Nkandla Scandal: The Tactics of Media Writing

News Analysis

The controversy surrounding the Nkandla scandal remains a popular topic of controversy in the media. In March 2014 Thuli Madonsela released Secure in Comfort,  a detailed report investigating President Jacob Zuma’s misallocation of government funds for personal benefit. However seemingly straightforward each court case and accusation may appear, journalists continue to extract and elaborate on particular elements in the news in order to captivate readers on subject matter. Within each article there are observable examples of variation in news values, agenda setting, priming, framing, and lack of objectivity. By examining three articles that are actively reporting the controversy, these popular journalistic strategies will be observed and contrasted. The analysis will ultimately exemplify that even the most impressive and seemingly objective articles will demonstrate some type of bias, however hidden the author’s opinion appears at first glance.

Every author will have their own set of pre-determined news values when formulating a news piece. These news values can become distinct from the moment the reader skims the headline of an article. Wilm Pretorius’, Madonsela: Remedial actions remain binding, supplies a headline that assumes the reader has previously researched the topic. This is evident by the incorporation of the word “remain” and thus the reader can conclude the author has let the news value of familiarity influence the creation of the story. The headline, Concourt: Zuma accepts Nkandla report binding, by Emsie Ferreira, incorporates the news value of surprise. While one article is prepared to affirm what readers may already believe, another is phrasing the upcoming information as a new piece of evidence that has not been previously discussed. The headline, Zuma violated constitution by defying public protector on Nkandla, court hears, by Natasha Marrian invites the reader to immediately identify Zuma’s actions in a particular light, with the usage of the word “violated” as well as “defying.” Marrian is incorporating the news value of conflict to elicit interest. As O’Neill and Harcup state in the article, News Values and Selectivity, “Many list of news values have been drawn up, and news values can change over time, from place to place, and between different sectors of the news media.” News values are continuously fluctuating from author to author, based on the journalist’s intended audience and method for keeping the reader engaged.

Agenda setting refers to the media’s ability to change the reader’s idea of important topics surfacing the media, based on what the media highlights essential during a given point in time. Priming refers to the repeatedly mention of particular details and facts within articles, in order to further direct the readers attention to a certain element of the topic.  Scheufele and Tewksbury explain in Framing, Agenda Setting, and Priming: The Evolution of Three Media Effect Models, “Both effects are based on memory-based models of information processing. These models assume that people form attitudes based on the considerations that are most salient.” Both agenda setting and priming aim to influence a person’s cognitive process of recalling information.  An instance of agenda setting that exists within all three articles can be identified as goal to create a political controversy within South Africa. By incorporating the conflicting viewpoints within each article, the authors can enforce the reader’s belief the scandal is ongoing and will requires further research.

In order for a political topic to resurface in the media with continuous interest, articles are likely to answer one question while simultaneously raising three more. Ferreira’s immediate incorporation of the phrase, “in an extraordinary string of concessions”, in the article’s lead, highlights that an unanticipated piece of information will soon be revealed. Thus, this gives the reader a sense of curiosity as to what the mystery could possibly be. Following this lead, the journalist explains that Zuma accepted the Public Protector’s findings against him, but then decides to bring forth an entirely new area of uncharted territory; could it be possible that Zuma’s actions will lead to impeachment? In Marrian’s final sentence she states, “United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa and members of the Congress of the People were in the public gallery to hear what could be the final word in the long-running Nkandla saga.” The importance in this quote lies with the word “could”, she is ending her article with a statement implying there is a possible solution, but never explicitly says what the solution is. As a result the reader is left to guess and continue digging.

Pretorius makes a point to reference a hearing on Tuesday that has yet to happen. Additionally in the lead of the article, Pretorius states that “the remedial action taken in her report should remain binding for now.” By including the phrase “for now”, although evidently crucial in the context of the article, Pretorius suggests there is more to come. On page 92 of Discovering the News, by Schudson, he states well written journalism should “develop a sense of evidence and forthrightly acknowledge the limits of available information;… dissect slogans and abstractions, and refuse to withhold the news or put moral uplift or any cause ahead of veracity.” The authors incorporation of ambiguity and future events is not meant to withhold information, rather an intentional tactic to allude to future events the means of keeping the Scandal an ongoing controversy. By doing so the media is able to use means of agenda setting to keep the topic of internal political conflict salient in the media.

Priming is the repeated mention of certain elements within the three articles. The authors choose to consistently acknowledgment money and how Zuma covertly spent it. This primes the reader to believe the money has indeed been misused. Pretorius gives an exact number of “R246m spent on renovations at his Nkandla homestead.” Ferreira makes a point to note where these spendings have gone, referencing a swimming pool twice in the article. Marrian notes that Zuma said he would “repay some money.” This was not a direct quote from Zuma and the incorporation of the word “some” allows the reader to form an assumption about Zuma’s disinvolvement and level of apathy for the issue. All of the articles are careful to mention the expenses with a certain tone of distaste. In this aspect, priming will frequently correlate to a lack of objectivity; the author stresses a point to emphasize what the reader should specifically be upset about.

Framing involves taking a story or situation and painting the picture in a particular light in order to give the reader a distinct perspective on the issue. Reese states on page 96 of Framing public life, “Media framing is important because it can have subtle but powerful effects on the audience, even to the point of helping to overthrow a president.” The relevance of this statement and the true power of words becomes evident in Ferrera’s article, with an entire subsection titled as “Risk of Impeachment.” There is little within this section that reveals whether the author herself is hopeful of the potential for the President’s impeachment, rather it is an instance in which the article’s focus is geared towards an element that may not be completely unrelated to the event at hand, but was also not a necessary inclusion for the news article. The example of this frame can cause a reader think the information provided is quite possibly crucial enough to transform the leadership of a country.

As mentioned earlier in correlation to priming, objectivity is often indadvertedly injected into many aspects of a journalist’s writing. Randall states, “Instead they see a lot of news judgements being made swiftly and surely and seemingly based on nothing more scientific than gut feeling. This process, however, is a lot more measured than that. It just appears to be instincinctive because a lot of the calculations that go into deciding a story’s strength have been learnt to the point where they are made very rapidly, almost too rapidly.” This concept of rapid judgement is demonstrated through the pictures chosen to represent each article. The usage of photos within articles has become a utilized tool for painting a visual picture for what the journalist wants the reader to take away from the new’s piece. Pretorius chooses to incorporate a picture of Madonsela presumably discussing Zuma’s proposal to allow Auditor General and the finance minister to decide what should be done in regards to Zuma’s suggested compromise for misallocating the money towards personal renovations. Madonsela’s focused expression and pointed hand gesture display that she is in the middle of stating a point. Contrast this to Marrian’s photo of President Zuma and the reader is given quite a different picture. Zuma’s mouth is closed and he appears to be looking down, with an expression of silent distaste resting on his face. The selection of photos expose two authors approaching the same news value of power from opposite angles; Madonsela is painted as powerful while Zuma is powerless. While Pretorius and Marrian choose to adds picture of the two feature character’s faces, Ferreira incorporates a picture of the constitutional court, an image that does little to tell the reader what stance to take on the issue. In this contrastment the reader can see a fluctuation in the author’s level of objectivity.

A photo may paint a certain picture of power but this amount of bias is not harmful or worth accusation. In Objectivity as Strategic Ritual: An Examination of Newsmen’s Notions of Objectivity on pages 663 to 664, Tuchman states, “Every story entails dangers for news personnel and for the news organization. Each story potentially affects the newsmen’s ability to accomplish their daily tasks, effect their standing in the eyes of their superiors, and effects the ability of the news organization to make a profit.” While a lack of objectivity when approaching surfacing events is tempting, merely because at times this will make the article more interesting, the implications are often severe and will greatly damage a journalists’ reputability.

A more evident aspect of these articles that lacks objectivity can be referenced to the careful selection of which characters are given an active voice and what these voices are allowed to say. Although a journalist may not directly say “Zuma is a horrible president”, their careful selection of quotes may highlight the favoring towards one side of the argument. By the second paragraph Marrian states, Counsel for the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), advocate Wim Trengove SC, told the court Mr Zuma had violated his ethical duties in order to “protect his ill-gotten gains” and had “used his position to enrich himself”. Marrian’s quotes are not falsified in any way but she is quick to give a voice that insults Zuma.

Schudson (1978, p. 151 ) in Discovering the News, Identifies Walter Lippmann as “the most wise and forceful spokesman for the ideal of objectivity”. According to Lipmann “develop a sense of evidence and forthrightly acknowledge the limits of available information;… dissect slogans and abstractions, and refuse to withhold the news or put moral uplift or any cause ahead of veracity.” Ferreria incorporates the same quote but his reference is worded slightly differently, Earlier, Wim Trengove, for the EFF, said Zuma had flagrantly breached the law and the obligation on him to uphold the Constitution in order to hold on to “ill-gotten wealth”. Why there is a variance in wording in what is supposed to be a quote spoken with only. Pretorius’ only instance of incorporating a quote is when referring to the decision of Madonsela. “Her standpoint remains that the remedial action taken in her report must be given effect in full unless she has been fully engaged and has relaxed aspects thereof to accommodate changed or unforeseen circumstances,” the statement said. Once again the reader takes note of a variance in tactics to incorporate information that further justifies Madonsela as a public hero and Zuma as the deceiver.

The three articles highlight a succession of events in the Nkandla scandal as President Zuma admits that according to the constitutional court the Public Protectors findings were indeed binding. Within each article there are observable examples of variation in news values, agenda setting, priming, framing, and lack of objectivity. Sifting through a multitude of various articles eventually revealed Pretorius, Ferreira, and Marrian’s articles demonstrate a standard of objectivity that was absent in many other journalists’ writing. However, through careful speculation it can be concluded that in a world of subjectivity an article can rarely remain completely objective.


Three Main Articles

Marrian, N (2016). ”Zuma Violated Constitution By Defying Public Protector On Nkandla, Court Hears”. Business Day Live.

Ferreira, E. (2016). “Concourt: Zuma Accepts Nkandla Report Binding”. The M&G Online.

Pretorius W. (2016) ”Madonsela: Remedial Actions Remain Binding”. News24.

Additional Research

Anderson. C.  & M. Schudson 2009. “Objectivity, Professionalism and Truth Seeking in Journalism”.  Wahl-Jorgensen, K.  & T. Hanitzsch (Eds.) Handbook of Journalism Studies. New York: Routledge Pp. 88-101.

Britton, Nonkululeko. (2016) “Nkandla: From Secure In Comfort To #Paybackthemoney”. CapeTalk.

O’Neill, D. & Harcup, T. 2009. “News Values and Selectivity”. In: Wahl-Jorgensen, K.  & T. Hanitzsch (Eds.) Handbook of Journalism Studies. New York: Routledge Pp. 161-174.

Randall, D. (2000). The universal journalist. London: Pluto

Reese, S., Gandy, O. and Grant, A. (2001). Framing public life. Mahwah, N.J .: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Scheufele, Dietram A. & David Tewksbury (2007) “Framing, Agenda Setting, and Priming: The Evolution of Three Media Effects Models”. Journal of Communication 57: 9-20.

Tuchman, G. 1972. “Objectivity as Strategic Ritual: An Examination of Newsmen’s Notions of Objectivity”. American Journal of Sociology 77(4): 660-679.

O’Neill and Harcup state in the article, News Values and Selectivity

Dietram Scheufele and David Tewksbury explain in Framing, Agenda Setting, and Priming: The Evolution of Three Media Effect Models,

Photo of Zuma: http://www.vocfm.co.za/zuma-took-control-nuclear-deal-report/


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