SA Journalism: Prizes for everyone

by The Editor

FEATURE: Yet another round of South African journalism awards has just passed. Did you know there are some 82 of them? That’s an awards ceremony every four and a half days. Is South African journalism really such a worthy recipient of so much self-reflecting praise? Look at the Fourth Estate more closely and it seems rife with problems. But it would be you alone looking, certainly the mainstream media, despite so many protestations about its import and the value of self-regulation, is the last institution to cast a critical gaze over its own condition. But with so many awards on offer, why would it? Not when it can rather remind itself every few days just how excellent it truly is.

SA Journalism: Prizes for everyone
A world of peer reward, not peer review

By: Gareth van Onselen

30 August 2012

At last the Dodo said, ‘Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.'” [Lewis Carroll; Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland]

Introduction: A world of winners

The other night my Twitter time line was again flooded with a raft of self-congratulatory tweets from various journalists, patting themselves on the back and re-tweeting each other, as the winners of The Standard Bank Sikuvile Journalism Awards were announced. They even created their own hashtag – #sikuvileawards – which they soon managed to get trending, as the back-patting reached a crescendo. Sure enough, as is so often the case with the many awards on offer, a series of stories appeared the next day, online and in print, as the various publications announced to the world how good they were: “M&G shines at Sikuvile journalism awards”, “City lensman wins sport picture prize”, “Newspaper Journalism winners announced”.

(Incidentally, Noseweek – in many ways the exception that proves the rule – has seriously questioned the story that won the main prize. No one seems to have tweeted that, however.)

It felt to me like déjà vu. Had we not recently been through an equally nauseating round of back-patting? So I thought I would have a look as to just how many of these things there actually are. A Google search immediately turned up the following, a few African, most South African:

• The African Investigative Journalism Awards
• The Sanlam Awards for Excellence in Financial Journalism
• The Taco Kuiper Award for Investigative Journalism
• The Highway Africa New Media Awards
• The Vodacom Journalist of the Year Awards
• The MTN Radio Awards
• The Motoring Journalist of the Year
• The SABMiller Sports Journalism Awards
• The Webber Wentzel Legal Journalist of the Year
• The Financial Mail AdFocus Awards
• The Vodacom Women in the Media Awards
• The Discovery Health awards for Best Health Journalist
• The CNN African Journalist of the Year awards
• The Standard Bank Sikuvile Journalism Awards
• The Nat Nakasa Journalism Awards
• The SAB Environmental Journalists of the Year Awards
• The Telkom ICT Journalist of the Year Competition
• The Citadel Words on Money Journalism Awards
• The African Journalism Awards
• The Pfizer Mental Health Journalism Awards
• The Siemens Profile Awards
• The Nokia Digital Journalism Award
• The Diageo Africa Business Reporting Awards
• The African Property Owners Association Property Journalism Awards
• The Food Safety, Food Additives and Food Processing Meritorious Awards for Food Science Journalism

That last one is not a joke. What about The HV Marsh Award for Scout Journalism? It exists. Heck, there is even an SPCA Pet Writer of the Year award.

No, wait, from the sublime to the ridiculous, there is such a thing as The Brandhouse Responsible Drinking Media Awards. First prize in four of five categories is R10 000 – for journalists who are “true ambassadors for responsible drinking and through their work… have helped to raise awareness associated with various alcohol issues and helped promote responsible drinking”.

And this is just a selection, the search results went on for pages and pages. I wouldn’t be surprised if most media houses employ someone whose sole job it is to nominate its staff for awards. Perhaps a small component part of those awards listed are no longer active, I can assure you the vast majority of them are.

But, don’t take my word for it. Peter Sullivan, often a judge at such competitions, penned an article on the subject (the only substantial one I could find) for The Media Magazine’s April 2011 edition.

In it he wrote the following:

“On the Awards Committee of Print Media South Africa, I asked for a list of all awards on offer. There were, if I recall correctly, 82 of them. Yes, 82 – sub-divided many times as most awards had categories… enough categories to rival Tolstoy’s War and Peace.”

82 awards ceremonies for journalists? It seems outlandish; if not, grossly self indulgent. If Google is anything to go by, even that’s conservative. Imagine if every other profession adopted the same attitude? Politicians for one. The public outcry would be deafening. Not journalism though – the more awards the better, it seems.

Sullivan later writes:

“There’s the rub. Simply too many awards… It just seems endless, this whole award thing. Every reporter ends up being an award-winning reporter because of as many awards as there are reporters… The proliferation is endless – every industry except morticians seem to think giving a journalism award will improve the reporting of engineering, or IT, or sanitation, or woodwork.”

Or responsible drinking?

I am sure some awards are more important than others and, no doubt, one response to the sheer quantity of awards will be that not every journalist is nominated for every award. Fair enough, but very few, if any awards, are withheld because no nominations were received. And a great many are given out regardless. So someone is winning them.

The real world

Cast a critical eye over South Africa’s media and it is hard to come to any conclusion other than the Fourth Estate is in something of a crisis, externally and internally.

For 20 years (and long before) the public broadcaster has effectively been a mouthpiece for the governing party and its financial management no better than Eskom or SAA (I forget the number of times it has had to be bailed out). The threat of a media tribunal (perhaps temporarily suspended) looms large. The President and the ANC harbour a special kind of contempt for South African journalism. The authoritive print media is in serious decline, its market being eaten up by an ever-growing number of mindless tabloids and online journalism. The Independent Group waits on an uncertain future, following the retirement of Tony O’Reilly. AVUSA is having to face up to the consequences of a long period of mismanagement. BDFM is working out how to deal with new JSE rules threatening its advertising revenue. The New Age represents a sorry attempt to artificially introduce a more ‘government-friendly approach’ to hard news (whatever its success, the intent and its realisation tells you something). We read about the ‘juniorisation’ of the newsroom and the dearth of up-and-coming talent; not to mention the poor pay, which must negatively affect recruitment. The most telling investigations into corruption inevitably find themselves in court, the justice system being under substantial pressure to ‘transform’ (read: be more ‘government-friendly’ itself). The Press Ombudsman, for years an ineffective, bureaucratic and well-meaning nicety, has had is legitimacy so bludgeoned it is in the process of being entirely reconstituted. The general standard leaves a lot to be desired, the media often volunteering to lower standards further still in the face of intimidation and political correctness (need I say more than, ‘The Spear’).

And all the while, such is the amount of political pressure on the media, there exists a conspiracy of silence – if not an attitude of protectionism – whereby no media institution dare criticise another, proactively or otherwise, for fear of adding weight to the perception there is a problem in the first place or been seen speaking out against the band of brothers (this brave piece by Peter Bruce being the only contemporary exception I am aware of).

Doesn’t seem like an 82-awards-ceremony-shining-beacon-of-excellence-environment to me?

It is true that there are pockets of real excellence. Some publications and a small group of journalists are indeed exceptional. But that is beside point. The profession, as a general field, is fighting not just for legitimacy but to appear anything other than a mess. Of course, such is the general hostility toward and fear of the ANC, the oft-repeated response is “the media is very important – we should be grateful for it and protect it”. So the public often excuses away the necessity for self-examination. Well, indeed, who would dispute that? Importance, however, is no guarantee of quality.

Read the mainstream media and you would be none the wiser as to the challenges facing the Fourth Estate. At least not so far as the internal threats go (the external ones receive a significant amount of coverage). No doubt there is a general sense a problem exists but compare, say, the amount of space dedicated to analysing every fault line in the ANC to the amount dedicated to analysing every problem in the media. The one must trump the other 50 to one.

Is the Fourth Estate as important to a democracy as the political domain? It constantly tells us it is. If so, why is there so little critical comment on its performance and condition from journalists themselves? Why have you hardly ever read a front page lead about the state of South African journalism? Why so rarely do you read a critical editorial about another newspaper, radio or television station, story or journalist? Why are the Press Ombudsman’s findings most often printed, matchbox-size on page five?

Self-regulation, we are told, is essential. Absolutely it is. But if you want people to believe in the idea you need to practice it. It lives or dies by the amount of life you breathe into it and, as things stand, it’s like an asthmatic being deprived of oxygen.

I have some sympathy given the nature of the problem. Were South Africa’s media to admit and regularly report on its actual condition, the ANC would soon enough use it to once again exert its influence on those things over which it has no rightful authority. But that excuse only holds true up to a point. Pretending everything is absolutely fine will ultimately weaken any case for self-regulation, not strengthen it. And pretending everyone is brilliant can only ever result in a delusion. Likewise, a little consistency would be nice. If transparency and public accountability are so important for a democracy and the press so central to achieving it, why does it excuse itself from those principles?

Problem? What problem?

Against that background, then, the plethora of awards ceremonies seems rather at odds with reality. 82? That’s an awards ceremony of some sort or other every four and a half days. Is there really so much brilliance to celebrate? No wonder we are under the impression every second journalist is ‘award-winning’. You would have to be something of an aberration if you hadn’t won an award.

South African journalism has created for itself a self-contained world of ostensible excellence and every four days or so, it reassures itself of its own brilliance. So perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps it has nothing to do with political pressure. Perhaps what is going on here is that our media exists in a separate universe, one were everyone is a winner. And what of all these problems? Look at how many awards we have won.

Some questions

You will notice from the list how eager the private sector is to sponsor awards for journalism in their various fields of interest. Surely there are some ethical questions to be raised there? Take our imagined ‘politicians awards’ for example – The Eskom Award for Best Opposition Oversight – perhaps not every opposition member of the public enterprises committee would be too keen to hold Eskom to account, should such an award exist, for fear of compromising their nomination. Certainly you can be sure the media itself would be all over it like a bad rash. But journalists are obviously made of sterner stuff, immune to that sort of persuasion. Perhaps most are. But can it be guaranteed? How would anyone know?

And that is the key question. No doubt many will respond, “It’s all above board because it is transparent”. Well, fine. But if we agree there is no real critical self-appraisal from the media, what good is that? One cannot evoke transparency in theory and then shun public criticism in practice. How many articles have you read analysing the work of an award winner, in order to determine whether they bent their principles to go easy on the sponsor? I haven’t. Not a single one. Or are we to believe in 20 years of democracy (an average of some 1640 awards ceremonies and countless awards) not a single journalist has strayed? What a remarkable bunch of people.

Many of the awards come with a financial prize. I wonder, how much is paid out to South Africa journalists in prizes every year? I do not have the time or inclination to add it all up. You can be sure it is significant. Were politicians paid as little as journalists, the media would be the first to ask the question: “Is financial reward from the private sector not ethically dubious?”

And that is another point. How many articles have you read by the media criticising a journalism award as undeserved? Again, I struggle to think of a single one. Certainly you will never read one paper criticising an award given to another, or of one journalist – nominated or otherwise – publicly criticising the judges’ choice. Every decision was absolutely correct and well-deserved. What a remarkable bunch of judges (journalists for the most part).

Of course when it comes to the Oscars or Springbok team or the next Cabinet, my word, the number of column inches dedicated to scrutinising and often contesting every decision down to the most painstaking detail is overwhelming. Not awards for journalism though – the rightful pinnacle of excellence, every, single one. And no one is ever upset by them or feels an injustice has been done. What a remarkable consensus.

And what is the point of recognising excellence if every one is excellent? Then, surely, no one is excellent, certainly not exceptional in any way? Perhaps that is the point. Here is a headline I look forward to reading: ‘Newspaper not to accept any awards on grounds there are too many’.

On this point I disagree with Sullivan, the purpose of his article is not the points I have made above, at least they are not his primary purpose. He dedicates most space to the onerous burden so many awards places on judges.

“A daunting task faces a judge in journalism awards – a room filled with reports that reporters believe are the best. You are the judge, you need to read them. In the Mondi awards, for instance, there were about a hundred entries in the ‘Features’ section so beloved of all writers. Try reading 100 features. Takes a while. And as you read each one, you know the person who wrote this thinks it is the best feature written in 2010 by any South African journalist.”

The horror.

“And they are good,” he laments “almost all of them. Damn good. Yet you must discard almost every one as not being good enough, not being the best of the year in your oh-so-subjective opinion. Each time you do so, you feel a little sad: you have just disappointed somebody”.

Really? Almost all nominations are “damn good”? Only four or five teams in the entire English Premier League are “damn good”.

But don’t worry, the system is clearly structured so that no one will ever be disappointed. The “damn good”, the “very damn good” and “the so damn good”, all of them vying for top spot; at least, all 500 top spots. Truly there has never been such an excellent profession as South African journalism.


Love or hate politicians and political parties they exist in a world of perpetual peer review. Agree with the criticism or not, between the media and themselves, a politician cannot move without their every motive being hyper-interrogated. But that is the essential price you pay for democracy. Can the same be said of the media? Does it exist in a similar world? Should it?

On the evidence it would appear not. Instead, outside of the public domain, it has created a safe haven – not for peer review, but peer reward. In the public domain, the only real problems worth dwelling upon are the various assaults upon it. Make no mistake, those are important and very real too. But it’s a bit like a victim complaining about bullying, only to skulk off and award himself a prize for bravery.

And here’s the thing: they must know. Editors, seated yet again at some gala ceremony, must quietly think to themselves: “Really? Another set of awards?” Just as likely they must think now and then to themselves, “That award is nonsense, no way does that journalist deserve it”. But dare they express such a view publicly? Never. I only realised the problem because, on a hunch, I looked into it. Have you ever, once, read an analysis of the problem in the mainstream media? Heaven forbid – not nearly as important as the humble smugness. The handshake and a clenched smile for a colleague. And the code: the code of silence. After all, they might be receiving an award themselves soon enough. In four and a half days to be precise. Wouldn’t want that scrutinized too closely.

So, next time you read the work of an ‘award-winning’ journalist, my strong advice is to take it with a pinch of salt. I am almost inclined to suggest seeking out the work of those journalists and media outlets with few awards, if only to see what they are doing differently and why.

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