© School

1. The Tabloid Press in SA: just an opinion, really. © May 2009.


Like the American penny papers and the British pauper press of the early 1800s, the South African tabloids post-1994 have what Allan calls “the express aim of securing a mass readership” interested in the kind of news that the so-called mainstream press neglects to cover (1999, p.13).  This confounds normative, liberal theories of the press and its role in a democratic society. Critics of the tabloids claim that “private matters are being publicly paraded, while matters of broader, national and political relevance are gradually receding into the background.” (Connell in Dahlgren & Sparks 1991, p. 237) The South African mainstream press is defined in terms of liberal press theory as government watchdog and Forth Estate. It adheres to professional standards and a code of ethics. The tabloids have been charged with contravening both of these, and worse, of being “pedlars of tokoloshes” (Mda cited in Bloom 2005) and of showing contempt for their readers, by perpetuating racial and class stereotypes and prejudices (Thloloe cited in Harber 2005, p. 1). The biggest problem with the nature of this criticism is that it is founded on a theory that does not apply to the object of the critique.  The tabloids do not evaluate “news” in the same way as the broadsheets; they have a different definition of “contributing to the development of democratic culture”.  Although their raison d’être is unashamedly commercial, according to Jones et al (2008, p. 168) these papers create an “…avenue of hope, of validation, for people as human and social beings.”  The mainstream press demands that the tabloids should conform to something they are not. What it advocates is an archaic and elitist ideal of the press that does not necessarily make sense in a post-apartheid South Africa, or serve the majority of the newspaper-buying population.

Pennies, paupers and the moral high ground

“With loud professions of freedom of opinion, there is no tolerance; with a parade of patriotism, no sacrifice of interest; and with fulsome panegyrics on property, to frequently, no decency.” James Fennimore Cooper (September 15, 1789 – September 14, 1851)

“The Du Plessis camp attributes their success to expressing the hitherto ignored real lives of working class readers – which they see as lives of people who want to read about sex and sport, who enjoy a laugh, who half believe in water snakes that can turn into tornadoes; that they are attuned to and appreciated by ordinary people who like headlines to be more lurid than lucid…” Guy Berger, 2005.

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” Alphonse Karr (1908 – 1990)

In the quote above, James Fennimore Cooper, American writer (Last of the Mohicans) expressed “a deep anxiety about the moral influence of the press which appeared to him to be “corrupting”, “vulgar”, and without decency” (Schudson 1978, p. 13).

Cooper returned to the U.S. after a few years in Europe in 1833, the year that saw the publication of the first penny paper, the New York Sun. The 1830’s were the “Jacksonian era”. Andrew Jackson, seventh president of the United States from 1829 to 1837, had “faith in the common man, belief in political equality, belief in equal economic opportunity, hatred of  monopoly, special privilege and the intricacies of capitalist finance” (Nevins and Steel cited in Schudson 1978, p. 43). His beliefs, translated into policy, meant that “a democratic wave swept the country in the form of manhood suffrage, informal manners, a cheap press, public schooling, and the advance of the religious sects most democratic in their governance” (ibid). It was a time that marked a revolution in American journalism (Schudson, p. 43).

With a little imagination, focusing on “democratic wave” and “manhood suffrage” and ignoring perhaps “advance of the religious sects” one can find many parallels between the circumstances that saw the birth of the penny newspapers in America then and the rise of the tabloids in South Africa post-1994.

One should add to this mix the rise of the ‘pauper press’ in Britain also at the beginning of the 19th century.  Like current tabloids all over the world and the penny papers before them, the pauper press had the expressed aim “of securing a mass readership interested in the kinds of news which the more ‘traditional’, ‘high-minded’ newspapers largely neglected to cover” (Allan 1999, p.13).

They did (and do) this by “delivering a form of journalism that their largely working-class readership would like to see at a price they can afford. Emphasis is placed on news with a human interest angle and entertainment value” (ibid).

In spite of their radical departure from the established and accepted journalistic norms of the time, and in spite of the fact that they aimed to access and cultivate markets ignored by and beyond the mainstream press, these publications have come under severe fire from their more “respectable” contemporaries. Without exception, such fire was of an ethical nature, and lobbed down from the dizzy elevation of the moral high ground, as we saw above.

The press, or news, or journalism as we know it, evolved for commercial reasons. The 16th century saw an increase in the trade of both commodities and news, as markets expanded and trade increased between the evolving nation-states in Europe. (Habermas 1989, 15-16) Newsletters produced by news dealers served mainly economic purposes as merchants needed more specific market information at greater speed.

It was only towards the end of the 17th century that the press as we know it today was established when a regular supply of news became public.

Jurgen Habermas’ theory of the public sphere and the press as “its pre-eminent institution” (1989, p. 181) transformed the function of the press into an organ through which the discourse of informed men around the issues of the common good was expressed. In this public sphere, to which all citizens had access, and in which they could participate as equals, the state was held accountable to its people.

One could argue that this was the foundation of the press’ function as ‘watchdog’ or, as christened by classic liberal theory, the Fourth Estate. Where Habermas’ public sphere did not account to the market or the government, liberal theory held that the press’ principle democratic role was to “fearlessly expose abuses of official authority”, and this was only possible “by anchoring the media to the free market, and hence, free of official influence” (Curran 2005, p. 122).

Curran outlines a range of reasons that the free market has failed the ideals of liberal theory. Firstly, more than two centuries later it would be no longer cheap to publish, which radically curtails the “freedom” to publish. Secondly, the free market actually undermines the provision of information. This is demonstrated by market research undertaken over a 40-year period, which showed that human-interest stories consistently obtained the highest readership scores because they appealed to all categories of reader. As a result, public affairs had a minority following concentrated among certain social groups (Hamilton cited in Curran, 2004).  Thirdly, the free market generates information-rich media for elites, sustained by advertising, and information-poor media for the public, and lastly, the free market undermines intelligent, rational debate. Market-orientated media tend to generate information that is simplified, personalised and decontextualised (Gitlin et al cited by Curran 2005 pgs. 129-130).

One can make a strong case that the tabloids are good examples of these failures: these publications were launched by the large media conglomerates; their core news values are parochial human-interest stories as opposed to news of a larger political world; the information contained in their pages is localised, limited and aimed at the lower LSMs; and the tabloids have never been accused of stimulating “intelligent, rational debate”.

My argument is that, as manifested in the modern-day tabloid, the press has come full circle. News itself is a product to be traded freely in an open market. Insofar as it is also potentially a powerful instrument of influence and manipulation, I hope to show that the tabloids in this country are not the gutter-press they are often made out to be by their critics, and that, in a very specific way, they do make a contribution to the gradual democratisation of our society.

A brief history

“Tabloid” comes from the name given by London-based pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome & Co. to the compressed tablets they marketed as “tabloid” pills in the late 1880s. While compressed tablets were not their invention, the success of their marketing campaign made “tabloid’ a common term in popular culture, and it was soon applied to the type of journalism that “condensed stories into a simplified, easily-absorbed format.” (Wikipedia).

The term can refer both to form and substance. Usually, it refers to physical size. A “tabloid” is roughly the size of an A3 page, which is roughly half the size of a “broadsheet” – the format chosen by newspapers who expect the world to take them seriously. Even so, there are perfectly respectable tabloid-size weeklies (even award-winning) and dailies. In South Africa the Mail and Guardian is an obvious example of the former, and the Citizen and The Times examples of the latter.

When people start talking of the “rise of the tabloids” however, it is often in the disparaging tones of academics and members of the mainstream press[1] (although the idea that the “mainstream” can sell fewer papers than the “tabloids” and still call themselves “mainstream” is a little confounding[2]) when discussing certain types of content. The hostility between these two camps is almost a two hundred years old and the content of the popular press has always been the easy target. On the face of it, sensationalist stories about crime, sex, death and other bizarre events should not be the fare of a medium that take itself seriously.

In the 1800’s the six-penny papers waged a “Moral War” in an effort to put James Gordon Bennet’s New York Herald out of business. “…(they) charged Bennett with indecency, blasphemy, black-mail, lying, and libel.”  (Schudson 1978 p. 55) Their tactics were smear campaigns – in their editorials they attacked Bennett and the Herald directly, declaring the paper “off-limits to self-respecting men and women”; and intimidation of both advertisers and distributors. Schudson suggests that this “Moral War of New York journalism” was perhaps symptomatic, and similar to the waging of other moral wars of the period. “These crusades were the shields of an old elite jousting with a rising middle class.”

South Africa saw the rise of a middle class with a new sense of identity and entitlement post-1990.  Under Apartheid a white minority controlled the print media, serving a small, select group of newspaper readers. The newspapers operated under the watchful eye of the Nationalist government, who fined or banned newspapers (usually the English independent press) that criticised its policies. Most Afrikaans newspapers were funded by the government and used for its propaganda (Jones et al. 2008 p. 168).

Foreign funding supported the alternative press, such as the New Nation, Grassroots, Saamstaan, South and Vrye Weekblad. But the end of the white regime also saw the end of this funding. These papers “primarily addressed the then disenfranchised black working class which was not attractive to advertisers”, and did not survive for commercial reasons. The years after 1994 saw the newspaper industry becoming more and more commercial, with greater concentration of ownership, a reduction of staff and “juniorisation” of newsroom and attrition of costly specialised reporting (Steenveld & Strelitz 2005, p. 2).

With the demise of the alternative press and the continued elitism of the mainstream broadsheets, there was a gap in the market. The Daily Sun was launched in 2002 by Naspers and publishing enfant terrible Deon du Plessis.[3] Within the first year of publication, the Daily Sun increased its circulation by 228% (Wasserman 2006, p. 48 cited in Steenveldt & Strelitz, p. 3).

The South African tabloids and its critics

“In an era where newspapers in many regions of the world seem to expect their imminent death (Philip Meyer [2004] famously predicted that the last newspaper will be read and recycled in April 2040), a newspaper revolution has taken place in South Africa. As if from nowhere, tabloid newspapers have entered the newspaper market and conquered it convincingly” (Wasserman 2007, p. 1).

The Daily Sun’s success quickly inspired the launch in 2003, also by Naspers, of the Afrikaans weekly Kaapse Son in Cape Town. Its popularity meant that it quickly went daily, titled simply “Son”. The Independent group then launched The Daily Voice, an English-language tabloid in the same region (Wasserman 2007, p. 2).

The response to the “rise of the tabloids” in South Africa varied from the carefully considered and deeply academic to culturally defensive, and, frankly, apoplectic.

The head of Rhodes University’s School of Journalism, Guy Berger, has perhaps been one of the most vociferous of critics, famously saying in his opening remarks that the Mondi Newspaper Journalism awards in 2005,

“They look like newspapers, they feel like newspapers, they even leave ink on your fingertips. But they’re not really newspapers.” (Journalism.co.za)

Lizette Rabie, news24.com columnist and Stellenbosch University professor, has been equally damming in her censure:

“The sad fact is, it seems, that some tabloids still don’t follow the rule or let the facts, indeed, stand in the way of a good story.” (Cited in Glenn & Knaggs, p. 108)

The tabloids have been called “pedlars of tokoloshes” (Mda cited in Bloom 2005) and “rags” that show “nothing but contempt for their readers and which feed racial and class stereotypes and prejudices.” (Thloloe cited in Harber 2005, p. 1). Their unapologetic reportage of highly unlikely events, mired in superstition and traditional beliefs, raise eyebrows on a regular basis. Deon du Plessis explained the Daily Sun’s commitment to these stories in an Australian radio interview in 2006:

Gerald Tooth: How important is fiction in the mix in your paper? And you indeed run those very outlandish stories of for instance Snake Rapes a Woman et cetera, they are bordering on the fictitious, aren’t they?

Deon du Plessis: Oh no, they’re not. I mean the example I often use is a story about people down in the Free State province who said that a white horse had carried a man onto the roof of his house where he woke up in his own bed. My view about that was that it was fervently believed down there, that was the story they told us; I’m not going to question that. The belief system in the market we’re aiming at is very different from what we might be accustomed to in the suburbs of South Africa.

Gerald Tooth: That’s why you include elements of magic in those sorts of stories?

Deon du Plessis: Magic is an important element in the belief system in the market that we aim at, very important. I’m not going to say it’s nonsense.

Gerald Tooth: And you take that at face value? You don’t question it?

Deon du Plessis: No, we don’t question it. It would be like questioning religion in a suburban market.

This is perhaps the most important aspect of the controversy. The tabloids do not report the news that the mainstream media think they should, according to the normative expectations of the press in a democracy.

Instead, in the case of the Daily Sun, nine times out of ten, “the lead on page one is ‘about people who nobody ever heard of…this woman, and an astonishing thing that happened to her.’ The sources at the Daily Sun are most often the readers themselves” (Du Plessis cited by Bloom).

According to Wasserman, the tabloids “have given voice to the majority of the population who have hitherto remained on the margins of the mediated public sphere” (2007, p. 2). In spite of attempts by the mainstream broadsheet papers to reflect more racial diversity, their “continued commercial logic” meant that the black majority remained excluded “from the construction of social reality through news” (ibid, p. 3).

It is not unreasonable that perhaps the majority of the paper-buying public would spend its money on a publication that covers the issues that directly concern them.

The loftier side of the argument is that “private matters are being publicly paraded, while matters of broader, national and political relevance are gradually receding into the background. There is much about the present situation which seems to lock people into the private sphere and blocks a transition to the public one” (Connell in Dahlgren & Sparks 1991, p. 237).

Connell goes on to point out that “In effect those who see the developing situation in this way assume that a plentiful supply of high-quality information is a precondition of effective participation in parliamentary democratic processes.  Cutting down on the supply of such information not only disenfranchises people, but runs the risk of cultivating political apathy, if not barbarism” (1991, pp. 236-7).

The South African mainstream press operates within the norms of liberal democratic theory, and as such it conforms to broadly defined, but specific demands and ideals. As elsewhere in the world this means that they adhere to professional standards and a code of ethics.

Or used to, the mainstream claims, until the birth of the South African tabloids. Part of the official complaint the Media Monitoring Project (MMP) filed against the Daily Sun last year, was that its “coverage of non-nationals by (the paper) during this period (May 2008) is not in line with its responsibility to fair, balanced, accurate and non-discriminatory reporting, contravening several fundamental clauses of the SA Press Code” (Mail & Guardian, 30 May 2007).

Although Joe Thloloe may have sympathised with the sentiment of the complaint, in the end as Press Ombudsman,  he felt that the MMP had failed to prove its case.

Generally, criticism levelled at publications like the Daily Sun, the Daily Voice and Son takes one of two forms:

“…firstly,  for not contributing to the development of  democratic culture in the country because they neglected ‘important’ political matters (including not only news about party politics and governmental affairs, but issues like HIV/Aids) and secondly, for acting unethically by stereotyping black subjects, objectifying women, othering foreign nationals and invading people’s privacy.” (Wasserman 2007, p. 4)

The biggest problem with the nature of such criticism is that it is founded on a theory that does not apply to the object of critique.  The tabloid press does not evaluate “news” in the same way as the broadsheets,  and has a different definition of “contributing to the development of democratic culture”.

Theoretical approaches

According to Schudson, “There is a creeping desire to define journalism normatively, as a field with a public mission.” He goes on to quote Jostein Gripsrud, who said “The core purpose of journalism is and should be about producing and distributing serious information and debate on central, social, political and cultural matters. Journalists regulate much of what the public gets to know about the world they inhabit, and this activity is vital to functioning democracy” (2003, p. 14).

Free press theory, or “libertarian theory” “is now widely regarded as the main legitimising principle for print media in liberal democracies” (McQuail 1987 p. 112). Both theories are simple, and full of inconsistencies. In its basic form, it means that people should be free to publish what they like. This would be an extension of other basic rights: “to hold opinions freely, to express them, to assemble and organise with others” (p. 113). It is certainly the operating principles of the popular press. The underlying principles are still those of a liberal, democratic state, “a belief in the supremacy of the individual, reason, truth and progress, and ultimately, the sovereignty of the popular will” (ibid).

McQuail goes on to explain that complications arise when attempts made “to account for press freedom as a fundamental right, and to set limits to its application and to specify the institutional forms in which it can best find expression and protection in particular societies.

“A free press is seen “as an essential component of a free and rational society.” (p. 114, my emphasis). The problem with this is obvious. Who decides when a society is rational?  Or when it is free? Were the xenophobic attacks last May rational? Is the way people HIV and Aids are ostracised and rejected by their communities rational? Is faith in magic and superstition rational?

If Joe Thloloe likens the tabloids to the Bantu World of the 1950’s, which feeds black readers “a non-political mix of sports, sex and crime and an ‘obsession with the bizarre’, and Guy Berger describes “their content as ‘cheap fiction’ and ‘a country away from credible journalism’ (cited in Harber 2005, p. 1), are they the people who decide what is rational?

This is the kind of thinking that has formed the basis of most of the criticism of the local tabloids. But it is time for  a rethink on the democratic role of the media, according to Curran, as its principles “derive from a frock-coated world where ‘the media’ consisted principally of small-circulation, political publications and the  state was still dominated by a landed elite. The result is a legacy of old saws, which bear very little relationship to contemporary reality” (2005 p. 122).

Ironically, if one wanted absolutely had to squeeze the tabloids into the confines of normative media theory, by their OWN definition, social responsibility theory might be closest to the mark.

One can scoff all one likes at this. From a normative point of view, it seems that the tabloids certainly do not  provide a platform for “diverse views”, or “accept that there are certain standards of performance in media work that can be stated, and should be followed” (McQuail 1987, p. 116).

But if we accept McQuail’s suggestion that “social media theory has to try to reconcile three somewhat divergent principles: individual freedom, media freedom and media obligation to society” (p. 117) the tabloids themselves can demonstrate that in spite of the raunchy headlines, the parochial news coverage and the “page 3 girl” (in the Cape Town papers), they deal with the real problems encountered by their readership on a day to day basis.

Democratic Duty

According to Jones et al, (2008, p. 168) “…this newspaper creates an avenue of hope, of validation, for people as human and social beings… the Daily Sun serves democracy by contributing to a sense of empowerment.”

In a time when the euphoria of post-1994 has worn off for the majority of South Africans, they find themselves increasingly frustrated by “the lack of service delivery, continued poverty and unemployment, crime and other socio-economic problems (including drug abuse, HIV/Aids etc.)” (Wasserman  2007, p. 3).

“A news story is an announcement of a special kind…. It is a declaration by a familiar commercial or stage agency, staffed by news professionals, that an event is noteworthy. It announces to audiences that a topic deserves public attention” (Schudson 2003 p. 31).

More than legitimising the issues that its readership has with their daily grind, the tabloids see themselves as “educational.” They make genuine attempts to relieve the obstacles the people face; from bureaucratic problems (the Daily Sun has a regular page dedicated to “Home Affairs Horrors”) to getting their plumbing fixed. “Mr Fixit” (Daily Sun, again) is available free of charge to readers who write to the paper requesting his help.

There is markedly less celebrity coverage in South African tabloids than in their overseas counterparts, and if you manage to get over the “Big Page One Story” one often finds advice and concrete assistance to readers.

“A recent study of the Sun’s treatment of major stories threw up some interesting results.  Wits student Sumayya Ismail found that the paper could not be accused of ignoring major stories like the tsunami, the election of a new Pope, the London bombings and the dismissal of Jacob Zuma, for example.  These events were not given nearly as much prominence as in the mainstream media, but they were reported on.  Significantly, there was a strong educational imperative – the paper sought to explain how things like the Pope’s election worked, for instance” (Journalism.co.za).

Karl Brophy, editor of Cape Town’s Daily Voice, sees the paper “embedded in the community”, and refers to stories aimed at preventing child abuse as examples of their community orientation. He says,

“One of the reasons we’re accepted so readily in communities around CT, is that in the past, newspapers would go into townships every now and then and then present it in a way if they are writing for their own readership about how these people live. What we’re doing  is we’re going in there every day and we say, this is how you live, and they know it is how they live because they see it every day” (cited in Wasserman  2007, p 10.).

In offices where there are quite possibly more journalists than wire services, the perpetrators of tabloid journalism deal with the reality of their readers’ everyday lives.  Their mission statement is be “We don’t do politics – but we do politicians” (Son 2004 cited in Wasserman 2007, p. 4) as their readers have little use for politics as defined by the mainstream media.

“Battling to get lazy politicians to do their duty” is more a Sun story about politics. Beyond that the Daily Sun is about “the everyday travails of ordinary people. Domestic squabbles. Struggling to get the children educated. Falling victim to crime, or striking back against criminals. “We call it people’s justice and it’s a rough thing,” says Du Plessis. “Mobs turning on suspects and setting them on fire. The police don’t come, so people take the law into their own hands.” Another category that resonates is stories about “strong women who refuse to be pushed around,” and witchcraft stories are routine (Malan 2006).

Far from being “out of touch with the mood of black South Africa”, (Malan 2006) du Plessis has managed to create a publication that looks like a tabloid, feels like a tabloid, leaves ink on your fingers and puts broadsheet circulation figures to shame. If his critics feel that “the man in the blue overall”[4] is demeaned, stereotyped and robbed of his democratic right to have access to “quality information”, the man in the blue overall clearly does not agree, and is prepared to pay R2,oo per edition to prove it.


Glenn and Knaggs refer to  Robert Putnam’s “Bowling alone: The collapse and renewal of the American community” (1995), where he suggests that the television world has contributed to a loss of community, neighbourhood interaction and social engagement. He goes on to say that the “tabloids, rather than contributing to this anomie through the coverage of the distant and the abstract, build on and solidify kinds of social solidarity and social capital that traditional broadsheets ignore and snub by omission” (2008 p. 113).

As the tabloids grow from strength to strength, criticism is becoming less and less vocal. The Mail & Guardian reported in July 2005 that “SA’s tabloids rise in the ranks of journalism.” At the AGM of the South African National Editor’s Forum (Sanef), a press statement described the tabloids as “a vibrant element of the changing media landscape”.

Inevitably there were counter arguments about ethics, believability, and the consequences of humouring superstitious beliefs that can lead to unwarranted community action, or even violence. Guy Berger argued that “the popularity of tabloid newspapering should not be at the expense of credible journalism or the promotion of values that are in line with the South African Constitution.” He called for an integration of the “progressive” with the “popular”, else an opportunity for meaningful print journalism catering to the masses would continue to be missed (Mail & Guardian Online 2005).

One could look at the Sowetan as a case study, and argue that this approach might work for media academics, but not so much for Naspers or Deon du Plessis.[5]

The tabloids are designed to make money. They always have been, and always will be. In South Africa, however, they can also have a positive and empowering impact on people’s lives.

Far from being the gutter-press epitomized by the modern British and American tabloid industry, the local versions have struck a real chord with a previously disenfranchised and even currently largely ignored sector of the population. It tells their stories, takes up their battles, and has been given the economic clout, by its number of readers, to carry on doing this for the foreseeable future.


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[1] In many instances, “mainstream press” is synonymous with “mass media”, which should, theoretically, also include the tabloid press. For the purposes of this essay, the term “mainsteam press” will refer to the daily broadsheets and other newspapers that carry “news” as defined by liberal press theory and are not “tabloids”. The irony does not escape the writer. Nor Karl Brophy, in footnote 2.

[2] According to Karl Brophy, “Given that the Daily Sun is, quite clearly, the biggest selling newspaper in the country and accepting that the Daily Voice is the biggest selling newspaper in Cape Town how do we not qualify as the mainstream media?” (cited in Wasserman, 2007.)

[3] I do not use the term enfant terrible lightly. Reportedly du Plessis has a vicious little warrior-dwarf figurine on his desk, which reminds him of his favourite line from Conan the Barbarian. “Find the enemy, crush him, and hear the lamentations of the women.” (Bloom 2005). He also drives a car with the number plate Beast 1 (Media Report radio interview).

[4] This is how publisher Deon du Plessis describes the average reader of the Daily Sun “predominantly black, English literate with a minimum high school education, working class earner—the economic core of South Africa” (Media24 website).

[5] The Sowetan had been forced to restructure under a new editor, Thabo Leshilo, after the Daily Sun was perceived to be responsible for huge circulation losses.  In 2006 Lizeka Mda of Mafube publishing said she was disappointed in the Sowetan. She said, “the Sowetan, I mean, which stood for something called nation-building, a very proud institution and all that soul is being buried… to chase the tokoloshes and it’s really very sad. (cited in Jacobs 2006).  But in spite of the revised editorial policy to access more a more populist readership, its publisher Andrew Gill, still prefers to distance his daily from the “down and dirty” image that, he says, commentators and critics apply across all tabloids. “Our strategy on Sowetan is to create a quality tabloid. You can go back to your Limpopo stories about snakes and rocks if you want to. I can’t interview the snake and I can’t interview the rock.”  (cited in Bloom, 2005).


2. Investigative Journalism: Where does news come from? © June 2009


Investigative journalists are the principal agents of the press in its role as the watchdog, or Fourth Estate, of a liberal democracy. In order to write the stories that expose corruption and unlawful activity by powerful political and economic people, and in order to provide their audiences and/or readers with information and knowledge that empower them democratically, these journalists have to rely on their sources for the leads that might produce a news story or exposé. There are, however, convincing arguments that journalists’ relationships with their sources, in the context of this role as defined by a liberal theory of the press, can be deeply problematic. Firstly, the nature of news production and its profit imperative virtually dictate that a reporter’s primary sources are officials of some kind, usually from the government. In this way, these sources then become the primary definers of news and news events. If we accept that what the public read or see in the media can define its reality, to some extent, this top-down flow of news is disturbing, and even undemocratic. Secondly, there is evidence that this relationship must be, to a certain degree, transactual in nature. According to Ward (1995, p. 117), Sigal’s “classic study of reporters and officials (1973: 5) points out that ‘news is an outcome of the bargaining interplay of newsmen and their sources’”. This could affect the integrity and critical ability of the journalist. Thirdly, and ironically, it seems that the conventions of journalism as a profession can contribute to journalists ‘manufacturing’ news through their sources. Agenda setting theory supports the premise that the mass media has at least some influence on its audience and that, as such, it is worth manipulating. In conclusion, we consider the possibility that even though the relationship between journalists and their sources may be problematic, and vulnerable to manipulation, that journalists as professionals are aware of the dangers, and are able steer clear of them.


The media is perceived to be a powerful source of influence in people’s lives. Some scholars have argued that this influence goes beyond ubiquitous pedestrian fears that violence on television will lead to violent behaviour in society. New York Times reporter Michael Kelly has said that the television watching public “believe in polls. They believe in television…. They believe that nothing a politician does in public can be taken at face value, but that everything he does is a metaphor for something he is hiding…. Above all, they believe in the power of what they have created, in the subjectivity of reality and the reality of perceptions, in image” (Schudson, 2003, p. 17). Schudson goes on to quote the British critic Geoff Mulgan, who said, “we now live in a world in which fantasy and reality are impossible to distinguish” (2003, p. 17).

If one agrees with Mulgan and Kelly, it would seem that reporters may well have the kind of power that journalism students dream of: the kind that would enable them ‘to make a difference’, ‘to bring the government down’ even, ‘to change the world’. And with that, the last words of Peter Parker’s uncle Ben, shortly before his death, should strike right to their hearts, “With great power… comes great responsibility” (Spider-Man, 2002).

If one thinks of these ideals (or charges) as being a little grandiose, if not ludicrously over-ambitious, or simply ridiculous, one should have another look at what exactly what their source is. In any political dispensation that can be called a liberal democratic state, the press, in its role of government watchdog or Forth Estate, is felt to be, to some extent, the measure of democracy.

“The core purpose of journalism is and should be about producing and distributing serious information and debate on central, social, political and cultural matters. Journalists regulate much of what the public gets to know about the world they inhabit, and this activity is vital to a functioning democracy”  according to Gripsrud in Schudson (2003, p. 14) and according to Jeffrey Klaehn, “The fundamental principles of democracy depend on upon the notion of a reasonably informed electorate.”

Manning, however, points out that although this specific function of the press in a liberal democracy – “gathering and communicating to the public, up-to-date information from home and abroad, in order to sustain political discussion, and the democratic process” – seen from a liberal perspective, is generally accepted, “beyond this, very little is agreed” (2001, p. 2).

Far from the ideal of delivering the information that would liberate and empower the citizenry of a democracy, “the news provides, at best, a superficial and distorted image of society” (Bennet, 2003, p. 10).

The reasons for this deformation are varied: sociological, political and economic, to name the main perspectives only. Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model goes as far as to claim that the news, by its very nature, is not only distorted, but that this distortion is the result of “systematic propaganda” designed to “inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behaviour that will integrate them into the institutional  structures of the larger society” (1994, p. 1).

According to the authors of Manufacturing Consent, there is a set of news “filters” through which the powerful political and economic elites sift information and shape its release, sending to print only the news that benefits them and entrenches the status quo (Herman and Chomsky, 1994).

These filters are: the size, ownership, wealth and profit motive of the dominant mass media; advertising as their primary source of income; the media’s reliance on political and business elites as primary sources of information; ‘flak’ or negative responses to media content by institutions or individuals; and, finally, ‘anti-communism’ (Herman and Chomsky, 1994, p. 2). Ultimately, the filters lead to self-censorship of the mass media, which then plays an important part in the hegemonisation of society.

Not everybody agrees with the propaganda theory, but the economic imperatives of the news business are seen more readily as deterrents to the free flow of information. Neither the ideal of ‘objectivity’ nor ‘journalistic independence’ seems to have survived the relentless race to stay ahead of the deadline in the pursuit of profit-making knowledge. And although the ‘freedom of the press’ is, in many counties, constitutionally guaranteed, it seems that the financial requirements of news production take precedence over it.

In both the news organisation and the profession of journalism there have evolved certain standard practices that makes it possible for the paper to go to print by its deadline. By routinising newswork, the organisation can ensure “a plentiful and regular supply of copy” (Ward, 1995: 117). The practice of delegating specific ‘beats’ (in Australia ‘rounds’) to journalists means that they are always working in familiar territory. This enables a reporter to cultivate a working, often special relationship with the experts in those beats (police, lawyers, doctors, economists, public relation officers, bureaucrats, captains of industry, social workers, etc) – their sources. At short notice, in a crisis or on a deadline, the journalist then has a go-to person, whom he or she can trust to verify a lead or provide an alternative, balancing angle to a story. In the cultivation of what Ward calls the news reporter’s ‘tradecraft’,  sources are nurtured and jealously guarded, because of the premium journalists place on “obtaining reliable and readily accessible information” (1995, p. 115).

The problem with the relationships between journalists and their sources is that the sources are usually officials of some kind or another, belonging to the political or economic elite. There are serious implications to these sources being the primary definers of what is news or at least, newsworthy. (Ward, 1995; McNair, 1998; Schudson, 2003). In the next section I will discuss in greater detail the extent to which journalist’s relationships with their sources are potentially problematic.

At this point, however, it is time to go back to Mulgan and Kelly and their view that the media may have the power to define, to some extent, reality as the public experiences it. If we accept this hypothesis for a moment, and we agree that this ‘reality’ is possibly, in turn, defined by the existing structures of power, the liberal ideal of the media as watchdog, guarding the common good, must be questioned, and the likelihood of the mass media serving the status quo, considered.

Where does news come from?

News is not about events that actually happened or is in the process of happening. It is almost always somebody’s account of events that happened (Palentz and Entman in Ward, 1995; Sigal in Schudson, 2003). Exceptions to can be found in the work of broadcast journalism, but even then, the ‘eyewitness accounts’ rarely belong to the reporters themselves.

News comes from people who have stories to tell, and who want to tell these stories to the press, or the world. Either they will step forward voluntarily, or journalist will find them while making routine calls to keep tabs on what was happening on their beat.

Dirk Coetzee is an example of the former group.

According to Jacques Pauw, “if it was not for people who had grudges, then investigative journalism would not have existed.[1]” Pauw published a far-reaching expose of the death squads in the old South African police force after sitting on the story with colleague Martin Weltz[2] for four years. When they were first approached by Coetzee, ex-security policeman and death squad commander, they were both working at the Afrikaans Sunday paper Rapport and the editor, Willem de Klerk, was the brother of the State President, F.W. de Klerk, at the time. They would never have succeeded in getting the allegations published there. “That is one of the reasons why I started the Vrye Weekblad[3] with Max, [du Preez] Pauw said, “partly so that I could tell that story.”

I asked Pauw how Dirk Coetzee came to talk to them. He told me that Coetzee was ordered to abduct an ANC activist in Swaziland, to take him to Vlakplaas[4] and to get information from him. Coetzee and his men abducted the activist and tortured him, only to find out that they had the wrong man. In spite of saying how sorry they were, and despite giving the victim some money to keep “his mouth shut”, the injured man told his story when he returned to Swaziland. This caused a diplomatic incident that the South African government, deeply embarrassed, had to resolve by apologising publicly.

Coetzee was so far out of favour as a result of the debacle, that, in his words to Pauw, he was “sent to the dog squad without a dog.” After an early medical retirement, Coetzee tried to find other work but failed. Believing it was the security police blocking him, and deeply angered, he started telling the story of Vlakplaas to, apparently, anybody who would listen.  The security police heard of this and tapped his phone. Coetzee realised this. Deeply paranoid, and fearing quite rightly for his life, he started compiling a docket which he took a variety of sympathetic people, none of whom believed him. And so he ended up with Pauw and Weltz, and eventually, four years later, his story was published in the Vrye Weekblad and he handed himself over to the ANC. Today he is alive and well and living somewhere near Pretoria.

I asked Pauw if he thought the media saved Coetzee’s  life. “Yes,” he said. “The security police tried to kill him; they sent him a letter bomb while he was hiding out in Zambia.”

I asked why Coetzee came forward. “He wanted to get to the top structures of the police. He is a typical example of someone with a grudge; he did not care about the people who were killed at Vlakplaas.”

And then Pauw said, “We feast on people who have a score to settle.”

Schudson calls a journalist’s sources the “deep, dark secret of the power of the press” (2003, p. 134).

Even in the great investigations stories, there is always the question about the personal agenda of the source (or the ‘leaker’). Jim Martin, in an article for the Atlantic Monthly, posted a reasonable theory on the identity of one of the most famous leaks in the history of investigative journalism.

He suggested that Deep Throat was one or more of the top-level FBI officials who were unhappy about the fact that Nixon appointed L. Patrick Grey, an outsider, to succeed J. Edgar Hoover as the head of the FBI. His/their motive for going to the press was the fact that attempts by Gray and the White House to frustrate the investigation into a break-in at the Democratic Party’s headquarters were making the FBI look bad. It seems, in the end, that Bob Woodward’s sources were deeply bitter “G-men” who were “jealous of their turf and jealous of the Bureau’s reputation” (Schorr in Iyengar and Reeves, 1997, p. 135).

To this day, it is unclear what the thieves were after, but the FBI got Nixon, and the Washington Post got its Pulitzer.

According to Ward (1995, p. 117), Sigal’s “classic study of reporters and officials (1973: 5) points out that ‘news is an outcome of the bargaining interplay of newsmen and their sources’ who of course have mixed motives as well as a tacit agreement to co-operate.”

Reporters have much to bargain with: the interpretation of events, for example, and discretion in the favourable (or not) portrayal of the people they write about. Ultimately, journalists write the news and can either facilitate or frustrate efforts to influence the policy agenda on issues which their sources may regard as important. Sources control the information that journalists need to produce copy and in return, journalists have access to the audiences that the sources may want to reach. So, often the interaction between journalist and sources take the form of an exchange (Ward, 1995, p. 117).

The implication of ‘an exchange’ is problematic. Mainly because of the ‘beat’ system, journalists will develop relationships with the sources that they regularly come into contact with. As mentioned earlier, sources are the life-blood of the story factory and in order to retain them, journalists “may agree to conceal the identity of sources… not to publish information passed on to them as ‘off-the-record’, and to accept an embargo on the publication of material until a time which suits their source. It is quite possible that journalists might bend even further where they routinely rely heavily upon material which a particular official regularly supplies” (Ward, 1995, p. 116).

This situation is likely to influence and even compromise a journalist’s judgement. He or she may be inclined to be less critical, less objective insofar as that is possible, because they like or respect a source, or because they are afraid of being denied information in future (Ward, 1995, p. 117).

Another consequence of the beat system and the “restriction on time and money” is that most of the regular, reliable and authoritative sources of news organisations and reporters are official ones, and often attached to the government in one way or another. (Herman and Chomsky, 1994; Ward, 1995; Schudson, 2003). The ‘official versions of events’ sounds like a missive from the old Soviet Republics,  not like the news in a liberal democratic state, but that would be what over-reliance on official sources amounts to. According to Stuart Hall, then media “faithfully and impartially, [reproduces] the existing structure of power in society’s institutional order” (cited in Manning, 1991, p. 14).

Not that reliance on such sources guarantees “favourable” news. Wrongdoing by government is almost certainly the starting point of a journalistic investigation. Even so, Schudson points out, “it is difficult to muckrake the government without the government’s cooperation” (2003, 140). It is no small irony that even with the best-placed leaks and informants, journalistic conventions dictate that journalists cannot go to print without verification of a story by a well-placed figure (Schudson, 2003). Especially if the story is about a well-placed figure.

There is a last and important problem with the use of sources in modern press organisations. The professional demands of impartiality and objectivity[5] requires that journalists call their sources to get a balancing point of view, a counterpoint to a story or simply some corroboration. In the process they inevitably give sources, who might otherwise not have commented or contributed to a story, the opportunity to either start or to enter and existing public debate.  “In these circumstances the news has not been reported, but the journalist has caused it to happen. News which arises from the intervention of journalists is ‘manufactured’ (Ward, 1995, p. 120).

If we look at the issues raised in this section, it would almost seem as if the production of news and the conventions of the craft itself invite official manipulation. I have looked at the theory of sources, and the fact that the relationship between journalists and their sources is a two-way street. An important aspect of this traffic of information is the motivation of the drivers, and influencing the public agenda is an important one.

Agenda setting

“Leaders from various sectors of society who disagree on almost everything else agree that journalists are the most powerful, dangerous and irresponsible group in the country” (Schudson, 2003, p. 16).

People have long complained about the power of the press. Left-wing critics charge it with supporting the economically and politically powerful and right-wing critics insist that the media “make our culture unduly liberal, spreading feminism, environmentalism, and acceptance of homosexuality” (Schudson, 2003, p. 16).

According to Blumler and Gurevitch, public concern about the effects of the mass media on its audience is based on the assumption that the mass media do indeed have considerable influence over their audiences; that in this sense they are powerful.” (1982, p. 236). The debate on the potential influence that images of violence and sexual activity when broadcast on television may have on children and future serial killers is an old one.

McNair points out that television drama or fiction programming delivers a clear cultural message, and is understood by it audience for what it is. By contrast, “journalism is an account of reality” (1998, p. 38) and claims to tell us something that is true about the world, even if that truth is mediated by the subjectivity of the journalist.” And finally, that “journalism makes things visible to the public and thus makes them important. […] Our concerns about the world are not related so much to what is happening as to what journalists tell us is happening. This is a powerful effect with huge implications for wider social processes.” (1998, p. 49).

He uses the example of the bomb that exploded on PanAm flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1988, which killed 270 people and created a serious political rift between the US and Libya during the subsequent trial. The Air India flight that went down under very similar circumstances on the Irish coast, three years earlier, and which killed the 302 crew and passengers, received relatively little media attention: “it had low visibility and even less political significance for the Western audience” (1998, p. 50). The same principle can be applied to the Ethiopian famine, which pre-existed the Western media’s coverage of it in 1984.

Sources talk to journalists because they want to access an audience, and they always have an agenda, which they often hope to conflate with that of the public agenda.

The agenda setting thesis that the press and the mass media, generally, might not succeed in telling people what to think, but certainly informs what people think about, has persevered in spite of unconvincing  testing.[6] Blumler and Gurevitch point out that media effects research is historically problematic. The design of such research is “inevitably intricate and demanding” and the results, “complex in pattern, difficult to interpret, possibly inconclusive and rarely supportive of a picture of the media as overriding, uniform or direct.” (1982, p. 237).

Most agenda-setting studies have been designed around public elections. As events, elections are organised long in advance, giving scholars ample time to design and prepare their studies, and the event itself (if not its outcome), is fairly predictable.

Lazarsfeld, Berelson and Gaudet’s “famous” 1940 US Presidential election study (1944) found that “only limited change” occurred during the campaign. (Blumler and Gurevitch, 1982, p. 243). The findings of a British study by Trenaman and McQuail (1961) during the General Election campaign of 1959 showed that during the campaign attitudes (but not necessarily votes) changed significantly in favour of the Conservatives, but that there was no clear link between that movement of opinion and the channels via which the voters followed the elections.

Such repeatedly inconclusive findings have apparently caused pioneer agenda-setting theorists Kurt and Gladys Lang to remark that, “After each national election students of political behaviour comment on how little effect the mass media appear to have had on the outcome” (1966, p. 455 cited in Blumler and Gurevitch, 1982, p. 244)

In spite of their apparent exasperation at the lack of evidence, the Langs did argue “that the mass media structured a reality which was so pervasive and so obtrusive that it was difficult, if not impossible, to escape its influence” (Gandy in Protess and McCombs, 1991, p. 263).

In the definitive agenda-setting study done by McCombs and Shaw (1972) during the 1968 presidential campaign, they “attempted to match what Chapel Hill voters said were key issues of the campaign with the actual contents of the mass media used by them during the campaign” (McCombs and Shaw, 1972 in Protess and McCombs, 1991, p. 18). Their findings in the end, did not “prove” the agenda setting function of the mass media, but showed that their evidence was “in line with the conditions that must exist if agenda-setting by the mass media does occur” (in Protess and McCombs, 1991, p. 25).

What is interesting for us, from an investigative journalism point of view, is the “series of field experiments” designed to test McCombs and Shaw’s 1972 agenda-setting hypothesis. These moved away from the election model, and were “made possible by journalists’ disclosure of forthcoming investigative stories to the research team”, giving them enough time for pre- and post-publication survey interviewing. The methodology and comprehensive findings is beyond the scope of this essay, but it is important to note their findings in broad strokes. The four studies were: a televised investigative news report on fraud and abuse in the federally funded home health care programme; a print series exposing “government improprieties in the reporting and handling of rape against Chicago area women”; a five-part television series about “repeatedly brutal Chicago police officers”; and the toxic waste disposal practices of a major Chicago university (Protess et al., in Protess and McCombs, 1991, p. 171).

When they compared the findings of the four studies, the results showed that although two of the four stories did not have a general public impact, in all four cases there was a policy impact of some kind. Although the researchers did not generalise on the question of whether investigative reports always resulted in “some form of policy response” their findings did suggest that “investigative reports may have more influence than previously thought.”

There are sure historical examples of the influence of the media. Ward points out that coverage of the Vietnam created celebrities out of unknown activists, which lead to leadership struggles which destabilised the internal politics of the student left. In Australia, the media influenced leadership struggles in both political parties, notably during 1991 when Prime Minister Bob Hawke fended off an leadership coup attempt by Paul Keating. The continued media speculation after this, however, led to ‘a continuing mood of concern and pessimism in Caucus, which made a second, successful challenge inevitable” (1995, p. 122).

Protess and McCombs summarise agenda setting as “a relational concept specifying a positive connection between the emphasis of the news media and the perceived importance of these topics to the news audience. Establishing these saliences among the public, placing an issue or topic on the public agenda so that it becomes the focus of public attention, thought, and discussion is the first stage in the formation of public opinion” (1991, p. 2).

Whether one thinks of the possible influence of the media on an audience as “powerful” or “likely”, it is possible to argue that those who want to access this influence, and place items on the public agenda, can do worse that cultivate a relationship with a journalist and/or the mass media.

What is open to debate is whether or in which manner the media allow this, and, in this relationship between the media and their sources, who decides on the agenda.


From the above section it is reasonable to assume that people in power would want to influence the mass media. I have listed a range of conditions and circumstances around the liaisons between journalists and their sources that make it possible for people in power to do so. But if these relationships were all about the transaction,  and if news was only the ‘outcome of the bargaining interplay of newsmen and their sources with mixed motives’, as a profession it would have to be soulless, and lacking in the kind of personalities that have written great journalism throughout history.

To the question of why people become journalists, Lou Cannon has the following to say, “…people also become reporters because they want to have some impact on the world. The desire to promote change was a motivation for reporters long before modern ‘advocacy journalism’” (in Iyengar and Reeves, 1997, p. 11).

One can jest about Peter Parker and ‘changing the world’, but the role of the press in a liberal democracy is, as we many have argued, an important one. Simply because there is evidence that sources might try and manipulate journalists, according to Ward, this need not imply that journalists will act unprofessionally. “Mostly in pursuit of objectivity, journalists will try to balance information supplied by one source with information from another” (1995, p. 120).

Jacques Pauw said to me “people only talk to you when they have an agenda, and when they want to get to someone, but I don’t mind running someone’s agenda for them, as long as it is true, and it is in the public interest.”

There are great examples through the ages of investigative journalists “revealing the murky undercurrents of government,” – Watergate, Irangate, Monica Lewinsky. “In Britain the freeing of the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six and the Bridgewater Three were all the outcome not just  of dedicated legal teams, but of persistent campaigning journalism over years” (McNair, 1998, p. 118).

Although scholars like Herman and Chomsky have suggested that the modern media serves solely to entrench the status quo, and hence that the relationship between journalists and their sources must necessarily serve the dominant interests, others will argue that this leaves little room for individual endeavour and freedom of thought. Journalists are human, sure, but they are also professionals. The pitfalls of their trade are understood by them.

After months of investigation into corruption in the arms deals of BAE (the biggest British arms company and one of the biggest in the world) David Leigh and his team at the Guardian in London had to let go of the story after Tony Blair closed down the legal investigation under the guise of “British national security.” In his speech at the Taco Kuiper awards ceremony in April 2009, he called it “a most disgraceful charade”, but there was nothing they could do.

When people asked him if he was not upset that nobody has been brought to justice, he said no, from a journalistic point of view it was good, it was a triumph. We’ve toiled with our spades and we’ve dug up this stuff and we’ve told people what’s going on, and that’s our job” (Taco Kuiper awards ceremony speech, 2009).


Bennet, W. L. 2003. News: The Politics of Illusion. 5th ed. USA: Longman.

Blumler, J.G. and Gurevitch, M. 1982. The political effects of mass communication. In:  Gurevitch, M., Bennet, T., Curran, J. and Woollacot, J. eds. Culture, Society and the Media. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 236 – 267.

Gurevitch, M., Bennet, T., Curran, J. and Woollacot, J. 1982. Culture, Society and the Media. London and New York: Routledge.

Herman, E. S. and Chomsky, N. 1994. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. London: Vintage Books.

Iyengar, S. And Reeves, R. 1997. Do the Media Govern? Politicians, Voters and Reporters in America. USA: SAGE.

Leigh, D. 2009. Speech at the Taco Kuiper awards ceremony at the Rand Club in Johannesburg on April 17.

Manning, P. 2001. News and News Sources: A Critical Introduction. London: SAGE.

McCombs, M., Shaw, D. L. and Weaver, D. 1997. Communication and Democracy: Exploring the Intellectual Frontiers in Agenda-Setting Theory. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

McNair, B. 2004. The Sociology of Journalism. London: Arnold Publishers.

Pauw, J. 2009. Interview with author.

Protess, D. L. and McCombs, M. 1991. Agenda Setting: Readings on Media, Public Opinion and Policymaking. Hillsdale New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Schudson, M. 1978. Discovering the News: A Social History of American Papers. USA: Basic Books.

Schudson, M. 2003. The Sociology of News. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Sony Pictures. 2003. Spider-Man.

Ward, I. 1995. Politics of the Media. Melbourne: Macmillan.

[1] Jacques Pauw is a South African author and award-winning investigative print and television journalist. I interviewed him in June 2009. All the references to Pauw, Dirk Coetzee and Vlakplaas came from that interview.

[2] Martin Weltz is currently the editor of Noseweek, a monthly magazine that focuses on political and economic investigations.

[3] Vrye Weekblad was an Afrikaans weekly paper, largely funded by the Swedish government, and was grouped together with publications like the New Nation under the banner of the ‘alternative’ South African press.

[4] Vlakplaas was the infamous farm that belonged to the security police, and where many activists were tortured and held captive. It was on this farm where many anti-apartheid activists were turned into Askari’s – agents for the apartheid government – and sent back to spy on the left-wing organisations.

[5] The terms “impartiality” and “objectivity” are used in the context of a professional code of ethics, informed by the notion that a journalist’s background, history and sympathies may well influence his or her point of view.

[6] Salma Ghanem (in McCombs, Shaw and Weaver, 1997) discusses “The Second Level of Agenda Setting” which does detail “a second level of effects that examines how media coverage affects both what the public thinks and how the public thinks about it” but this is beyond the scope of this essay.

One Response to “© School”

  1. Not what I was looking for but superb anyway! Good for you!

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