From Steuart Pennington

Hi Tim,

I’m a great admirer of yours, your writings are  eminently readable, erudite and well researched, and often with a quirky sense of humour. I invariably enjoy the read. But last week an article “Why are our potholes not being fixed? Well, let’s ask Socrates” in which you have an AI chat with the ancient philosopher, but specifically, you write that “more people tell me they just don’t bother to read the news anymore because it’s too depressing”  and then you go on to point out that “the press by being negative is, in its own perverse way, being positive” I choose to differ.

Trust me” you continue, “fluffy, feel-good stories get read by very few people. And that makes absolute sense: if you are driving on a road, what you want to know is not whether there is a road, but whether there are dangers on the road.” Really, is that all?

Sensing that you are being somewhat umbriferous regarding my work in www.sagodnews.co.za I’m uncomfortable with your view the antithesis to ‘bad’ news is ‘fluffy, feel good stories’ So, on four counts, I’d like to contend that:

i. ‘Feel good, fluffy stuff’ is very different from factually based, informed, balanced and contextual writing with a positive slant.

Using your road analogy above, it’s not just about knowing ‘whether there is a road or whether they are dangers on the road’, it is also about knowing of positive developments, if any, on the condition of the road.

Anecdotally, six times a year I drive from Pietermaritzburg to Kenton-on-Sea via Howick, Kokstad, Mthatha, Butterworth and East London through the middle of the Transkei. Comments like ‘you must be mad, the roads are shocking’; ‘the road is so narrow you have to go on the verge to avoid oncoming traffic’; ’I’d never go that way’; ‘you’re taking your life into your own hands’ are ubiquitous. No-one one will tell you that in the last five years the entire road has been massively upgraded, with double overtaking on uphill’s, wide shoulders, not one single pothole, and a growing police presence.

Why do so few know? Surely if they did they would have a more positive outlook and different perception of ‘driving on that road’?

ii. ‘People are not bothering to read the news anymore because it’s too depressing’ is, in my view, more about the quality of the ‘negative’ news.

This may have to do with the diminished size of news rooms or just plain lazy journalism, as eminent BBC journalist Nick Davies pointed out in his book ‘Flat Earth News’ (2009) ‘the rapid repackaging of largely unchecked second or third-hand material, with only 12% of stories in the average newspaper being original, and only 12% of key facts being checked’ means that the quality of news has mostly become unreliable, unverified, unbalanced, even fake, and with little context. That’s why people find it depressing.

Anecdotally, why do we have to hear on national radio about a murderer who took a selfie with his a victim and put it on FB, why do we have to read about a bus accident in Afghanistan, or an earthquake in Iceland – because it’s easy to download from Reuters? When on the same day a school in SOWETO won a global award and a young South African photojournalist received gold at an Art fair in Paris. Not on Reuters!

What is to there be learnt from our inane SAFM radio talk shows, when expert opinion gives way to babble and the host has seldom done his/her research?

It’s the quality and quantity that’s depressing, so the content is increasingly not worth reading, and very often can’t be trusted, no wonder more and more readers ‘are not bothering’. 

iii. Generally ‘bad’ news tends to be a dramatic event, sensationalist and attention grabbing, easy to download, report on and write about – attractive to journalists who need wordcount and filled space to earn their bucks.

This gives rise to what I call ‘Conventional Wisdom Madness’ where sensationalist ‘facts’ are reported so often that they become the ‘truth’ and go unchallenged when repeated, there are 100’s of them….. ‘South Africa the most unequal society in the world’; ‘Unemployment at 32%’; ‘55% of South Africans living in poverty’; ‘Racism in SA worst in the world’; ‘University standards are dropping’; comes to mind! None of them the truth, or factual.(195 countries in the ‘World’ do we often come 195th?)

Positive developments or ‘good news’ are more often a trend, requiring investigation, research and patience. This also applies to some of the tireless work done by journalists to expose malfeasance across-the-board – admiration and respect for them!

Anecdotally though, as you page through our daily and weekend newspapers, how many articles grab your attention because they are original, well researched, well written and expose developments positive or negative that you want to read about – only 12% says Nick!

If so, why buy them?

In my own experience trying to understand and write about positive developments in SA have alerted me in an unprecedented manner to the negative, I’d change what you said to journalists in researching and telling the positive will, in a perverse way, become experts on the negative.Simply put, describing and promoting the positive requires a deep knowledge of the negative.

iv.  Lastly, and most importantly, our SA Press Code exhorts us to recognise and commit to …..(my questions are in italics)


“The media exist to serve society. Their freedom provides for independent scrutiny of the forces that shape society and is essential to realising the promise of democracy. It enables citizens to make informed judgments on the issues of the day (does only reporting on the negative enable ‘informed judgements’?), a role whose centrality is recognised in the South African Constitution.

The media’s work is guided at all times by the public interest, understood to describe information of legitimate interest or importance to citizens (does only negative news, often irrelevant to public interest, do this?).

“As journalists we commit ourselves to the highest standards, to maintain credibility and keep the trust of the public (Why, as you say, are many turning away – have certain elements of media broken public trust?) This means always striving for truth, avoiding unnecessary harm, reflecting a multiplicity of voices in our coverage (really, is this the mission of news writers?)

“The media shall:

“1.1 take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly (surely this requires a balance of reporting both negative and positive developments?);

“1.2 present news in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by distortion, exaggeration or misrepresentation, material omissions, or summarization; (surely the commitment to context and balance discredits your assertion that by being negative, the press is, in its own perverse way, being positive? Surely, balance and context requires both being given similar airtime/column space?)

“1.3 present only what may reasonably be true as fact; opinions, allegations, rumours or suppositions shall be presented clearly as such (seems, according to Nick,  only 12% of articles can claim this? I hope the credo ‘if it bleeds it leads’ ’is not hovering?)

Do you think Editors ever test their content against our commendable SA Press Code?

Socrates’ AI response

Were Socrates alive to-day how do you think he would comment on the state of our media given what he said in your chat?

Says Socrates on AI, “Our beliefs make up the fabric of our lives. If we do not examine them, we are left with an untried and untested worldview that could potentially hinder our actions and decisions every step of the way. If you do not examine the beliefs that you base your entire life around, you open yourself up to the possibility of making poor choices and having a life not worth living”. When people refuse to examine their beliefs, they are not simply living in ignorance, rather they are living in denial. Ignorance is a consequence of lack of knowledge. Denial is an intentional refusal to acknowledge the truth of a situation. So living in partial denial is never a better choice than living with an examined life”.

How are beliefs made, surely in part by what you experience, what you read, and what you write about? In that context I’m sure Socrates would have concurred “If we believe in and promote the positive, two things happen, hope and a confidence to fix the negative.”

I wonder, given the above, who Socrates would finger?

Journalists for not delivering on their beliefs and commitments as defined by our SA Press Code?

Readers who, by choosing not to read/listen to their daily serving of negative news are thus living in denial?

As you said “Now there is a question for you!”

Last word “You can’t describe the future you see, you only see the future you can describe.”

Positive cheer during the festive season!

The post Open Letter to Tim Cohen appeared first on The Home Of Great South African News.


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