Bernadine Jones, former Next Gen fellow, recently published a book titled Election and TV News in South Africa (Palgrave Macmillan). Next Gen’s Shana Pareemamun, sat down to interview her on her book and the impact of the NextGen fellowship on her academic career.

SP: Can you tell me a bit about yourself, and your academic and professional background?

I am, first and foremost, proudly South African. I trace my roots through a diversity of branches and plant my feet across many ponds. Currently, I live in Scotland and lecture journalism at the University of Stirling, but I have also lived and taught in England, Wales, and three out of the nine provinces in South Africa. Moving around a lot is part of the reality of a first-generation academic, especially one who made a career start in the Global South.

Having moved to Wales at age 14, I schooled and later completed my undergraduate studies at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. I quickly jumped at the chance to move back to South Africa with my now-husband to continue my studies in 2006. I had found a deep interest in the impact of television in society, particularly about how South Africa is represented abroad, and continued this interest with an Honors degree from UNISA. My Honors dissertation centered on how the 2009 South African general election was represented on UK and South African TV news. News about Jacob Zuma featured prominently in my academic career back then. After a brief stint in SEO copywriting at a Cape Town startup, I continued my studies with a master’s degree at the University of Cape Town, researching the representation of the 2010 FIFA World Cup on local and global television news. Social semiotics and visual analysis became my passion, and I had the opportunity to teach in various courses and seminars at the University of Cape Town throughout my studies. Semiotics was solidly in my bonnet at the time, and I was offered a full-ride scholarship from the South African National Research Foundation (NRF) (2014-2017) and the SSRC’s Next Generation Fellowship program (NextGen) (2015-2017) for my PhD research. The last few years of my time at Cape Town were tumultuous: a combination of economic stagnation, political mismanagement, student and higher education revolts, and personal tragedy made philosophical research and any kind of productive thinking increasingly difficult. With a burgeoning career and family commitments, I made the decision to return to the UK to complete the writing of my PhD dissertation. As a first-generation early career researcher emotionally entangled with the data under analysis, the process was challenging and lonely, helped only by my husband, my constant companion. The process was complete in 2018, and subsequent years passed as I found my footing on the UK higher education ladder. In 2021, I acquired a permanent position at the University of Stirling’s journalism division and have been teaching and writing happily in the Communication, Media, and Culture department ever since. My doctoral research later formed the basis for this book.

Despite being a world and a half away from the mountain in the sea, Table Mountain, I carry the red soil, blue sky, and golden sun inside me as all South Africans do.

 SP: What inspired your book on “Elections and TV News in South Africa” and how did your experience as an SSRC Next Gen fellow influence your decision to author this amazing book?

This book originated from my PhD studies, initially with a title far more verbose: “Desperately Seeking Depth, Global and Local Narratives of the South African General Elections on Television News, 1994 – 2014.” I undertook most of the foundational research at the University of Cape Town during a particularly intense period of student and community protests. Researching and writing the treatise during the period of vigorous and emphatic dissent from students and workers became a merciless task because I simply could not detach my thoughts of the decolonial movement occurring outside my door with the content of the news and politics behind the protests. Thanks to the financial and mentorship support from the SSRC’s Next Generation program between 2015 and 2017, I was able to put a bit of physical and metaphorical distance between the direct experience of South Africa’s complex post-apartheid problems and the thesis forming in my mind.

Eventually, I completed the PhD in 2018. Of note was the mentoring I received at the Next Gen’s Zambian workshop in January 2016 that solidified my thinking and ideas regarding my doctoral thesis. It centered on two distinct concepts: first, a new research method for analyzing television news broadcasts effectively and efficiently, and second, sharpening the research questions underpinning an investigation into South Africa’s general election representation on television news. Thanks to the additional collegial advice from other NextGen Fellows during and after the weeklong workshop, I revised the thesis. This proved successful, and I published an article based on the research methodology used for my doctoral dissertation.

This book is a historical overview of South African elections, democracy, and the media landscape. I noticed that much of the literature about South African elections and democracy was characterized by a disconnect these two—books tended to either engage in a historical overview of politics or discussed media coverage of a single election. My book is directed towards drawing democracy and media together with a historical overview in the first part and an analysis of media representation in the second part. It provides a comprehensive overview of South African news media, the television news coverage of its elections, and a critique of the mediatized political journalism that plagues the practice. At its heart, it argues in favor of revisiting the fundamental tenets of journalism to revolutionize the representation of South Africa on visual news.

SP: As someone with a keen interest in African representation in the news, what would you describe as the main challenge facing local and international news broadcasts of South African general elections?

The newsroom is in a crisis. Newsworthiness and immediacy often trump fact-checking in the digitized era. Complete reliance on ever-diminishing advertising revenue, resource cutbacks, closure of investigative bureaus, “juniorization” of newsrooms, and staffing cuts prevent journalists from cultivating their natural curiosity and aptitude for clear communication. These limitations combined with influential news frames that mostly confirm and conform to discourses of liberal capitalism result in both narrow and shallow representation frames of elections. News stories are either somewhat diverse in content, but never deep enough to get to the heart of the story. By focusing on the superficial, such reports hardly try to dig deep and often do not take into account alternative or controversial stories to show the full picture. Worse still, political journalism is further enraptured with promotional PR material, pre-packaged and designed specifically to gain media space and audiences. This style of news privileges entertainment over substance, prefers to confront the viewer with shocking or outraging scenarios, and avoids any critical discussion of solutions.

Most research shows that mediatization of political journalism occurs on Westernized news channels and that it is often thought of as a global (i.e., Western) problem. This book has added depth to this debate and has shown that local news channels in South Africa suffer the same neoliberal news values that tend to steer modern political journalism. Mediatized political reporting demands flashy visuals and instant news, rather than deep considerations of citizen concerns and solution-driven explanations. South African channels were progressively more hesitant to cover controversial topics or criticize the ruling ANC party as an increasingly paranoid government policed South Africa’s primary broadcaster, the SABC. In sharp contrast to local reportage, international broadcasts, particularly those from Westernized news channels, highlighted events that were dramatic, visually rich, and pitted one side against another in a “horse race.”

It is this thrust towards mediatized, PR-ized, flashy news that is most damaging to the representation of general elections in and about South Africa. The challenge is for journalists in television news bureaus but also in other forms of the press to regain their central tenets, highlight solutions in their stories, and center citizens’ voices in stories. One such example is the burgeoning movement of Solutions Journalism that aims to train journalists and develop the profession in an increasingly digital and fragmented era.

SP: What was the process of thinking through the title and focus of the book like for you? What did you find most challenging and what is the key takeaway from this experience?

In 2009, South African academic Jane Duncan noticed that societal issues affecting general elections, which required investigation, received very little attention from local media. Jane blamed the ANC’s long-running battle with the media and political pressure on the SABC for this hesitant approach to covering controversial topics. She characterized the 2009 media coverage of the election as “desperately seeking depth.” The title of the book borrows Jane’s phrase because it accurately captures the nature of most news broadcasts over the election years. Journalists attempt to seek depth when reporting South Africa’s confusing and complicated elections but are ultimately hamstrung because of their professional codes, neoliberal news values, and the pressure to get the story out fast, often with little resources.

Narrowing down the focus of this book was no easy feat. The data set used for this book totaled 278 broadcasts from 29 news channels across six South African general elections. Living in South Africa during the 20th anniversary of post-apartheid democracy (in 2014), it was difficult to think of anything else and choosing the elections as a focus for the book came naturally. Little did I know that being a semiotician and involved in higher education during the tumultuous years of 2014 to 2018 would prove the most challenging aspects of the process. Attempting to separate my personal and emotional involvement in democracy in South Africa (such as working with InkuluFreeHeid, the pro-democracy non-partisan NGO) from my objective, qualitative investigation into its representation on news proved the toughest mental challenge I had faced. Writing the PhD and then the book was as much an emotional journey as an academic exercise. I relied on mentorship from the SSRC’s Next Generation mentors and fellows, my colleagues at the University of Cape Town and University of Stirling, and my PhD supervisors to make sense of much of this jungle.

The gap between my doctoral dissertation and the publishing of this book allowed for some further space between action and reflection, during which time another general election had passed. I realized while writing up this manuscript in Scotland, a world away from the Hoerikwaggo in Cape Town, that detaching emotion from experience and analysis results in an indifferent account, an aloofness where familiarity is required.

SP: What distinction were you able to make between local and international coverage/reporting of the electoral process and how did that affect the electorate and public perception of the South African elections?

The proliferation of protests was undeniably one of the biggest issues in South African society from 2009 onwards. These community protests directly contradicted the ANC’s “good story to tell” and “a better life for all” agenda that it repeatedly called upon during local and general elections, and indirectly caused a soft censorship campaign on the national broadcaster (SABC) in 2016. This is one of the most important points made by this book; the international and local media reporting of this protest action was disappointingly absent or superficial.

Even though some journalists in later years grasp at elements of depth—acknowledging this liberation narrative, for example, and distinguishing disillusionment in divergent groups of the voting populace—the lack of space and time allowed to develop these ideas results in entangled narratives and perplexing stories, as well as a flattened and insubstantial depiction of democracy in South Africa. Journalists often focused too heavily on binaries and drama, rather than exploring contexts that might enlighten and explain the complexities of South African democracy and society.

The conclusion we can draw about the coverage of South African elections was a substantial decrease in citizen voices post-1994, which indicates a focus on authorities and, later, pundits at the expense of grassroots voices. ANC voices were also substantially missing from the broadcasts in the 2009 and 2014 elections, leading most journalists to rely on simplistic juxtaposition and “lip flaps” to present a shallow overview of a complex society.

SP: What impact do you hope the findings from your book will have within and beyond South Africa?

This book is in favor of visual studies and promotes its importance. It takes television news and the images therein seriously and treats the text and the context as equals. Therefore, I hope that this book encourages both scholars and practitioners to improve visual rhetoric and framing by treating the visuals as seriously as the discourse.

It is a call to action to scholars and practitioners to pay as much attention to the framing on the visual track (from “lip flaps” to subjective angles, shot size to editing) as the discourse and verbal track.

This book offers a deep analysis of South African elections on television news over a quarter-century while providing an overview of television news and journalism practice both globally and locally. It provides journalists and scholars a point of departure to reconsider their professional practice. The crisis is less about the individual journalist’s desire to report on the world, and more about the economic stranglehold on mainstream journalism and neoliberal values permeating all broadcasts from Westernized channels. While Constructive Journalism is a suggested approach and avenue out of the mess, it remains to be seen how journalism as a profession will fare in the future, post-pandemic, post-truth, and postcolonial world.

SP: What next project of yours can we look forward to and what are you likely to focus on?

I am currently working on two distinct projects, both in the realms of visual analysis and political communication. The first is a social semiotic analysis of the United Kingdom and Scotland government social media communications about Covid-19. I presented the preliminary paper at the International Communication Association in June 2021, and the data set is currently with my Visual Rhetoric research group at Stirling University. The data set is large and complicated, but this project aims to improve government visual communication during a crisis by comparing two distinct approaches in political and health imagery.

The second project is directed at improving the SABC TV News Archives by reorganizing the transcription and cataloging process. As I noticed during the data collection section of my PhD, two decades of underfunding, political interference, poor maintenance, and a substandard organization system means that retrieving any SABC archival footage is a “smash and grab” exercise entirely dependent on the hopes, prayers, and the tenacity of archivists working in difficult circumstances. This research project will determine the needs of the SABC TV News Archives to revamp its archival organization and practice. The continued support of archivists Duma-Sandile Mboni and now-retired Sias Scott deserve a particular mention as they work tirelessly in an often-thankless job. This project is in the beginning stages (having been put on hold due to the global pandemic) but will involve the assistance of the International Federation of Television Archives, the BBC Archives, and the Vanderbilt Internet Archives and TV News Archives.