TV news leaves you with the impression that SA is a boring country, where  everything happens indoors and people are always – and exclusively – at press conferences, writes Cristina Karrer of the IAJ. The only hope is that the new TV stations will raise the bar somewhat.

Cristina Karrer writes:

We’re watching SABC3, a news clip in the main news. Pan to a bunch of journalists slumped in an almost empty hall while Minister Essop Pahad addresses them. The narration confirms just that.  No more, no less. Minister Pahad addressed journalists.
Now another night on eTV. The news anchor dangles an item after the ad about the health minister again having an alcohol problem. The announcement is under laid with visuals of the health minister in tears. We eagerly await the story, only to find out that a) she cried about something else and b) nobody substantiated the allegations. Three other potentially emotionally charged stories follow, but devoid of illustrative sound bites.

This is our TV reflection of South Africa – a dull country where things usually happen indoors, where everybody is busy attending press conferences or other conferences and where nobody really has an opinion. The reflection is also one of journalists who are secretly bureaucrats who might just as well be working on the assembly line of a factory floor.

So what happened? Sure, South Africa’s TV history is relatively brief, but long enough to have produced better quality news than what we are being served every day. Furthermore, since the demise of apartheid, TV stations from overseas have come in and trained for free. So why hasn’t the training left its signature on the news?

Three reasons primarily. For one, the news is not taken seriously enough. Everybody wants to be a movie star or a film director and existing colleges and universities don’t really care about teaching news. Yet news is the core business of any TV station. News is supposed to be the flagship of a station. To produce a great one-and-a- half minute story is no small feat. Indeed, to make the most out of boring, badly shot footage from a news agency takes imagination and effort. It is an art which has to be taught and trained. Again and again.

Then secondly, it seems that many television journalists are just not that into pictures. They use pictures mainly to carpet their narration. They squash the visuals and strangle their potential. And that’s a crime. They still believe that on-screen narration should dominate the picture. They do not understand that the opposite is true – that for narration to work the viewers’ attention needs to be grabbed first by a powerful visual. Narration should never want to compete with a strong visual, because visuals are a language on their own. It is heinous to show a gang of excited kids running around, playing pirates, laughing and shouting (as lately seen on Top Billing) and plaster it with narration which either repeats what we see or conveys a totally different message – which we can’t absorb because our attention is being grabbed by the kids.

Finally, there is a lack of passion and of curiosity.  South Africa is a wonderfully exciting country, full of challenges, full of dreams. The stories are out there, they are up for grabs. The visuals linger in front of our eyes. It is a matter of going out there and getting them, of talking to the people. Who really does talk to the people of South Africa? Who is really interested in what they think and feel? News pieces on TV seldom reflect a curious mastermind behind them. They reflect rather a TV journalist armed with a preconceived notion, with a cautious and bored approach.

And that’s a shame. Isn’t South Africa supposed to be the beacon on the continent? Do we really want to torture the tourists in 2010 with this kind of news?

I have one hope only: the upcoming new TV channels. They are gearing up, getting ready to challenge those who have been there, done that – and are still not doing it right. Let’s see what they are up to. Let’s hope they get it right, because I want to see great news stories on local channels. The day I don’t have to tune into BBC or some other international channel to get a decent news story about South Africa – will be a truly happy day!

* Cristina Karrer is Broadcast Training Unit Manager at the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism. She writes in her personal capacity.