I slammed down the Sunday Times (South Africa's biggest selling Sunday newspaper) in disgust so many times yesterday - not because it was the Sunday Times, but because of the very sad and frustrating stories that were being told. Sundays are supposed to be relaxing days, but the reading the news is enough to give anyone a hernia. I was angry at the stupidity that seems to proliferate in the world - and it made up my mind more clearly than ever that I could never be a news journalist - being such a passive medium must be the most frustrating job in the world.
The first story was about an 11 year old boy who had walked miles to the nearest police station to report being beaten repeatedly by his father. He was covered in welts and was sobbing uncontrollably. After taking the boy to the hospital, the policeman proceeded to take him directly home again. He apparently did this because the mother had pleaded with him to do so - and he thought that the mother would be able to protect him (this despite the boy reporting abuse of his mother as well).
The next tale was of Robert Mugabe spending millions on a charter jet to the World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva while his country starves. He used the platform to carry on his (very illogical) tirade against the colonialist governments of the West for using ICTs as propaganda tools against developing nations and promising that he would continue to control information in his country. At this stage I was ready to scream - this man has employed the most wide-ranging propaganda campaign in the history of the nation, and has banned all independent media. The fact that the selfish, arrogant autocrat couldn't see the shocking contradictions in his words makes me sick to the stomach. If I wanted to initiate change as a journalist, I would ignore the old fart when he went to Geneva - that would be the worst blow since he seems to be running around desperately seeking someone to hear the same stories.
And the last that I can remember, was a story about cannibals using the Internet to chat about recipes and to find ingredients for their latest feast. A European cannibal was recently charged with murder when he had one of his Internet buddies for dinner. The man said that he had posted an advert on one of the mailing lists inviting applications and got almost 500 replies! The chosen delicacy came to the cannible's house where his penis was chopped off while they both ate it as a 'starter'. The man was then chopped into cutlets and frozen for later consumption.
What goes on in the minds of these sickly individuals we can only guess. I'm just glad that I'm not the one who has to tell these stories without attempting to understand why people act the way they do. If the journalist found out why the policeman made his decision - perhaps because he was new to the job, or because he hadn't been exposed to child abuse cases, or because he had had a loving family life and couldn't comprehend the kind of abuse that this child suffered - I don't think I would have felt the kind of frustration that made me slam down that newspaper - if only for a few seconds. If I could just hear more about Mugabe's childhood and his emotional state during the war of independence, for example, I may be able to understand his actions more. If I could hear more about what links cannibals around the world and what drives them to such extremes, I may feel more 'enriched' than before.
But this is not what journalism is about these days. Rather, it is about sensationalism that catalyses frustration and fear, rather than understanding and knowledge. News media should not make people feel as unempowered as they do - I suppose it's because journalists have to sit back passively in order to report the 'objective truth' that they think we should have to suffer the same fate. If journalists really want us to take them seriously, then they need to start asking the right questions so that we can begin to understand the world better by empathising with others. I don't know if this is naive, but if it is, then we need a new kind of journalist or a new industry that focuses on the outcomes rather than the processes of news-making.