News Values, Ethics and Violence in Kwazulu-Natal: Has Media Coverage Reformed?

Article excerpt

Abstract

The article examines the coverage of violent conflict between the African National Congress (ANC) and Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), commonly referred to as the Natal violence, by three newspapers in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, from 1987 to 2000. It attempts briefly to unravel the ideological and political construction of violence through comparative analysis of newspaper headlines and stories, and demonstrates a breakdown in ethical reporting during the years of apartheid, that has shadowed journalists into the new millennium.

Keywords: news ethics, news values, violence

Introduction

In September 2004, the speaker of the uMtshezi Municipality, based in the town of Estcourt in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands, was shot dead the day after he had crossed the floor from the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) to the African National Congress (ANC). In the following days, death threats, violence and attacks continued. Other attacks during the year had taken place in numerous areas including Ulundi, Nongoma, Mahlabathini, Tongaat, Greytown and Tugela Ferry, and these were not isolated incidents. Violence with political roots continues to occur on an almost daily basis in KwaZulu-Natal, and yet, in the words of the province's only remaining violence monitor Mary de Haas, 'much of the media continues to perpetuate the myth that conflict serving political ends is behind us'. (1)

The purpose of this article is to attempt to understand the way in which the press in KwaZulu-Natal reports violent conflict. It begins as a brief attempt to unravel the ideological and political construction of violence in KwaZulu-Natal presented to a largely white readership through comparative analysis of newspaper headlines and stories in the province's three major newspapers, in the period from September 1987 to June 2000. The ways in which internecine violence on the three different newspapers was presented (or ignored) in hard news stories is examined. The article broadly examines the ways in which stories of violence were covered under apartheid, and attempts briefly to compare news produced before the unbanning of the ANC in 1990 with stories produced in the transitional period between 1990 and 1994, including a brief look at the Shobashobane massacre in December 1995 and the Nongoma assassinations, ending in June 2000. Although the last two categories fall outside the ambit of what is generally considered to be'Natal violence proper', they are important because they help demonstrate the way the media select and depict certain events, particularly where race is involved. 'It should not be forgotten that the media do not just report about or reflect reality; they are an integral part of reality' (Van den Buick, 1999, 10).

This article briefly examines the ways in which the discourse of news was constructed and how this was mediated through newspaper stories over time. It also briefly discusses various factors that Antoinette Louw (1995) argues have affected, and continue to affect, this reporting, namely

* the legislative restrictions imposed by the previous National Party (NP) government, particularly during the states of emergency.

* daily journalistic practices and the functioning of the newsroom.

* the demands of market forces and the influences of newspaper ownership.

* the reporting environment outside the newsroom.

Working from the premise that the final accomplishments of journalism should be publicity, accountability and solidarity (Ettema and Glasser, 1998), this article will ultimately seek to highlight the very significant breakdown in ethical journalism in that period.

The three newspapers under scrutiny

KwaZulu-Natal's three biggest daily newspapers were used for this research--the Natal Witness, the Daily News and the Mercury. The texts under scrutiny span more than a decade, ranging from a time of intense and stringent media control, through turbulent political transition, to the present phase of ostensible press freedom. …