Managing the Media-Municipal Divide
Councilors and local government officials often accuse community media of not understanding how local government works and of reporting on scandals instead of ‘real news’.
On the other hand, the media also complains about their local municipalities, contending that they continuously ignore invitations from community media outlets, such as radio stations and papers, to answers their audience’s questions and complaints.
To counteract this state of affairs, in November 2005, the Media@IDASA Programme launched a web-based resource for journalists reporting on local government in South Africa. The resource, Word on the Street, is aimed at assisting community journalists better reflect their knowledge of local government in their coverage.
Bridging the Gap
In his opinion piece featured in the SA Delivery Newsletter, Brett Davidson, Programme Manager for Word on the Street, argues that citizens are the main losers in the conflict that persists between local media and municipalities.
Although the extent to which the media influences public opinion is a heavily contested issue, it cannot be disputed that the media plays a large part in informing the public about municipalities and related institutions. However, the lack of good relations between these two parties results in a break-down of communication and subsequently leads to the poor dissemination of information.
Word on the Street is intended to play a pivotal role in ensuring that this happens as infrequently as possible by educating community media practitioners about their own municipalities. Davidson is of the view that it is important that the media adequately and accurately reflect municipal issues as the media plays a huge role in developing democracy.
Davidson argues that, “We try and improve the relationship between municipality and local media.”
Consequently, although the Word on the Street website is not targeted at municipal officials, to balance the scales, the Word on the Street team also works with municipalities to bring about a more amicable relationship between the two parties. This is done by hosting regular workshops for municipal workers, with the aim of developing effective media strategies.
A Project Built on Sound Experience
The concept for the Word on the Street project originated from a sister project, Democracy Radio, which provides training to community radio stations in production skills, community research, and programming and formatting skills.
While working with local community journalists on this particular project, the Media@IDASA Programme identified the need for ongoing training that journalists can access in their own time. From this realisation, Word on the Street was born to “help strengthen the media at the community level,” says Shepi Mati, Unit Manager for Democracy Radio.
The site features resources such as:
• regular newsletters
• ready-to-use articles
• background information
• a list of experts
• glossary of local government terminology
Although Word on the Street is primarily web-based, many of the resources on the site have an edge of the net orientation, which allows IDASA’s staff to email and fax, items such as newsletters and toolkits, to those radio stations and newspapers that find it difficult to access the internet. On this very point, Davidson maintains that, “We make sure that as many people (as possible) have access to it.”
The End Product
According to Davidson, “The media has reacted very well to the resource.” For this reason, he would like to see more resources being made available on the site. In the future, Davidson would like to see the website being used more and more as a platform for the exchange of ideas where there are continuous contributions by the media for the media.
The Word on the Street project faces a few problems in the year ahead. In April, the funding for the project comes to an end. Although this presents a challenge, Davidson is optimistic about the ongoing sustainability of Word on the Street. “We need to find a way to make it self sustainable…and a way of keeping it going beyond that,” he says.
Badumile Duma, Information Co-ordinator, SANGONeT.