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
“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
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.
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
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,"
“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
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.