The National Press Club’s choice of the rhino as the 2012 newsmaker of the year demonstrates how twisted and distorted the country’s news agenda can become.
The Club chair was quoted saying that a committee had carefully considered “who had made the most news throughout the year”. What hogwash! If it was a simple calculation of who received the most news mentions, then it would be a case of googling some key words and seeing how often they came up – and it would probably be someone like Lady Gaga.
The Club itself admitted that part of its reasoning was that “the onslaught on these African giants has not only resulted in much debate in the country and elsewhere in the world, but has also united people to rally behind campaigns against the bleeding of our heritage,” according to chairwoman Antoinette Slabbert.
A choice of newsmaker is not just about who gets the most mentions, but who has the most impact, influence and significance in the year’s news agenda. In a year in which 45 mineworkers were killed at Marikana, just to take one competing news story, it is hard to imagine what kind of committee puts the rhino at the top of the national news diary, citing what brought the most debate and campaigning.
What this speaks to is the dominance of a suburban news agenda in much of our media, drowning out the voices of those – the majority – who have less access to power, wealth and media. This is why neighbourhood potholes get more coverage than sewage that flows through the streets of informal settlements; why Parkhurst parking charges often win the battle for headline space against schools without toilets or electricity; why a Joburg daily paper recently led on the shock and horror story that we would have to pay to replace our damaged dustbins.
This is not to say that the rhino story or potholes are not important stories. Of course they are, and they must get their space and attention.But it does reflect a set of interests and priorities when one puts it right at the top of the news list in a country facing up to the most appalling inequality and the social and political instability it threatens.
We expect to have competing news agendas – as in all countries – as different classes and interest groups vie for attention. But in a country which suffers from the high level of equality that we do, there is a gross imbalance on which issues and concerns achieve most attention. And the rhino story showed this most clearly.
Consider some alternative newsmakers: the man in the green blanket, who came to symbolise the Marikana victims; the schoolchild studying under a tree in a rural area … Consider how different a message that sends out about what is most important to us in our national debate.
The National Press Club embarrassed us in exposing their news and social values.