Newspapers News South Africa

Tabloid journalism: does SA have the right skills?

A heated debate is raging regarding the rise of tabloid journalism in South Africa as the content of several newspapers continues to spark controversy and many observers wonder whether newsrooms have the right skills to produce this type of journalism. The Media24 Journalism Academy hosted a conference on these matters last week in Auckland Park, Johannesburg.

SA's tabloids include Daily Sun, Sunday Sun, Son and Sondag Son (Afrikaans), Sunday World and Daily Voice.

"Some people are [so up their own] assholes that they think [too] highly of themselves, so they often miss the point in journalism," Daily Sun and Sunday Sun editor-in-chief Themba Khumalo said.

"Tabloid journalists cannot think like that; we are pirates because we don't do things the way people expect us to do," Khumalo pointed out, adding that the SA story can be told in different ways.

"News is not only for the high-minded"

"News is not only for the high-minded, and if for a moment people could stop and say 'I'm not bigger than journalism and a story', then we can say we are on the right path."

Khumalo, whose newspaper Daily Sun has been criticised several times for reportedly printing 'controversial' stories, took a swipe at universities and colleges, wondering what kind of skills these institutions teach student journalists.

"Do we have the right skills? Yes and no," said Sunday World editor-in-chief Wally Mbele. "Yes, because we are still producing these tabloids that millions of people are buying daily and weekly. No, because we are still lagging as a country in terms of tools that put us at the level of paparazzi."

Tabloid newspapers, which critics believe are mostly read by a large section of 'illiterate', 'low-class' population, have often been accused of operating outside the ethical boundaries. However, Mbele refuted this statement, saying that ethics is the first aspect of journalism he always emphasises in his newsroom. "We must have an in-depth understanding of ethics because we are stepping on people's toes."

"Difference lines in the way you tell the story"

"Whether you are a mainstream or tabloid, the difference lies in the way you tell the story and produce an outcome, which in our philosophy is very important to the person you are addressing," Mbele said. "You can also cause a lot of harm to the readers if you are not sensitive."

Apart from possessing good interviews and investigative skills, and being a networking and outgoing person, a tabloid journalist must also possess 'intangible skills' which will never be acquired at university, he said.

"Intangible skills include be humorous, very aggressive, cynical and having a touch of imagination."

Son editorial boss Andrew Koopman said SA has the right skills to produce tabloid journalism, but admits there is room for improvement.

Write it differently, cleverly

"Tabloids are about power and influence. As a tabloid journalist, you need to be abrasive, well-connected and well-informed. Write your story differently from the mainstream and write it cleverly to avoid even the slight possibility of being sued," Koopman said.

Prince Chauke, Sunday World news editor, said a tabloid journalist must be aware of values and laws governing journalism, and be fearless.

"You must also have the potential to sniff a story, and have a solid contact base. If you have Helen Zille and Julius Malema in one room, you must know that there is a story in there."

About Issa Sikiti da Silva

Issa Sikiti da Silva is a winner of the 2010 SADC Media Awards (print category). He freelances for various media outlets, local and foreign, and has travelled extensively across Africa. His work has been published both in French and English. He used to contribute to as a senior news writer.
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