Who’s negative – the DA or the media?

There’s a contention that pops up in the media from time to time – usually on the editorial and opinion pages – that the Democratic Alliance is too negative – that it only criticises and never offers its own solutions. It is never presented as the central thesis of a substantiated argument (that would be difficult, I would argue); rather, it is almost always a throw-away line – a cliché even. But does it hold up to scrutiny?

Fortuitously, Mandy de Waal published an interview with Media Tenor SA CEO Wadim Schreiner on Thought Leader yesterday that provides excellent background for this post. Among other things, it looks at how the media’s agenda setting plays a role in how politicians and political parties (or any institution or personality, for that matter – Cape Judge President John Hlophe is another case in point) are represented and perceived.

The Democratic Alliance (DA) is certainly a straight-talking, no-nonsense, critical opposition, and unapologetic about it. It’s also what the overwhelming majority of our supporters, as well as a significant proportion of voters who don’t yet vote for the DA, want from us.

In market research we recently commissioned, voters were asked whether they thought the DA was too critical, not critical enough, or just about right. Only 32 % of black voters – the market in which the DA needs to gain support in order to grow – think the DA is too critical; 15 % think we are not critical enough; and 39 % think we get our criticism just about right (margin of error of 2%). Among white voters – the majority of the DA’s current support base – 58 % think the DA is not critical enough; a further 36 % think we get it just about right. Only 2 % think we are too critical.

But the DA is by no means only critical. It also offers analysis of the numerous challenges the state faces – the better to identify the root of problems – and proposes solutions to many of those problems. This is something that all voters – regardless of who they voted for, or intend to vote for – want from an opposition party.

The DA produced some 30 new policy and discussion documents in 2007, including an analysis of ASGISA and JIPSA, reports on government spending, the public health sector, education, audit outcomes and an alternative budget. It also produced policy documents on victims of crime, violence in schools, alternative medicines, and unemployment.

The party also produced some 40 new policy and discussion documents in 2006, including a review of the criminal justice system, a series of policies on helping small business, an overview of the state of public education and an alternative budget.

In addition, it submitted six private members’ legislative proposals in each of 2006 and 2007. Only one other opposition party has submitted a bill in either of the two years.

So the contentions that “the DA only criticises” and “the DA is always negative” do not stand up to scrutiny of the facts (or the broad majority of people’s perceptions). But that doesn’t mean that the perceptions don’t exist – albeit (according to our research) among a minority of people.

I contend that these perceptions are largely held and, in turn, propagated by members of the media (including contributing political commentators and analysts). I also contend that the media is generally extremely negative – there seems to be an accepted wisdom that bad news sells newspapers and headlines scream warnings, doom and gloom more often than not.

As an example, the DA has recently made a point of regularly releasing statements which are only positive; they pick up on positive stories in the media and highlight them as examples – microcosms, even – of the DA’s vision of an Open Opportunity Society for All in action.

The first point is that these statements have disappeared pretty much without a trace in the media. One would think that, in the context of the media perception that the DA is negative and critical, these statements would be quite newsworthy – if not in and of themselves, then as a series (based on the “Man bites dog” mantra of newsworthiness).

However, what is even more to the point is that it is quite a struggle to find even one such story per day – especially in the mainstream media. Try it yourself: choose whichever newspaper or news portal you usually read, and make a conscious effort to count the good news stories on the main news and politics pages (or anywhere outside of sports and leisure).

I think that the media’s perception (and representation) of the DA is driven partly by this general negative approach, and partly by the strength of the DA’s brand – built over the last 15 years – of being a strong, forthright and critical opposition. For both those reasons, many journalists automatically look for the negative in what we say – (a) because that’s what they expect from the DA, and (b) because that’s what gets published (ask any journalist, they hate having their stories dropped).

In conclusion, let me leave you with a good example of the different ways in which the media can represent the DA’s communication:

On Monday, DA leader Helen Zille and health spokesperson Mike Waters addressed a press conference about the party’s proposed alternatives to the minister’s National Health Amendment Bill. The DA’s discussion document, Partners in Health, provides a comprehensive analysis of the twin problems of expensive private health care and deteriorating public health care, as well as a number of concrete proposals on how best to address these problems. It also provides a critique of the government’s approach as set out in the Bill. This is important, because it provides the context in which the DA’s proposals are made. But it’s quite difficult to ignore the positive proposals in covering the story.

Most news portals took their copy from SAPA, which wrote quite a positive story leading with the DA’s key proposals, but here is a list of headlines I picked up on this story, from most positive to most negative:

How to fix public health care – DA : Politicsweb, which republished the DA’s statement in its original form. Anyone reading this headline gets the message – loud and clear – that the DA is providing solutions to South Africa’s problems – something that voters want from the opposition.

DA’s grand plan for SA’s State hospitals : Daily Dispatch. A little less explicit about solutions, but it’s still clear that the DA is making positive policy proposals; still very positive.

DA presents new hospital plan : News24. Same as above, although not quite as ‘grand’ 🙂

Let private sector run state hospitals – DA : IOL. It’s a bit of an over-simplification of our proposal (read the story to get a clearer picture), which is sure to rile the ANC and its alliance partners, but it is still focussing on a solution proposed by the DA. Still positive. Health24 and the M&G had slight variations on this headline.

Zille says health bill will drive skills away : Business Day. This story focusses on the negative. It leads with the critique of the bill, and in fact only mentions the policy document, but doesn’t cite any of the proposals in the document. For anyone who thinks that the DA only criticises, this story would reinforce that view (especially if he/she doesn’t read all the way to the mention of the policy document in the third-last paragraph).

Zille says new health bill will force up prices : Legalbrief. The same story and similar headline to Business Day. The same applies.

I could probably have gone through the archives and come up with numerous examples of critical-but-relatively-balanced DA press releases that have been covered as “DA slams govt…”. I chose rather to discuss this example because it illustrates very well the different ways in which the same DA media release can be covered.

I also didn’t write this post in order to demonise the media for being negative or anti-DA. I hope that it will stimulate a little introspection among decision-makers in the media, and perhaps a bit of a debate about the media’s role in how political parties and personalities are perceived.


2 Responses to “Who’s negative – the DA or the media?”

  1. 1 Mandy de Waal 14 June 2008 at 4:29 pm

    Interesting story, and the the reliance of English speaking newspapers on SAPA and what this means, more so. Wadim Schreiner did an interesting study on this (innovation in the news media) and showed a disturbing trend amongst English newspapers regarding the reliance on SAPA and other news wires, and very little generation of own copy. Think you would be interested in seeing the results of that.

  2. 2 ahazell 17 June 2008 at 9:50 am

    Thanks for the comment, Mandy.
    There is a strong reliance on SAPA – more so among the online news portals, which want to update their content continuously. I stand under correction, but I think the number of SAPA journalists has decreased as the reliance on the association has increased – kind of ironic.

    The downside of rationalising newsrooms (although newspapers need to be profitable) is that, outside of the business titles, there is very limited specialisation. This means that stories often get written in a bit of a vacuum, because there are different people covering them from one week to the next. There’s no sense of continuity or context; no big picture.

    An example that occurred to me a while back was the coverage of the safety and security portfolio committee lamenting the fact that border security had been transferred from the SANDF to the SAPS, and there was a bit of a vacuum. Two or three weeks prior to that, the DA released a policy discussion document on exactly that. But today’s stories seldom refer back more than a day or two. News has become fleeting, rather than part of an ongoing narrative. Here today, gone tomorrow.

    I’ve read some of Wadim’s analysis in terms of articles he’s written I think. I recall, Media Tenor usually do an analysis of election campaign coverage, which is always interesting to read about.

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