Local government should be covered by fulltime beat reporters

Monday, December 4, 2023

Local government is an important sphere of government and should be covered by fulltime beat reporters in newsrooms, writes Lakela Kaunda.

Local government is regarded as the most important sphere of government as it is closest to the people. It delivers basic services that people require daily, such as water, electricity, good roads, refuse removal and cutting grass on the verges of roads. It is also at the local government level that people experience the work of government directly. A citizen or resident may never see a Minister until the end of a government term, but they are likely to know the local mayor or councillor.

The local government sphere also bears responsibility for promoting local economic development and to provide a conducive environment for the private sector to thrive and create jobs in the respective municipalities. A dysfunctional or distressed municipality becomes a threat to social cohesion and to economic growth and development. It also becomes an obstacle to the achievement of the apex goal of building a better life for all, especially the poor and the working class, as promised by President Nelson Mandela in 1994.

There are 257 municipalities in South Africa, made up of eight metropolitan, 44 districts and 205 local municipalities.  Essentially, given the country’s wall-to-wall local government system, everyone stays in a ward and every business enterprise is located in a ward. Due to the importance of local government, its work should be reported on consistently and continuously by the media. This should not be done only when there is a crisis, a scandal or major reports of corruption or maladministration in a particular municipality. Consistent reporting on municipal council meetings, analysing council budgets and expenditure, scrutinising and monitoring the delivery of services and infrastructure and covering ward committee meetings contributes to deepening democracy in the country as it promotes oversight and accountability and enhances the media’s watchdog role.

I undertook a research study of the role of mainstream commercial newspapers in deepening democracy in local government, for my public affairs doctoral thesis at Tshwane University of Technology. The study investigated the editorial policies and practices of newspapers and the model used for the coverage of local government, especially whether they had employed fulltime reporters or beat reporters to cover the sphere on an ongoing basis. Beat reporting is the practice of assigning special subjects to reporters for them to exclusively focus on, for example crime, sports, business, politics, or environmental affairs.

The study established that the press contributed meaningfully to deepening democracy through performing a watchdog role exposing corruption, maladministration or service delivery failures. However, this contribution was limited by the fact that local government was not prioritised as a special subject like politics, business or sports. Most newspapers do not have reporters that cover local government exclusively and assign general or political reporters on an ad-hoc basis. The study recommended a new model, the Media Watchdog and Development Model, which elevates local government to a special subject with fulltime reporters. The model also integrates the commercial liberal ideological outlook with the development communication paradigm. This means that the media would not ignore developmental stories such as the need for a bridge or road that would improve the lives of the people in a certain community. They would run such a story alongside a breaking news story which would boost newspaper sales and suit the commercial imperatives.

The beat reporting system is advantageous as it enables follow ups and staying with the story monitoring developments. When a building goes on fire in central Johannesburg every media house descends on the premises. After a few days or even less, the media would have relocated to other stories.  A municipal reporter will stay with the story and provide updates on what has happened to the victims and survivors and whether all the deceased were identified as well as their names. They would scrutinise the discussions in council and subcommittees and keep track of the work being done by relevant municipal departments to eliminate the problem of dangerous and hijacked buildings in the city. The media would therefore play the watchdog and oversight role in a more systematic and institutionalised manner.

The study was also encouraged by the difficulties facing the local government sphere. Marked progress has been made in the transformation of local government and the delivery of services since the dawn of democracy in 1994. This has been outlined in the various studies including the Statistics SA’s 2022 Population Count Census result as released in October 2023 (Statistics SA, 2023 link). The Census indicated that access to basic services had generally shown an upward trend from 2001 to 2022. Over 80% of households in the country had access to piped water, either inside their dwellings or inside their yards. The results also recorded an improvement in refuse removal. There was an increase in households whose refuse was removed at least once a week by a local authority/private service from 52,1% in Census 1996 to 66,3% in Census 2022. Electricity access has also expanded with more than 90% of households having access to electricity for lighting. This is a marked increase from the 58% recorded in 1996.

However, the Auditor-General of South Africa (AGSA) releases annual audit reports which indicate poor governance, financial management and administration by municipalities, the point at which the services must be delivered. In the 2019/20 local government audit report, the AGSA announced that only 27 municipalities obtained clean audit outcomes, with only 28% being able to submit quality financial statements for audit purposes. The 2021/22 Municipal Audit Report described the local government sphere as characterised by accountability and service delivery failures, poor governance, weak institutional capacity and instability.

Municipal beat reporting is not only about bad news. It is also about reporting on positive developments in communities such as sporting and education achievements, entrepreneurial activities or work that build communities and which encourages community participation in improving the quality of life. In this way, the poor would not only feature in newspapers when there are violent protests in their residential areas or when they are victims of disasters.  A key benefit for journalism is that local government beat reporting would develop a corps of expert reporters who understand the intricacies of local government, which is a highly legislated and regulated sphere.

An obstacle to beat journalism for local government could be the commercial constraints facing print media. The business model has changed. Scores of readers are migrating online and obtain their stories and updates from social media sources. Online giants such as Facebook or Google also provide stiff competition and grab the advertising spend.  The effect of COVID-19 on the print media was also severe as newspapers faced both an advertising and circulation decrease which led to the closure of some newspapers and magazines as well as job losses. The South African National Editors Forum produced a report on the impact of COVID-19 on the media which outlines the devastation.

Commercial constraints notwithstanding, nothing can take the place of having informed journalists who focus on a particular beat and develop sources and expertise in a particular field. This is currently the case for the sports, politics and business beats. Local government should be elevated to the same level.

*Dr Lakela Kaunda is a former newspaper editor and government communication executive and is currently a deputy director-general in a national government department.

This article was published by Politicsweb on 1 December 2023.