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Newspaper literacy and communication for democracy: is there a crisis in South African journalism?

Ian Siebörger
Ralph D Adendorff


Media theorists such as Barnett (2002), Buckingham (1997 & 2000) and Sampson (1999) describe a perceived crisis hindering the media’s ability to inform citizens for participation in democracy. One of the symptoms and causes of this crisis, they argue, is that the media use language that many citizens cannot understand. This article draws on theories and methodologies from linguistics to investigate whether this claim holds true for South African newspapers. The concept of the crisis in journalism is deconstructed in the light of Street’s (1984) ideological model of literacy. In a pilot study, multiple readability tests were conducted on one article from each of three newspapers, Business Day, The Herald and Daily Sun. The findings of these tests, and a systemic functional grammar analysis of cohesion and lexical density in the three articles, show that all three newspapers tailor their language to fit their target markets. This, triangulated with the rapid growth in readership of the Daily Sun and the more modest growth of The Herald, suggests that many South Africans are better informed for participation in democracy than in the past, although newspapers can do more to help readers learn a plurality of literacy practices.

Southern African Linguistics and Applied Language Studies 2009, 27(4): 413–438
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eISSN: 1727-9461
print ISSN: 1607-3614