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Suckers for the sound bite

By Guy Berger

FOR once, Jacob Zuma was able to hit back at the media.

It was when he spoke to the South African National Editors’ F

orum (Sanef) earlier this week, and referred — repeatedly and with relish — to the now-infamous blapse around the “generally corrupt relationship”.

Zuma’s new cultural weapon was bestowed on him by the media having en masse recycled the falsity that Judge Hilary Squires had declared there to be a “generally corrupt relationship” between him and Schabir Shaik.

This was not a misdemeanour that the editors could pin on a few errant members of trade. Everyone was implicated.

The day after Zuma’s address, one editor told his colleagues how, long before the belated disclosure, he had screwed up on the story himself.

In checking the written version of the judgement, he had noticed the particular phrase was not in it. He then googled the story — and found enough references to assume that the judge had probably spoken, rather than written, the words.

Mea culpa, he told Sanef: his assumption had turned out to be embarrassingly wrong. By implication, if journalists can’t rely on each other for research, how can the public be expected to rely on journalism?

Some editors have been quick to apologise, and Sanef itself expressed regret over the saga.

But some media defensiveness resorted to the argument that a “generally corrupt relationship” was no different to what Squires called a “mutually beneficial symbiosis”.

There is some debate about this equation, but whether right or wrong, it does not change the salient fact that Squires still did not use the particular words ascribed to him in the press over almost 18 months and many thousands of times on Google.

Some commentators explained the error by saying that the phrase was in the charge sheet. In this view, the initial indirect reportage said that Squires convicted Shaik (in relation to the charge) of a “generally corrupt relationship” with Zuma.

The problem was that these words lent themselves to being read as if the phrase came from the judge himself.

But demolishing this defence is that the three words are not actually in the charge sheet. At least that is according to prosecutor Billy Downer, speaking to a Sanef member during the week.

Squires has said he thought the phrase was used by the prosecutor “in one of his pictorial presentations as part of his argument at the end of the trial”. But guess what Downer further told the Sanef member? That he was not even sure that when or if he might have used the words.

Evidently someone from the press got it wrong at the outset. But the reasons there, and for the multiplication of the mistake, go a lot deeper than incompetence or misunderstanding.

A major cause is the way that journalists nowadays not only report, but also expressly “tell stories”. Such “storytelling” means to share the characteristics of a cracking good yarn. It means colour and drama. It means the media continuously looking out for catchy content phrases.

Add to this the pressures of space and time on the media, and you can see why “generally corrupt relationship” was recognised as a suitably pithy and picturesque sound bite worth regurgitating.

That so many journalists happily engaged in what Squires has described as “mindlessly parroting” reveals the intrinsic susceptibility of the media to the allure of a sexy phrase.

But like many sound bites, the words also oversimplify — hence the debates on whether these three imply that both sides were equally corrupt, and over the damage this does to Zuma as the unconvicted party.

It is this “storytelling” that converts a report into not merely an article, but also a tale to be told. And in turn, the resulting “story” then segues easily into an infectious sound-bite culture that short-changes the public of knowledge.

This is such a standard part in the contemporary media landscape that any amateur spin doctor today can craft a speech or press release to capitalise on it.

Even the Zuma supporters themselves were happy to exploit the trio of words, to complain that the judgement was unfair to their man. As recently as last week, the Friends of Jacob Zuma website had also been taking it for granted that the phrase came from Squires.

If this raises the expediency to be found in the Zuma camp, it does not, however, leave the media as a neutral institution that just innocently messed up.

Thus, in addition to purely media-related reasons for the mistake, it should be asked whether there was also an element of malice at play, a comfort in perpetuating the critical phrase. In short, did anti-Zuma prejudice help to ease the way in which the falsehood was converted into conventional wisdom (one that is now even still on Wikipedia)?

The experience has led some in the press to pause for thought about how they cover Zuma. It has highlighted the need to self-scrutinise for fairness, not to mention strengthening accuracy and back-checking to primary source material.

But there’s also a need to look beyond the fiasco of sloppy or biased journalism.

Journalists — and their audiences — are also victims of the peril endemic to journalistic “storytelling”. This is a much harder issue to challenge and change. I wonder what Zuma would do about this, were he a journalist. — Mail & Guardian.

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