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An aversion to nonsense
Author: Afdeling Navorsingsontwikkeling | Division for Research Development
Published: 07/10/2019

Journalist. Lecturer. Ombudsman. Writer. A man with a very definite aversion to nonsense. One whose ideas about fairness and what’s right or wrong are aligned with the contents of the South African press code. That, in short, is Prof George Claassen, outgoing director of CENSCOM, a centre within Stellenbosch University's Department of Journalism studying science and technology in the context of mass communication.

Prof Claassen is the next speaker in the Research Development Division's Forward with Research Impact lecture series, on 9 October 2019 at 13:00 in Room 1012, R.W. Wilcocks building.

He will talk about how journalists should handle cases of pseudoscience and quackery.

For the past four decades, Claassen has worked in the media sector, among others as an expert in the fields of science journalism and media ethics. His roots lie in Middelburg on the Highveld, where he grew up in the home of a maths teacher. At home, the Claassen children had access to three different newspapers every day. This helped to create a culture of critical thinking and the desire to be constantly informed. One brother became a chemical engineer, another (the former Springbok rugby captain Wynand Claassen) an architect. His sister teaches Afrikaans, and Claassen found his place in journalism.

“The first basic rule is that journalists (and scientists) have to be curious. Einstein said it’s the search for reality. You only find it if you are curious and ask questions,” he reckons.

After initially studying law at SU, Claassen obtained a master's degree in Afrikaans-Dutch at the University of Pretoria, Claassen earned a doctorate in Flemish literature at UNISA. In 1974 he joined the newly formed newspaper Beeld and worked as an investigative journalist until 1982. In the 2000s he was deputy editor of Die Burger in the Cape. He wrote a science column for a number of years and was the newspaper's science editor for seven years. Claassen’s voice is still heard regularly on the Afrikaans radio station RSG, talking about science-related matters. In between, he has also written a novel and authored numerous non-fiction books.  

So, what was the first news story he ever wrote?

"It was about the court appearance of striptease Glenda Kemp and her python Oupa,” Claassen smiles while recollecting the topic.

This first article was only about a finger’s length, but did land on the front page of the Beeld's sister newspaper in Cape Town.

Claassen worked as a hardcore journalist in an era before email or SKYPE provided news people easier access to local and international experts. The Internet had not yet found a footing in South Africa, and there was no Google Scholar or websites where journalists could get easy access to press releases and the latest journal articles.

“Journalists have no idea how easy they have it today in terms of access to information. In my time, you had to do a lot of digging. You had to get out of your office. You couldn't practice phone journalism or Google journalism,” Claassen explains in his empty office in the attic of the SU Department of Journalism. He cleared it recently to make room for his CENSCOM successor, Nathan Geffen, who will also remain editor of the Internet news site GroundUp.

A voice for science journalism

Claassen's career in academia began in the late 1980s, when he researched different variations of Afrikaans at the South African Council for Human Research (HSRC) for four years. During this time, he also undertook the first of three extensive research trips to the USA.  

It was during his HSRC years that Claassen first presented a session on the value that scientists can derive from sharing their findings with the public in the media.

Between 1989 and 1992 he was head of the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) 's Department of Journalism. There he began to informally develop a curriculum to teach students the basics of science journalism. He drove if further when in 1993 he became chairman of the SU Department of Journalism and took charge of its postgraduate journalism programme until 2000.

The Class of 1994 was the guinea pigs for what would eventually become the first honours module in science journalism in Africa. Claassen has since consulted worldwide on the topic, and also spearheaded the writing of a science journalism module for UNESCO.

Since 1995, students have been able to also follow a masters and PhD programme in science journalism.

“More than 40 M students have since specialized in science journalism, and quite a few have received their doctorates too. Because there is a need for it in South Africa,” adds Claassen.

He holds that science in all forms is being "grossly neglected" in the local mainstream media. There are no specialist science desks at any newspaper anymore, and most of the journalists who were attached to such desks now work as freelancers.

"It remains one of the tragedies of the South African media," says Claassen, who has led the training arm for science journalism of the South African National Editors' Forum (SANEF) for many years.

Fighting quackery

Following his retirement as CENSCOM head, Claassen will continue to teach science journalism and media ethics at SU. In his lectures he likes to combine examples from both spheres. Among his most commonly used words include "quackery", "pseudoscience” and "Baloney Detector".

That’s because he sees red when he starts talking about the often unethical way in which the media reports stories about homeopathic remedies, ozone clinics and other "miracle products" being sold without well-researched scientific evidence. He sees it as fraud.

"In the process, it puts people's lives at risk," claims Claassen.

“The way journalists report on quackery is a media-ethical issue. It is also a science issue,” he elaborates on a topic he approaches with seriousness.

CENCOM's organising in 2018 in Stellenbosch of the first ever international congress on quackery, pseudoscience and fake news was a natural result of his professional and academic interest in the subject.

Role as ombudsman

His duties as ombudsman for the News24 website and the 90 Media24 community newspapers also keeps him busy. It gives Claassen a daily glimpse into the psyche of people. Time and again he realizes that people do not understand the workings of the media, and that complainants often just want to feel that someone is listening to their grievances.

Is it a difficult job?

Being the good journalist, Claassen rather uses someone else's words to answer the question. It belongs to Daniel Okrent, who was appointed as the first public editor or ombudsman by the leading New York Times newspaper after a plagiarism scandal in the early 2000s.

"He said it's the hardest job he'd ever had in his life, and that it was much harder than being an editor. It is because you get it from all sides. You have to stand in the middle, and you have to listen,” Claassen searches for the right words. “You have to there for the listener or the reader, for the viewer, for the complainant, but you also have to serve the interests of the organization being charged. Your task is to be an arbitrator and to find out who actually speaks the truth. "

That's after all what he teaches aspiring journalists in class: Be fair. Minimize damage. Be accountable.