print soapbox from which those who are ideologically opposed to tolling as a principle can present their case.
For example, the registered taxi industry and its customers, who will be exempted from toll fees, are generally excluded. This means their views and those who hold dissenting views from the anti-toll brigade are under-represented. We find this kind of media bias disturbing.

Of course, we know that no self-respecting reporter is going to come right out and say "And this next sentence is biased, so watch out!" Be that as it may, we have learnt, in a rather painful way, to spot articles that, through word choice (like ‘toll stench’), framing of the story (like the projection of e-tolling as an expensive method of collection), and a biased selection and use of sources (like the exclusion of those with challenging views on e-tolling) are not doing justice to the debate on this matter.

Sanral is aware of how fiercely contested this issue is. But even so, a request for fairness and balance would not be asking too much of those in the media who have chosen to be cheerleaders rather than objective reporters.

*Vusi Mona is the head of communications at the South African National Roads Agency.