By Enoch Sithole:
Renowned media scholar, Professor Herman Wasserman, has been appointed Chair of the Stellenbosch University Department of Journalism with effect from January 2023.
AJENda reach out in a Q&A to Prof  Wasserman to discuss his thoughts for his new job and the state of journalism education and journalism, in general, in South Africa.

AJENda: What is your plan for Stellenbosch journalism and how do you propose doing your job at Stellenbosch?

Wasserman: My responsibilities as chair of the department are to oversee its teaching, research and public engagement and, together with my colleagues, explore new ways of broadening the department’s reach and impact. We find ourselves in an interesting and challenging time for journalism globally, but also a very exciting important time to be studying and teaching journalism. 

AJENda: With all the reports of issues at Stellenbosch University, such as allegations of racism and a lack of transformation, do you have any plans to address that from a journalism education point? 

Wasserman: Well, I think the latest incident (of a white student urinating on belongings of a black student) was very regrettable. It’s of course very unfortunate, and almost unbelievable, that such an incident can still happen at a place of learning in our country, today. I think anybody that values the constitutional values of human dignity and equality, would condemn the incident in the strongest terms and be saddened by it. The incident did however also remind us that the job of transformation at Stellenbosch, and I think more generally, at all universities in the country, is very far from over.  Over the last number of years the urgency of this challenge was brought to our attention through the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall movements nationally. If we listened well, we would have heard from our students that transformation is an imperative at all our universities. 

AJENda: Of course, linked to transformation is the whole issue of decolonising our education. What are your thoughts with regards to that, when it comes to journalism education, in particular?

Wasserman: Well, I think the debates around decolonisation of the curriculum of journalism education is the latest iteration of conversations and debates in the field which have been taking place for quite a number of years. I think we also need to define exactly what we mean by decolonisation and the differences between, for instance, decolonisation and internationalisation. 

There have been many ongoing debates about what it would mean to decolonise the field; what structural questions in addition to representational ones need to be addressed – for instance issues of access to international spaces such conferences, the unequal access to the means of knowledge production such as academic journals, and so on.

Then there are issues around how do we transform the curriculum, and do so not in a parochial, nationalistic way but building networks of solidarity across the Global South. 

AJENda: One of the challenges facing journalism today is the whole issue of ICT that has brought about thinks such as citizen journalism, but with it, the proliferation of fake news, for instance. How does journalism navigate that space? 

Wasserman: Yes, I think digital technologies have brought about vast changes to journalism, in general. And they do have some negative aspects. The business models of journalism have largely collapsed (as a direct result of the disruption that digital technologies brought to the media industry). At the same time as old journalism business models have to be rethought; new skills need to be taught and acquired by journalists. There are certainly also issues around disinformation, which is spread much easier as a result of all of these technologies, and which has become one of my main research areas. But digital technologies have, for instance, been instrumental in the opening up of journalism practices to people that do not necessarily do that as a full-time occupation, and for journalists to engage better with their publics. 

Digital affordances allow for journalists to draw on wider sets of resources, more diverse knowledge communities, other sets of experience and expertise that can contribute to journalism practice. It has brought the opportunity for journalists to connect with each other better, connect with international organisations, building more solidarity across the world. 

AJENda: What about journalism training? What is your opinion? Is it up to standard, does it respond to the needs of newsrooms and ultimately, society?

Wasserman: I would reiterate that journalism itself has undergone a number of challenges in recent years, which included some of the business models, the need for journalists to acquire new skills, digital skills, but also the socio-political challenges faced by journalists, especially in a highly unequal society such as ours. 

And so, journalism education – I would rather say journalism education, rather than journalism training, because that implies more than just skills training, it includes the development of certain value systems underpinning journalism, public orientation, journalism ethics and so on. Journalism education has to move with the times, it has to identify these shifting sets of challenges and really be agile in how it responds and adapts to them. If we are only going to train journalists to acquire a set of practical skills, we are going to pass up on the opportunity to also help journalists to think about how they can better contribute to society, to reflect critically on the role of the media in the society. Therefore, I think that subjects like journalism ethics are really important for journalists. It allows them to develop a better sense of where they belong in society, what their roles are, how to account for their own perspectives, how they approach stories? A key part of journalism education should also be research – not as an add-on or luxury, but as a vital component, to stimulate the curiosity that every journalist should have. 

AJENda: One of the criticisms about journalism education in South Africa is that we have 11 official languages in the country, but journalism education is almost confined to English, perhaps Afrikaans as second. Basically, there are very few, if any schools of journalism, that teach journalism writing in African languages. How do we deal with that, because the majority of people in South Africa don’t actually speak English?

Wasserman: The question of language shouldn’t be seen narrowly as just another skill, or a mode of transmission. There is such a richness in this diversity, such a depth in this linguistic variety which, if we allow ourselves to think about language as connected to a wider diversity of perspectives and experiences and histories, can enrich our journalism immensely. So when we address the issue of language, we must not address it as merely a vehicle or a tool for journalism to reach bigger markets, but instead as an expression of the richness of experiences and also the huge differences and inequalities which are also linked to language. 

Striving for more linguistic variety and diversity should therefore be part and parcel of that broader sense of journalism as really having to reflect different publics and trying to imagine a different society. I think there is much scope for journalism in our country, for instance, to reflect the experiences of the poor whose voices are often left out of news agendas.  

We cannot just go on to teach and practice the same old journalism, just with new tools. We have to fundamentally rethink what journalism’s role is in relation to the public, in South Africa and the continent, amidst a fast-changing environment. And as journalism educators, we have to take that role seriously.