It’s time that municipal spin doctors confronted the harsh truth that local government is not a sexy topic across the newsrooms of the nation. Mundane reports about municipal services, budgets and council meetings simply don’t hold broad public appeal unless they are mired in controversy.
Journalists on the municipal beat, whether working for community or commercial media, face the daily challenge of covering local government issues in a manner that will not have the readers nodding off, but which is also balanced and fair. Producing readable municipal news that fits in the limited space, time and financial constraints that most of the media work under is no mean feat. This complex juggling act requires vast skill, knowledge, creativity and indeed restraint. The editorial pressures to resort to stories of scandal and corruption are strong and some publications succumb easily. Nevertheless, tabloidism however popular, is hardly nurturing for our young democracy.
Then there are those earnest officials who confuse public service media with real journalism. While information on “how to understand your electricity bill” may be important in terms of educating citizens, it will neither sell newspapers nor win any awards for investigative journalism. Recognising this, the mainstream media invest little in the coverage of municipal issues and fluctuate between sunshine journalism and an unhealthy pre-occupation with muckraking.
The media-municipal divide is fuelled on both sides by a lack of understanding of the role and workings of the other. IDASA’s Brett Davidson has identified this as a potential threat to the country’s vision for participatory democracy, “citizens are the ultimate losers in the media-municipal conflict”. While the media typically complain of hostility and frustration in their relationship with municipal communicators, accusations and actual examples of misrepresentation of local government in the media are widespread. The responsibility for informing citizens, holding local government accountable and creating forums for public debate is increasingly being relegated to the community media. In a cautionary statement, Lechesa Tsenoli, Chairperson, Portfolio Committee on Provincial and Local Government urges journalists and municipal officials to ”… recognise that we all share responsibility for creating clean government and ethically sound relationships”.
IDASA’s 2005 research into municipal journalism indicates that “citizens feel the local media do not provide them with enough relevant or useful information about municipal issues, while media representatives report that they do not have sufficient understanding of the workings of local government and often struggle to gain access to timely information”. Not surprising, if one considers the sophisticated legal and institutional framework within which local government operates. Lack of skills, particularly a weakness in numeracy (needed to interpret municipal budgets or report accurately on surveys and polls) also poses a problem for journalists. Often less that respectful of journalists’ time and with very little discretion in what they may tell the media, municipal spokespeople can come across as uninformed and notoriously tight-lipped. Municipal communicators develop a reputation as a pointless bureaucracy that blocks media access to decision-makers and thus contributes to the public perception of a lack of transparency at the local level.
In an attempt to open up the dialogue between the various role players, IDASA organised a series of municipal journalism seminars in the Eastern Cape, Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal in mid-2006 aimed at “restoring a sense of public responsibility and mission in the news media”. IDASA also conducted training workshops to improve journalists’ interpretation of budgets, and their ability to understand key issues in local communities . The Word on the Street website takes this a step further and features easily accessible resources for community journalists covering local government in South Africa.
At the National Conference on Local Government Communication in May 2006, a set of guidelines for a five-year communication plan for local government was recommended. The need to improve the capacity, understanding and skills related to government communication at the local level was identified. With regards to the aim of building positive media relations and improving media coverage, it was suggested that special attention be paid to the ongoing training of mayors, mayoral committees and councillors on systems for better communication . The Department of Provincial and Local Government (DPLG) and the Government Communication and Information Services (GCIS) have also, for the past couple of years, produced a Government Communicator’s Handbook providing simple guidelines and reference tools for officials and councillors to ensure an effective partnership with the media.
No one disputes the tension that exists between local government and the media. Derrick Luyt, Journalism lecturer at Rhodes University suggests that such tension is probably inevitable and is not unhealthy: “There will always be tension between local government and media. If journalists want to keep their credibility as neutral commentators, they must be objective and talk to all parties involved.” Perhaps capacity building of journalists and municipal communicators should not aim to eliminate the tension between them but seek to reduce the unnecessary friction that results from poorly informed journalists and municipal communicators who can think only in public relations terms. While any initiative to get government and the media seeing eye-to-eye should be welcomed, citizens need to jealously guard their right to independent and reliable information on municipal matters.