Sensationalist reporting is back!

Today’s Cape Times runs a front page story on the a problem which put the Table Mountain Cableway out of action for a whole 35 (thirty-five) minutes yesterday afternoon. Woo. [link]
Yet, despite the fact that there were a total of no injuries, no snapped cables, no plunging tourists, merely a blown fuse, we get 1000 words and an overflow onto page 3 about upset people waiting to use the cable car and how Eskom cut the power to it in January (an incident objectively described by the reporter as the passengers’ “worst nightmare”).

Nerish Rempul of Durban, who was looking forward to his third cable car ride, said the situation was “terrible”.
“I’m here with two friends but we’re leaving now. We probably won’t get another chance to use the cable car because we’re going home tomorrow. It’s truly terrible.”

No, no, no. Honestly, are all Durbanites quite so dramatic?
“Truly terrible” is when the local bottle store runs out of Castle Milk Stout.
A half-hour delay on the cable car is “mildly irritating”. In fact, if you happen to have some Castle Milk Stout with you when you get delayed, then a half hour delay can even be “quite alright” as it means “extra drinking time”.

All in all, reporter Caryn Dolley has done her best to make a story out of nothing, and she must have been amazed when it ended up on the front page, pushing murder, rape, earthquakes, fishcake recipes and rugby deep into the bowels of the paper.

I hate it when the press do that – not least because I don’t have time to get to page 18 on my tea break (although I often don’t have breadcrumbs to hand anyway) – but the South African press is worse than most when trying to drum up a story that isn’t. I might have hinted at that here.
My annoyance primarily stems from their cherry-picking and publicising the worst and most violent crime stories in order to get readers: a process which has the unfortunate side-effect of making the world think that we all get hijacked at gunpoint on a daily basis here in SA, which in turn keeps the tourists away in their droves (which then reduces income, increases poverty and… er… fuels crime).
This is counterproductive.

Some would argue that this tactic only works because people want to read about the worst and most violent crime and they’d be right. Without such tales, dinner parties in the better-off areas of SA would be strangely quiet, save for briefly mentioning how badly the Bulls are doing, questioning whether Julie is going to report her gynaecologist to the HPCSA and passing on the latest ZumaRuma™*. But that doesn’t excuse it.

To the editors of the South African press, not least Tyrone August of the Cape Times. Up your game please. This is rubbish.

* ZumaRuma – a piece of information (which may or may not be true) about our country’s president-in-waiting. 
   e.g. “Jacob Zuma ate my hamster”. (This may or may not be true.)

14 thoughts on “Sensationalist reporting is back!

  1. Now if only the Argus/Times adopted page 3 strategies like the Voice to sell papers!

    It’s absolutely hilarious how these things can be written up to sound like an apocalypse. I wonder when stories of taxis that drive well will start to emerge. Would this justify a front page spot?

  2. “to his third cable car ride” – I didn’t even get to go up once last year when I was in Cape Town. Something to do with bad weather! And THAT didn’t even make it into the paper, never mind the front page!

  3. Must admit, my first thoughts on the cable car story was also woooo hoooo. I had a rant and rave regarding sensationalist reporting about a week ago, and the way a story is coloured in, or advertised on bill-boards to sell news papers. In my specific story the reporter got so into writing a sensationalist story that she did not even get the spelling of the names right. Very sad.

  4. You know it’s a slow news day when something like this makes the front page. I would have gone with a happy story about a two headed kitten with healing powers being born…but that’s just me.

  5. One wonders just what is important to the news media? If a 35 minute delay is utterly terrible one wonders how they would have reported the cable snapping and all those assorted tourists who overpaid for the trip in the first place, landing head first on the slopes of Table Mountain – sort of leaves one a bit short of adjectives doesn’t it.
    Now what I find very worrying is that Barristers was held up by armed gunmen and the manager shot…I eat and drink there!!! That only made the news the next day!

  6. @charmskool: I saw that too. The owner’s comment was great: “It was just some crazy Xhosa kids from the Transkei.”
    Mind you, he wasn’t the one who got shot! (in the leg)

  7. Oh my word – the cable car was stopped for 35 minutes. A whole 35 minutes? I wonder why that did not make the PE paper.

    It will probably be front page here tomorrow.

    Or maybe not. They might still be writing about the MOCK air disaster which was at the airport for training purposes. That managed to get THREE articles on the front page today. Apparently 62 people “died” and “relatives” were traumatised.

  8. I realise I’m probably the last one to ever comment on this article, but please bear with me: I only discovered your blog today (thanks, BBC).
    When I started working in Cape Town I started a little hobby which I’d like to share (and which will reveal much about my sad, pathetic OCD life): count how many times in a week you can spot the word “crisis” in a Cape Argus headline / poster.

    My top score is five – yes, FIVE. Seriously. And this was back when the interest rate was still 11%…

  9. @Zackmango: You are my new hero: what a brilliant game! I’m off to review the Cape Times now. (Although I may get stuck at the Ben Trovato column).
    Thanks for visiting and commenting. And don’t leave it so long next time! 😉

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