Dear reader, this is probably the most controversial story I will ever write in my career.
I’m a Black freelance writer and news reporter covering issues in South Africa, where I live for most of the year. This is a place recently designated by the World Bank as the ‘world’s most unequal country.’ One of the many consequences of this inequality includes the disproportionate citation of white experts, analysts, and commentators, even among Black writers and journalists. This trend doesn’t exist in South Africa alone but is actually deeply present in other media markets, too. For example, Poynter revealed in December 2020 that US newsrooms are staffed with nearly 78% white journalists (male mostly), and quoted ‘experts’, ‘commentators’, and ‘analysts’ in the media are mostly white too.
It’s worse here in South Africa where the majority of analysts and expert commentators on TV, in newspapers, or on the radio are white, especially on news coverage of ‘prestigious’ topics like financial markets, diplomacy, technology, cricket, biosciences or fashion. Black experts and commentators are mostly sourced for less glamorous topics like township crimes or soccer. This means that it is mostly white commentators who are quoted by the media in a country where Blacks make nearly 90% of the population.
Before readers cry, ‘this is so unjust,’ I’d like to say yes this is one of the enduring legacies of 100 years of Apartheid colonialism here in South Africa. Yes, dear reader, I too, as a writer, share your outrage.
But as they say, the truth is hardly white or black. The truth is nuanced. So, as a Black writer in South Africa, I’d like to offer my ‘truth’ on why we Black journalists/writers in South Africa end up using mostly white commentators for our stories. Important point: this is my truth, not the universal truth.
We don’t usually feature Black South African experts in our news stories not because we don’t respect Black experts or because we see them as less intellectual. We don’t have anything against Black experts, analysts, or commentators.
What happens behind the scenes is that each time I’m searching for an expert analyst to enrich a story in South Africa that I am working on, I first email Black professors and Black South African academics whose emails and expertise are listed on the websites of South African universities, corporations or public bodies. It’s a matter of equity that as a writer I must first attempt to source Black analysts in a Black-majority country. Out of say ten emails I send, I usually receive zero to one response from Black South African academics. Because we journalists/writers work on strict deadlines, I then email white South African academics to solicit their opinions. In just under 30 minutes, I usually receive replies from white South African academics who are eager and keen to appear in my story.
It is not that Black academics in South Africa ignore journalists/writers’ emails or are lazy. The ‘truth’ is neither black nor white, as I said before.
White university academics in South Africa easily agree to be media commentators on our stories because, due to immense historical privilege, they have studied abroad in Europe, Australia, and the US before returning home to lecture at universities in South Africa. The culture of academic freedom in the US and Western Europe is more developed than in South Africa. So, white South African academics are aware that a university professor can speak freely to the media or to a writer and is protected by ‘academic freedom’ rights. By contrast, Black people were only allowed to attend university in South Africa in 1994. The culture of academic freedom among Black South African academics is still taking root. Hence, a South African Black professor might think: “If I speak to a freelance writer from the BBC or CNN criticizing my university curriculum or the country’s minister of education, won’t I face reprisals?”
For Black South Africans, the prospect of losing a job for ‘speaking out’ is devastating. Black South African academics often carry siblings, parents, and other relatives on a single salary. The consequences of losing a job for a family breadwinner cascade down to others. Hence it’s not worth it to be outspoken in the media and get penalized by your superiors. So they often tell me: “We don’t usually speak in the media nor comment in your stories just to avoid trouble and thus keep our jobs.
Secondly, a large number of South African university academics are Black immigrants from other countries. With anti-Black foreigner xenophobia sweeping South Africa, Black academics tell me that to be seen on BBC or Sky News or speaking to a freelance writer like myself, a foreign academic at a South African university, criticizing one’s employer or the South African government, is an uncomfortable prospect. “Hence we keep quiet though we have strong opinions and desire to be quoted in your Newsweek or Buzzfeed articles,” they tell me.
This is why most articles from South Africa written by Black freelance writers, like me, end up quoting mostly white South African analysts or expert commentators in a majority Black country.
As a Black writer, I battle with my inner being, asking myself why am I mostly quoting white experts. But I realize my stories have editorial deadlines and I must quote those experts who reply quickly, whatever their skin color.
Dear reader, it’s not easy on me, either.
23 September, 2022