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'Post-Truth' in the 1994 South African Election

The final speaker in this Future of Journalism 2017 session is Bernadine Jones, who takes us back to the 1994 South African 'miracle election', with a particular focus on global north television reporting of the election.

The early 1990s saw a shift in international news reporting, from Cold War 'us vs. them' reporting to neo-liberal narratives promoting transnational economic cooperation and development. The 1994 South African election provided the perfect opportunity for this framing. This links with wider understandings of media logics (such as personalisation and shallow, dramatised reporting) and mediatisation (especially the televisualisation of politics at the expense of policy issues and in-depth reporting).

The election was the first post-apartheid, all-race election, but was also marred by car bombings and a low-level civil war perpetrated by white supremacist groups. It was presented from a U.S. perspective as a cathartic election offering a chance for a negotiated settlement between racial groups in South Africa. Bernadine studied this using a dataset of television reports from the time as available from a range of archival sites; these especially include CNN and ITV reports.

The focus of such reports highlighted the new era of democracy in South Africa, often waxing lyrical in their coverage of the elections and stressing the historical dimension of the election but also addressing issues with voter education and information. Another focus of reporting highlighted election violence and terrorism and framed some black party groups (especially the Zulus' Inkatha Freedom Party) as anti-democratic, violent, savage mobs raising their hands in intimidating gestures. Finally, another framing showed the military as safeguarding and controlling the electoral process, and placed it in opposition to the mob; this also plays into race relations by positioning white military as forces of order and reason and black political groups as agents of chaos and emotion.

Such coverage entertains but does not enlighten, and there are echoes of it in the current 'post-truth' reporting on Brexit, Trump, and other phenomena. Media literacy is now more imperative than ever.