When I was studying Media and Writing at the University of Cape Town (UCT), I seem to remember there were a few lectures about media ethics, scattered sporadically across the three years of the course. But I remember very little about the meat of those lectures apart from something about brown envelopes, and certainly don’t feel that any part of my UCT degree equipped me very well for the numerous ethical issues and grey areas that I’ve had to grapple with on an almost daily basis since I entered the fraught but fabulous world of freelance journalism.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say that all of the media modules I took over the course of my degree were much too heavy on the theory and dry, rigid descriptions of “best practices”, and much too light on the more philosophical, existential and emotional aspects of being a media professional, which I personally consider to be substantially more important a lot of the time.
I think that a lot of my young career since leaving UCT can be summed up by the following quote from Steven Wright: “Experience is something you don’t get until just after you need it.”
I still remember clearly, for example, my first experience of writing something that seriously offended, upset and angered a lot of people, and how ill-equipped I felt to deal with the backlash, or to adequately reassure myself that my intentions were good, my ethics sound and my integrity rock solid. I spent a lot of sleepless nights chewing on all of this stuff.
“I am unsettled by a feeling that I, as the writer and/or photographer, am being given – or actively taking even – much more from someone than I can give them in turn.”
The piece in question was a narrative non-fiction story about Rosemary Theron, a performer who was killed in her Clovelly home by her daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend. You can read this rather raw piece and the 130 comments here, including some very long-winded ones from me trying to explain – more to myself than anyone else, I think – that I hadn’t done anything “wrong”.
Still today, I have occasional moments of panic when I open a recently published article and scroll down towards the comments, terrified of what I might find there. I always tell my friends and colleagues that I’ve stopped reading the comments on my articles, but it’s a lie. I’m lying to myself mostly though. I’m trying to convince myself that I don’t care if I’ve offended or upset someone anymore, because I’m now much surer of myself, my ethics and my motivation for writing whatever it is I’ve written. But the truth is, I often still feel as though I’m fumbling uncertainly in the dark, with nothing but my gut to protect me against all the doubts and moral dilemmas.
I’ve had similar flushes of anxiety and self-doubt when people all over Africa (across different races, religions, cultures and classes) have unquestioningly opened their doors (both literal and metaphorical) to me and let me into their lives and homes, trusted me, confided in me, and in the most uncomfortable instances, believed that I would be able to help them in some significant or enduring way.
There are undoubtedly moments when I feel very sure that what I am writing, or the pictures I’m taking, or both, can indeed have a positive impact on someone’s life. To give a tangible example, an article I wrote about two social entrepreneurs, Buntu Matole and Ayanda Cuba, who are using sports to curb social ills and connect communities in Khayelitsha led to a lucrative relationship between them and Airbnb, whose area manager reached out to Buntu and Ayanda after stumbling across my article.
But in other cases, I am unsettled by a feeling that I, as the writer and/or photographer, am being given – or actively taking even – much more from someone than I can give them in turn. And I have found little guidance on how to appropriately and ethically address this imbalance. I think I’ve at least become a little surer of my own integrity and good intentions, but at the same time, it seems I’ve also become more aware of the often inherent imbalances between storyteller and the people required to tell any good story.
As a white European man writing from and about various regions and facets of South Africa and Africa, generally incorporating interactions and interviews with Africans for my stories, then peddling those stories to a predominantly Western audience, I have become ever more acutely aware of how easy it can be to fall into the vast and long-established canon of imbalanced, self-serving, exploitative and reductive (mis)representations of the continent I work in, and its inhabitants.
I’ve also come to realize that many people I encounter have come to expect me to play that uncomfortably colonial role (based on their experiences of other white folks, no doubt), and even go so far as to actively encourage it. I remember, for example, on a recent trip to Namibia, a woman at a market stall grabbing one of her small children so forcefully by the arm that it wailed in pain, then picking it up and thrusting it towards me shouting “Picture! Picture! Ten dollars!” as the child continued to howl its discomfort. This was certainly not the first time this had happened.
“Media professionals, myself included, often complain about being asked, expected even, to work for ‘exposure’ – to work at our craft without being paid”
I still wonder how many people would have snapped that picture without a moment’s hesitation. A few years back, I might have done. The dappled late afternoon light coming through the roof of the market stall, the colourful wax prints on sale, the child’s smooth skin as dark and shiny as crude oil – it could have been a great shot.
But I left my camera at my side and walked on with my tail between my legs and a feeling of shame hanging over me like a heavy blanket.
As I unravel all of this stuff, I’m also reminded of another article I wrote for Narratively back in February this year, which you can read here. A story about the dual lives of Congolese dandies (known as sapeurs) in Cape Town, it took me a long time to put this project together, in part because of the many moral dilemmas I had to navigate during the process.
One such dilemma was presented in the hope my protagonists had of one day being able to make a living from what they believe is a serious art form (some go so far as to say it’s a calling) – one certainly worthy of remuneration or sponsorship in their view (the current reality for these guys, however, is very different).
Media professionals, myself included, often complain about being asked, expected even, to work for “exposure” – to work at our craft without being paid. Yet in the case of the sources that I used for my Narratively article, I was essentially expecting the same of them. I wanted them to “perform” their fascinating duality for me, free of charge. What made my work more worthy of payment than theirs?
And what was I going to give them in return for giving me my story? A longform article written for a fairly niche publication in a language they couldn’t read well, that would be predominantly read and commended by a Western audience, none of whom were likely to cough up some money for the sapeurs so that they could buy more outfits and live off their art, which is what they really wanted me to help them achieve.
“If I come to believe that my peace of mind or any other type of self-interest is inherently what comes first and foremost in all of this, I think I’ll have to pick a new profession”
So while I understand that the general consensus says the job of a journalist is to document the world, not alter it, I was still left wondering who really stood to gain from this philosophy in this particular instance? As far as I could tell, only I did. With this in mind, I gave Blanchard, my main protagonist in the story, money for groceries on the days that he gave me his time or dressed up and I also printed and framed a picture I’d taken of him for the article. But though I know Blanchard was grateful, these gestures were probably made to ease my own conscience more than anything, and likely broke some journalistic code in the process.
I take comfort in the fact that I am at least aware of the issues I’ve spoken about in this post, obviously, and willing to ask hard questions of myself at every turn (or just unable to stop these questions from surfacing), though I’m not sure how good any of this is for my own peace of mind – this stuff still keeps me up at night sometimes.
But if I come to believe that my peace of mind or any other type of self-interest is inherently what comes first and foremost in all of this, I think I’ll have to pick a new profession. For better or worse, I’m still too much of an idealist to accept that fate yet.