[DEBATE] : Business Media: The real agenda-setters
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Fri Feb 8 16:23:15 GMT 2008
Business Media: The real agenda-setters
Author: Wadim Schreiner
Publish: 01 February 2008
Media Tenor's Wadim Schreiner looks forward to the day business media
will admit to having a particular agenda.
At a conference at the Gordon Institute of Business Science a few
months ago, a fellow journalist colleague was astonished at the notion
that individual journalists possibly have agendas. She admitted that
editors might be pushing for certain topics, but individual
journalists, no, that was just simply impossible as they are primarily
reporting on the facts of the day and the timing of printing deadlines
would never allow anything sinister. I am convinced that such agendas
exist, and I am also not sure why it should be considered sinister.
As much as President Thabo Mbeki or ANC President Jacob Zuma might
wish, media in South Africa will not be neutral, and should for that
matter never be. But what is missing though is media admitting to their
Instead, every attack on the media is considered an attack on media
freedom, an often convenient justification in order to avoid potential
consequences. Sadly, those individuals or organisations attacked by the
media conversely, don't have similar abstract and vague concepts such
as media freedom to hide behind. I think it is far more unethical to
claim being objective when inherently not, than admitting to reporting
in a biased manner and with an agenda.
For those observing media from a scientific and academic point of view,
2007 has been pure excitement. For those, who were the focus of media
attention, 2007 should have served as a serious wake-up call: the South
African media are alive, kicking ¨C and getting better at doing it by
Business media lead in critical reporting
For the above mentioned Gibs conference, I researched the content of
political coverage in a selection of South African print and electronic
media, with the aim of identifying certain emerging trends and
patterns: which media really matter when it comes to shaping an agenda?
What role did television play? Firstly, coverage on the government
generally has become considerably more negative, starting in November
2004 (with a rating score of 50 on a scale of one to 100), dropping to
41 in August and September 2007.
A sure catalyst here were the focus on the Schabir Shaik as well as the
Zuma trials and the subsequent dismissal of the latter as deputy
president, and later the handling of Health Minister Manto
Tshabalala-Msimang's dismissal of her deputy. Since then, it is all the
way down, a trend confirmed by Markinor's survey on government
But if one thinks that it has been largely the likes of the Mail &
Guardian or Sunday Times that have been driving negative coverage
against government or the president, this is not the case. It has been
primarily business media lashing out negative sentiment, particularly
towards the president.
While all media types, except SABC TV news, showed considerable more
negative coverage on the president, financial media had the highest
share with almost one-fifth more negative coverage than positive. This
was found to be a trend, starting in mid-2005 and continuing all the
way towards the end of 2007. Non-financial media such as The Star or
the Citizen, did not increase either volume or tone of coverage to the
same extent as financial media.
In terms of volume, Business Day drove the largest coverage of debate
around government and the president in particular, but this is not
surprising considering that it is the only dedicated daily financial
medium. Both Sake and Business Report abstained largely from making any
opinionated comments, while both FinWeek and FM raised criticism
Looking at the coverage of Business Day in particular and its use of
commentators and analysts on various issues around political and
business policies, it is impossible to argue that this type of coverage
has been driven by audience demand. Surely, the audience of Business
Day, Financial Mail, FinWeek and Sake are more or less similar in terms
of LSM, age, income, colour, blood group or any of the other more or
less useful definitions of a target audience.
I have serious doubts that (Business Day's) Peter Bruce increased his
team of columnists on the basis of so-called reader demand, with the
same audience begging Sake's Charles Naud¨¦ to go easy on the president,
or (the SABC's) Snuki Zikalala's alleged lack of criticism of the
president or the government because viewers did not want to see some of
the negative sides of the president.
It might be time that media admit that there is an agenda they pursue.
And there is nothing wrong with it, even though the concept might seem
a bit foreign to us here in South Africa.
Under-estimated by politicians?
Coverage in Sunday Times raises prolonged debates amongst many groups,
but it is the point-targeted agendas of the likes of Business Day,
Financial Mail, and to a lesser extent Sake and FinWeek that raise the
blood pressure of those people who really impact on the development of
the country: business and political leaders.
The influence exercised by business media has considerably greater
impact on the medium to long term economic and social development of
the country than most of the other publications, no matter how large
Sure, international media had a field day when Sunday Times broke the
story about Tshabalala-Msimang's alleged misconducts, but primarily
because it had fed into the international media's notion of a corrupt
and incapable Africa. The real damage would be extensive as continuous
negative coverage on economic, political and financial issues in
business publications would cause investor concerns ¨C and ultimately
damaging the long term prospects of the country.
Ministers come and go and are considered corrupt and liars all over the
world ¨C investors know this. But when business media, possibly
perceived as a voice of peers, are changing their coverage, this should
get political leaders really jittery. Instead, political leaders often
focus their attention on non-financial media's coverage of government,
as these media are read by the constituencies. They are equally
obsessed with radio and consider appearance on various shows as the
ultimate tool to impact on the public perception. But while it is
politically important that the wider public has the "right" information
around social delivery, the public in South Africa is likely to
continue voting for the ANC, delivery or non delivery. Those entities
that matter in terms of policy shaping, are likely to use business
media to communicate their messages.
Indeed, we should be looking forward to this year: It will be joyous to
watch the continuous power play between the media and government, but
it will be the business media that should be particularly closely
observed. I personally will be looking forward to the day business
media will admit to having a particular agenda, whatever that agenda
is. I might not always agree with the agenda, but at least I know where
they stand. Kind of the way business media felt initially about Mbeki:
better the devil you know...
Wadim Schreiner is the CEO of Media Tenor SA.
¡ö This is an edited version of The Media magazine's February cover
story. This edition's content will be archived on TheMediaOnline by 15
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