VOICES

More Empathy, Less Echo Chamber: A Genuinely Modest Proposal

"Bias comes with responsibility."

22/04/2017 15:11 SAST | Updated 22/04/2017 16:10 SAST
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"By and large, it is opinion that feeds the outrage machine."

ANALYSIS

Words matter. Today I am going to use 800 of them to talk about the credibility of Huffington Post SA. The Shelley Garland hoax blog post has damaged the reputation of South Africa's newest mainstream media brand, but the resulting fallout presents some of us – as editors, writers, and also as advertisers and their agencies – with a useful opportunity to do better.

Those who know me through Facebook and Twitter will wonder, why my byline appears here a few days after announcing that I was disgusted and would never write for Huffington Post, or pitch them to a client. The answer is simple: because they asked me to. My Shelley Garland-related disappointment aside, I like HuffPost and want it to succeed in South Africa for reasons that are somewhat selfish: I want another media platform, not only as an outlet for my own writing as one of their invited bloggers, but a credible option for the campaigns I design for my clients.

Beyond that, I am aware that anger is easy; fixing things is much harder. Asking your critics how you can do better is one of the pieces of advice I would give to a client experiencing a PR crisis, so credit to Huffington Post SA for taking this step.

How, then, does the brand regain credibility? There are a few points I would like to make.

The first is that in the five months or so of its existence, Huffington Post SA already has a track record of good stories. This piece, for example, illuminates an important aspect of the single most important government decision of our time, Eskom's planned nuclear deal. Two memes currently circulating in the national conversation are "give us the land" and "radical economic transformation". HuffPost SA pieces have cast light on both of these issues, and there are many other examples that didn't trigger nearly 6 000 comments on Breitbart.com.

These stories are important. They help us as South African citizens to question the narratives being propagated by powerful vested interests. This is good, and the Shelley Garland scandal should not detract from this.

Secondly, there is the source of all the trouble: an unpaid blog submitted by a member of the public and published – despite the existence of a blogs editor - with little to no scrutiny. Blogging has been criticised for generating lots of unpaid content that earns revenue for publishers, but I see it as an important complement to hard news and more crafted paid pieces. News coverage is criticised for being overwhelmingly negative, but this is the nature of news. Huffington Post Voices can help address this problem by creating a platform and an audience for smaller, more personal stories that would otherwise go untold. This piece, Love in the Time of a Surgical Residency Is Not Easy, And I Am Lucky To Have It, has remained with me ever since I read it in February, and it is an example of what a good blog post can be: a small but lovely window into another life.

This brings me to my third point, the role of advertisers, who, as much as writers and editors, make it possible for Huffington Post to exist. Through the work I do with my clients, I know that there's a real opportunity for brands to sponsor authentic, meaningful stories that would otherwise remain untold – and possibly even pay the people who write them.

I use the word "stories" very deliberately. We really do need more stories and less opinion. This applies across the board, not just to Huffington Post. By and large, it is opinion that feeds the outrage machine, and there is far too much of it: not just on news websites, but in tweets and Facebook updates, in YouTube comments and Mybroadband forums. The Shelley Garland piece took opinion to the extreme, and it passed through the editing process - not just unfiltered but in effect endorsed - because it flattered the ideological orientation of the people whose job it is to know better.

On that point, I don't think it is wrong for editors to be ideologically biased. Anybody who has read a British newspaper will know that news media push a particular slant on a given set of facts. But bias comes with responsibility. In the words of Sipho Hlongwane, "As a writer, it is my job to understand that words have meaning. It is even more important to understand effect –- what meaning I wish to convey, how I choose to deploy this message, and what the reaction might be." That applies to editors too.

In a world where the public is expected to choose a side every single day, we need more empathy and less echo chamber, more listening and less grandstanding – and we need editors and journalists, bloggers, advertisers and the readers they ultimately serve to help make this happen.

It is a superb opportunity. I am confident that Huffington Post SA can and will make the most of it.

Sarah Britten is a communication strategist based in Johannesburg.