Press Pass: Adriaan Basson on truth, investigation & intimidation
by Carey Finn (@carey_finn) What with media freedom and truth in South Africa increasingly under threat, Adriaan Basson (@AdriaanBasson), News24 editor-in-chief, shares insights into staying strong — and safe — in news journalism.
“If you become a journalist, you know that you’re going to have to take shots,” says Basson. “Because you’re showing the world things people want to hide — and that will naturally upset those people.” Basson — a seasoned investigative journalist and co-founder of the Mail & Guardian Centre for Investigative Journalism, better known as amaBhungane — is himself no stranger to bullying and intimidation. He’s determined to do what he can to protect journalists as they, in turn, work to protect freedom of information and democracy.
“I remember the first time I received a death threat, when I was a young reporter,” he says. “It’s quite overwhelming.” Where a journalist is being intimidated, he advises, as a first step, speaking to colleagues who’ve experienced similar situations: “I was in a privileged position, working on the Mail & Guardian, to have people like Sam Sole who I could speak to. I now try to mentor younger investigative reporters in my team around these things, because there are different ways to react, and [it’s important] to try and keep a healthy distance between yourself and the threats.”
Basson believes in more than just talk, though. “We do a range of things,” he says. “We arrange bodyguards when it gets really hairy; we go to court; we instruct lawyers to write letters to people who intimidate us.”
Approach to criticism
He has a similarly pragmatic approach to criticism: “Especially on social media, I’ve learned you just have to ignore the trolls sometimes. You literally cannot read every piece of criticism against you — there are not enough hours, and it will drive you completely insane if you’re rolling in the mud the whole day, and trying to respond to people who have absolutely no interest in the truth. At first, it may come as a shock when people criticise or attack you, but it’s part of the game; it’s part of the job. Obviously, there are levels of that criticism, so part of it is normal debate or disagreement, which is perfectly fine and then, on the other extreme, it’s death threats, slander, things like that, where you have to take legal action.”
To prevail in what can be extremely challenging situations, Basson believes that both commitment to the pursuit of truth and supporting each other in the media industry are of the utmost importance. To the latter end, he encourages reporters to work in teams as much as possible, with the reasoning that it can promote both safety and quality.
The content focus of News 24 has shifted significantly in recent years, says Basson, adding in-depth reporting and investigative journalism to its former combination of fast news and aggregation. It’s rewarding to see that the top 10 stories for any given month are always investigative or political pieces, he notes.
In the investigative arena, Basson believes that News 24 is ideally positioned, as the biggest website in the country with around 7m unique visitors monthly, to play a key role. “It gives you so much reach and impact,” he says. “In one way, it’s a platform, and we work with amaBhungane and publish their stories, and, in a second way, we also have our own team that’s done amazing journalism which just won the Taco Kuiper Award for Bosasa.”
Carey Finn (@carey_finn) is a writer and editor with a decade and a half of industry experience, having covered everything from ethical sushi in Japan to the technicalities of roofing, agriculture, medical stuff and more. She’s also taught English and journalism, and dabbled in various other communications ventures along the way, including risk reporting. As a contributing writer to MarkLives.com, her column, “Press Pass”, is a monthly feature spotlighting media leaders and their responses to the trends and tribulations in the industry.