Media reports on protest action lack depth and context — media monitor

A police Nyala drives through De Doorns after protests in January 2013. Photo by Kate Stegeman.

Mandy de Waal

30 September 2014

Palls of thick smoke hung over the N2 mid-September 2014, after protesters from the farming town of Grabouw, some 20 kilometres from Gordon’s Bay, barricaded the national highway with burning tyres. Rubber bullets flew and canisters of teargas exploded as the police met protesters head on.

News reports called the insurrection a ‘service delivery protest’, the catch-all media phrase that appears to cover civic objections to land issues in Daveyton, east of Gauteng; or when angry mobs set fire to busses in Nyanga, one of the oldest townships in Cape Town. Few media venture further to discover the exact causes of the violence, or the players in the drama and their interests. Despite this violent ‘service delivery protests’ are on the rise.

A report presented to parliament by the South African Police Service (SAPS) early September shows that violent protests have doubled in this country. Business Day reports that Police commissioner Riah Phiyega and public order policing head, General Elias Mawela, told a parliamentary committee on policing violent protests had surged from 971 in 2010/11 to 1,882 in 2012/13.

Meanwhile research conducted by the Social Change Research Unit of the University of Johannesburg reveals that the number of people killed in insurrections has increased dramatically. The Mail & Guardian reports that 43 protesters were killed by police between 2004 and 2014, as stated in the survey. This number excludes the 37 miners killed at Marikana in 2012. Seven protesters were killed in 2014 alone, and the year is not yet over.

Violent protests are a perverse mainstay of South Africa, but news reports on this frequent occurrence are disappointingly superficial. William Bird, director of Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) says this is because journalism skills have been decimated as the ranks of newsroom reporters decline sharply.

Bird drew attention to the thinning of journalist ranks. “Journalists have been slashed,” he says. “What suffers is the quality of news and analysis. What we’re seeing more of is the big conflicts between big personalities, but the news [organisations] doesn’t have the resources to unpack the roles, powers and efficacy of policy implementation,” Bird says, stressing that because of this democracy suffers.

“What we should be doing is to avoid violence and to talk about it in a way that makes sense, a way that unpacks levels of democracy and inequality. We need more facts and figures, not the usual ‘he said’, ‘she said’,” Bird implores, explaining that informed citizens are more active citizens.

“But when it comes to service delivery protests, context is given shorthand, so there’s been very little depth to the reporting on this issue,” says Bird, who with his team at MMA are hoping to change all this.

Bird and his team at MMA were preparing for the elections during the first quarter of 2014, which meant looking for ways that the nonprofit organization could support journalists limited by tight resources. “We were looking for a way that journalists could easily add a lot of data and depth to their stories by making this information accessible and easy to use,” he says.

“We wanted to mash the election results with census results and other data so that journalists could have easy access to information about basic services, income levels, service levels, and other key information that would offer real insight into why people protest and what they’re protesting about,” he says.

Data sits trapped

That was easier said than done, since much of South Africa’s publicly available data sits trapped in lengthy reports, in inaccessible formats that do little to help journalists keep the electorate informed on civic matters that directly affect them.

That’s why Bird turned to Code for South Africa (CfSA), a nonprofit that builds a more active citizenry by promoting the availability of data. The goal: to build a journalist-friendly tool that would offer rich, deep context at a glance. CfSA knew that a tool like the one Bird was envisioning was already in development, but for a different country. This tool is called Census Reporter, and it helps media workers by pulling data from the U.S. census and putting it into a simple and easy-to-use interface that includes data visualizations.

Census Reporter was built completely using open source software which meant that Code for South Africa could use the platform’s underlying code at no cost, and build on top of it, in order to adapt the tool so that it could be used for South African state datasets. The result is which launched in March 2014. The isiZulu word for ‘knowledge’, ‘wazi’ also means “open” in East Africa’s kiSwahili language.

Census information is tough to access and interpret at the best of times, but Wazi Map takes the headache out of trawling through streams of data or legions of excel files when news staffers are on deadline. “By going to Wazi Map, journalists can contextualize their stories to find out what’s behind a violent protest or whether a community has water, or what the education levels of a community are,” says Code for South Africa lead technologist Greg Kempe. “Alternately, journalists can take the information and embed it into the stories or use the data visualisations, so readers can view the data at a quick glance.”

“We’re now working with journalists to show them how to use this tool, and to get feedback on their experiences when using it. We’re also looking to plug a lot more information into the site so that the tool becomes more and more useful,” Kempe said.

“What we do is take data and package it in a way that citizens can use so that they can make better decisions,” says Adi Eyal, a director at Code4SA. “The goal of Wazi is to contextualize a place using as much data as possible – information like the census, crime statistics, the efficacy of hospitals and more.”

Feedback from newsrooms has been so good that Code for South Africa has been commissioned to build similar versions for Kenya (where a prototype is already in public testing), Ghana and Nigeria.

The end result? That people will be empowered to make informed choices about what matters.