The media have been packed to the brim with political stories, writes Anton Harber in Business Day. Internationally, the financial crisis has swamped almost every other story.  But journalists should be asking themselves some hard questions about the quality of our coverage: it hasn't always been very good.

Anton Harber writes in Business Day:

Recent events have raised many challenges for journalists, who should be asking themselves some tough questions.

How well did we cover the recent political upheavals? Did we cry fire in the “crowded cinema” by playing up a sense of crisis? Or are there times when we have to cry fire, because there is one? How many reporters called it wrongly? Did we focus on the right things?

And equally pertinently, how well did we cover the global financial crisis unfolding in the background? Have we explained it to South Africans and have we asked the tough questions about how it might affect us here?

The question that will be present in most minds is this: how is it that Communications Minister Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri, who is widely regarded as the single biggest impediment to the modernisation of the country’s communications network, can survive a cabinet reshuffle? Is it that we don’t recognise the importance of fast and cheap bandwidth and internet access for all? Every year that goes by when we don’t give people better and cheaper access to the web widens the information and power gap between ourselves and the wealthier northern countries. Every delay is damaging.

But let’s get back to the fundamentals. Most striking for me in the past few weeks has been the value of having e.n ews, the 24-hour channel. I am not sure they did brilliantly in the story, sometimes lacking the punch and variety such a story requires, as well as the packages which fill out such a story . But they did it, and they followed the story step by step, which meant we didn’t have to wait for the standard scheduled news, and that made all the difference. has taken us into the 21st century with How sad that it is available only as a pay service. How tragic that South Africans who don’t have access to satellite television or the internet still have to wait to learn what is happening around them. It is seriously disempowering.

I WAS struck by the Sunday Times lead this last week, which presented a poll that showed urban voters were split three ways between African National Congress (ANC) voters, Democratic Alliance voters and don’t-knows. “New shock for ANC” was the headline. One had to read a few paragraphs into the story to find out that this poll was conducted only among those with landline telephones, a serious distortion that weakened the story significantly and left one feeling deflated.

We have to be particularly careful with opinion polls that, if used carelessly, can distort the political process. I have no doubt the Sunday Times was pointing to an important trend — that recent events will alienate many voters and will be felt in the polls — but I also have little doubt that the survey and its presentation exaggerated it.

On the US financial crisis, I think most of our news coverage has been particularly weak. A complex story, it needed careful and detailed explanation. The likely effect needed to be teased out, as well as the choices being made by the US authorities. Most of all, tough questions needed to be asked of our financial institutions about the effect this might have on them, not just accepting their bland assurances. I found little of this.

The new ANC leadership takes the reins of power as the country is likely to move into fiscal deficit and with global pressures weighing heavily on us all. How will this affect their promise to pay more attention to unemployment and poverty, and the drive from the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party for a leftward shift in policy?

In chasing the excitement of the daily story, there has not been much sitting back and asking the questions that will affect us in the long term. Hopefully, things will settle down and the media will pay more attention to teasing out the implications of these extraordinary few weeks in national and international affairs.

* Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism, Wits University. This column first appeared in Business Day on 1 october 2008.