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Marikana massacre: how South African journalism failed the test

Miners pray during the one-year anniversary commemoration of the killings of 34 striking miners by police outside Lonmin’s Marikana platinum mine. Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

Marikana massacre: how South African journalism failed the test

Miners pray during the one-year anniversary commemoration of the killings of 34 striking miners by police outside Lonmin’s Marikana platinum mine. Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

Different narratives have emerged from the media coverage of what happened in the build-up to the Marikana massacre, what occurred on the day and what transpired afterwards. The same goes for why it happened and who was to blame.

My study of the coverage shows that the mainstream news media displayed a bias towards official explanations of what happened and who was to blame in the days leading up to the massacre and the week afterwards.

The massacre of the 34 striking Lonmin miners by police on August 16, 2012, is the worst act of violence by the South African police since the end of apartheid in 1994. Ten other people – eight non-striking workers and two policemen – died during strike-related violence at the mine in the North-West province.

I conclude that the reporting of the massacre was characterised by embedded journalism, sensationalised coverage and polarisation of views and stakeholders. This was particularly true when it came to coverage of the two main mining unions – the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).

The coverage neglected to factor in alternative views, including those of the protesting miners themselves. Instead, the news media became a loudspeaker for powerful interests in the South African political and socioeconomic nexus, neglecting fundamental problems underlining labour relations in South Africa. Journalists trumped up conflicts and polarisations, further exacerbating rifts between the various stakeholders.

By and large, the journalistic principles of fairness, balance, truth and ethics were neglected. This includes coverage in the lead up to, and in the immediate aftermath of, the massacre.

As such is it legitimate to ask:

  • Did South African journalists simply not do their job properly in the days leading up to the massacre and the subsequent week?

  • Do South African journalists have a poor understanding of conflict reporting?; and

  • What, if anything, changed as the truth of the massacre started to emerge?

Coverage of the massacre and its aftermath

A close reading of 162 articles published by major publications between August 12 and August 23 and a viewing of 24 news bulletins shows there was a clear focus on the violence displayed by the protesters, fuelled by witchcraft.

Although true, over-emphasising the use of witchcraft played into stereotypes of Africans as irrational and backwards – ideas cemented by the erstwhile apartheid regime.

Less attention was paid to the brutality displayed by the police. Research also shows that there was a lack of female sources as well as sources emanating directly from the affected families and broader mining community.

Overall, the South African mainstream news media created a rather limited, if not distorted, view of what happened at Marikana. In this sense the news coverage conformed to what has been labelled “war reporting”. This is defined by the way journalists and war correspondents cover conflicts with an emphasis on violence, suffering and sensationalism, while polarising view points and oversimplifying the underlying causes of conflict.

Analysing the coverage of the Farlam Commission inquiry and the release of its report nearly three years after the massacre suggests there was an attempt to get a broader set of voices in news coverage. But this seemed to be more as an afterthought than a real commitment to having diverse views.

Everyone in the mainstream media also appeared to have simply followed one other. Supposedly competing news outlets echoed the same stories. While some media outlets tried their best, others were mere followers. As such, while segments of the print news media did a pretty good job in some instances, the broadcast media, and television in particular, insensitively played the same horrifying footage over and over again.

Interestingly, both the public broadcaster, the SABC, and free-to-air channel e-TV, have yet to screen Rehad Desai’s award-winning Marikana documentary, Miners Shot Down, despite popular demand for it to be shown.

In the reporting on the Farlam Commission, little space was given to contextualisation. Neither the broadcast or print media gave much space to the nuance and the context in which facts were being established. Overall, the news coverage focused on the immediate story. Little was done to give a longer historical perspective on the crises in the mining industry. As such, they failed to situate Marikana within the context of colonialism and power struggles still dominating the South African mining industry.

Little space also seems to have been given to reporting the hearings themselves. Shorter news items were the order of the day. This seems to have been repeated once the report was released.

What has changed, if anything?

Seemingly, little has changed. Contextulisation of issues continues to be neglected.

This is by no means unique to the coverage of Marikana but a general feature of how labour disputes are covered by the South African news media.

This is also evident in the coverage of ongoing protests by communities over the delivery of basic services. This suggests that South African journalists have a poor functional understanding of conflict reporting.

In addition, news coverage points to a continuous anti-working class and anti-black bias. Journalists still struggle, or lack the will, to access affected communities and a broader stakeholder base. This might also boil down to a lack of resources.

Presenting a distorted picture

It is fair to say that the South African mainstream news media has created a rather limited, if not distorted view of Marikana.

Proportionally, coverage has focused more on the violence of the strikes than fundamental problems underlining labour relations in South Africa.

As the Farlam Commission got underway, and with the release of the commission’s report, there should have been a change. But there wasn’t. This points to the need to train journalists in sensitive conflict reporting.