The story Charles Nqakula would write if he was a journalist

4 July 2008

Safety and Security Minister Charles Nqakula was once a journalist. During the 1960s and 70s, the young Nqakula wrote news stories for various Eastern Cape papers including Imvo Zabanstundo and the Daily Dispatch.

Speaking at a crime statistics seminar held at the Institute of Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria on Wednesday, Nqakula said, "If you hear one day that I have gone back to journalism, that will be the story I will write."

The minister was referring to what he termed 'the true South African story', a more balanced reflection of the country's progress in addressing developmental and socio-economic challenges.

Nqakula's comment followed presentations and floor discussions during the ISS seminar that touched on the media's role in depicting the 'true South African story' with respect to crime in the country.

While the purpose of the seminar was to discuss the recently released crime statistics for 2007/2008, researchers, SAPS officials and journalists themselves frequently returned to the questions:

  • does the media in South Africa offer a clear picture of the reality of the crime situation in South Africa?
  • ·and how powerful is the media in shaping public perceptions of crime and South Africa as a whole?

A false reality
Police officials, among others, have claimed that the way some media report on crime can create a false picture of the reality.

David Bruce of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation gave an example of this at a crime reporting workshop held earlier this year. Bruce said that the print media he consumes creates the impression that his demographic and geographical group (white, middle class, living in Gauteng's northern suburbs) is most at risk when it comes to contact crime in the country.

However statistics and studies conducted by SAPS and other research institutions indicate that the majority of contact crimes take place in large townships. The police precincts that recorded the highest number of murder incidents during the 2007/2008 period were Nyanga in the Western Cape and KwaMashu and Umlazi in KwaZulu Natal. The top twenty list does not feature a single suburban police precinct.

Also, it is seldom reported is the fact that the large majority of these contact crimes are social in nature and therefore occur between people who know each other e.g. friends, acquaintances or relatives. According to the SAPS 2006/2007 Annual Report, 89% of assault cases, 82% of murders and 76% of rapes reported in the period involved people who knew each other.

Deputy National Commissioner Andre Pruis, a speaker at Wednesday's ISS event, did not shy away from asking the media, "Why do journalists not report on where the majority of murders take place? Is it because these stories don't sell?"

Victims of our own pessimism
While house robberies and carjackings tend to occur in more affluent suburbs, it is the nature of the reporting of these particular crimes that seem to reflect the media's power in influencing public perceptions as well as eliciting the disproportionate levels of fear that have become part of our society.

In the 2007/2008 crime statistics report, the author writes:

"The carjackings, house robberies and business robberies [the trio crimes] which result in fatalities, serious injuries or rapes tend to be prominently reported particularly if a well-known member of the community is affected. These extremely tragic incidents are perceived as representative of all robberies.

"Although less than 500 murders recorded during 2007/2008 could be linked to the trio crimes, the more brutal cases enjoyed the most publicity and became associated with all 18 487 murders reported during the period.

"This not only scares off potential investors and tourists but raises fear levels inside the country as well and thereby creates a snowball of perceptions, fears and monotonously recurring reports of news incidents feeding upon one another in a vicious circle of self-fulfilling prophecies."

Executive Director of the ISS Jakkie Cilliers warns against the tendency of South Africans to position ourselves as "victims of our own pessimism".

The danger of falling into the pessimism trap lies in the fact that this will inevitably breed a society defined by embittered inaction, the meaningless passing of blame, high levels of disproportionate fear and even punitive and revengeful responses to crime.

The media's role in the battle
It is here that the media, through reflecting positive developments, SAPS success stories and the like, can play an exceptionally important role.

In an unconventional and somewhat scathing manner, Nqakula suggested that if the media continued to reflect negatively on the country's crime-fighters and their efforts in addressing this challenge, we could ultimately land up with a situation in which more people are encouraged to engage in criminality.

There is some truth to this. It is possible, after all, that the frequent news stories about identifiable middle class families being attacked in their homes and robbed of their valuables while mysterious, unnamed criminals disappear into the night never to be caught, sends out the message that, in this country, criminals win - and not the justice system, not the police, not the civil society sectors working to make South Africa a safer place.

By reporting on successes, on the broader crime environment and on the socio-economic conditions that produce criminals, the media can reverse pessimistic perceptions about the future of this country.

Telling 'the true South African story' is a tough call for journalists. At the end of the day, there are shareholders and investors to whom the bottom line counts - and it is widely known what kind of stories sell. That being said, how is the media in South Africa to manage the power of its influence in this delicate society that is plagued by crime?

In as much as the SAPS report rightly calls for the harshest possible punishments for criminals, shouldn't the country's media also ask itself how it can maximise its contribution to a safer South Africa?

In South Africa we are proud of the freedom and robustness of our media. But are we getting worn out by the never-ending criticism and a lack of coverage over what has been done well?

For this freedom and robustness to remain sustainable, shouldn't the media interrogate the accuracy of "bad news" with the same vigour that they interrogate the good? And shouldn't the media report the successes with the failures, giving equal attention to each?

A deeper analysis of the crime statistics than the one offered by the mainstream media reveals as many successes as there were disappointments. That is the true South African story!

By Lindy Mtongana

Source: South Africa - The Good News

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