Media missing the important issue in the race for numbers
OSCAR fatigue is starting to set in. After the 400m sprint of the Oscar Pistorius bail application, we can expect an appreciable change of pace; after all, it will be a long wait until June, when the slow marathon of the actual trial begins.
To switch from a sporting to a sexual metaphor, you might say that, once bail was posted, SA’s purveyors of news media paused for the customary post-coital cigarette after their 10-day orgy of self-congratulation and mutual masturbation.
Still, when Monday morning dawned, the general libidinal gratification continued: Pistorius was due to report to the Brooklyn police station in Pretoria, he reported to correctional services elsewhere, he went back to his uncle’s house in Waterkloof. There were further revelations about the state’s case, about police bungling, about the sordid history of the greater Pistorius clan. On Tuesday, we heard more of the same, but it was no longer the lead story. And so began its gradual (albeit temporary) disappearance from the headlines and news bulletins.
There is no doubt that the killing of Reeva Steenkamp is newsworthy. There is no doubt that the story has highlighted some of the quirky protocols of reportage in the South African context, both inside and outside our courtrooms (a Google search for "twitter" and "sub judice" would confirm as much). And there is no doubt that this has been a media phenomenon of global proportions. But we have cause for wariness on each of these scores.
First, the narcissistic enthusiasm of SA’s media houses for reminding consumers not only of the criteria for newsworthiness but also of the commercial benefit brought by this newsworthiness has been, at times, repugnant — and has undermined the good work done by individual journalists in covering the story. City Press, for instance, impressed many with its investigation and analysis in the early days after the shooting. But parent company Media24 couldn’t help boasting about "a milestone victory in SA’s internet history … attracting over 1.2-million unique browsers in one day". Likewise, Eyewitness News had an impressive team covering each twist and turn. Primedia’s response? Regular radio adverts smugly reminding us of each revelation for which it was responsible.
This pattern was repeated again and again as news emerged from the Pretoria Magistrate’s Court — the mediascape became a hall of mirrors in which the dominant voices were those crowing about media coverage of the phenomenon. It wasn’t analysis so much as an exercise in numeracy: so many reporters, so many website hits, so many new listeners or viewers, and Twitter followings growing at Lady Gaga-esque rates.
Names and faces previously unknown north of the Limpopo began to appear on CNN, BBC and Sky News. International publications were clamouring for comment from South African sources. Make no mistake, our best reporters and news analysts deserve a stint in the international spotlight. Yet the barely concealed delight of many local journalists at the captivation of their audiences has exposed deep-seated insecurities.
In retrospect, since M-Net first launched its ill-fated campaign linking "Oscar" and "The Oscars", the coincidence of the Pistorius case and the 85th Academy Awards seems ineluctable. Certainly, it has provided plenty of material for satirists. Sardonic humour aside, however, the Oscars provide us with a paradigm for understanding all the media coverage of the media coverage of the tragedy of Pistorius and Steenkamp.
Cast your mind back to 1985. Sally Field, having received the Academy Award for Best Actress five years previously for her role in Norma Rae, won a second Oscar for Places in the Heart. Accepting her statuette and self-mockingly misquoting her character, Field declared: "I haven’t had an orthodox career, and I’ve wanted more than anything to have your respect … this time I feel it — and I can’t deny the fact — you like me, right now, you like me!"
The speech has become iconic and is frequently invoked by comedians to send up fragile actors’ egos. The "you" in Field’s speech was not only her film-making peers, nor the Academy per se, nor just cinema audiences of the 1980s, but movie history (call it posterity). If taken earnestly, she was asserting her place in the Hollywood pantheon — telling people they liked her and needed her, just as she needed them.
This past fortnight has been a Sally Field moment for South African news media. Here, unbidden, spontaneous, is an international obsession with a story that has grown more bizarre by the day. And our journalists have found themselves the darlings of the local and global news-consuming publics.
SA’s news-media producers face threats of state censorship and pressure to endorse corporate agendas. They have to tackle the very real prospect of corruption-and-crime headline saturation. Their revenue-generation models require constant adaptation to changing technologies and habits of consumption. Profit margins are slim; working conditions and salaries are less than dazzling.
Perhaps it is only natural that individual journalists and media companies should take the chance to remind their respective audiences: "You like me; you really like me!" In doing so, however, they risk losing sight of their role in South African (and global) civil society. They also risk losing their readers, viewers and listeners.
While most attention has been focused on the contested details of the Pistorius-Steenkamp shooting, relatively few commentators have linked the case to broader patterns of violence against women.
Pistorius and Steenkamp, who are glamorous and sexy, by turns portrayed as "innocent" and as having a "dark side", have been presented as exceptional. In fact, their situation is all too common.
Let us set aside the global fascination with Pistorius, which follows a familiar fall-from-grace pattern. The South African response to the event, from those who sympathise with the shooter and from those who demonise him, can be understood on two levels. The conscious explanation hinges on his celebrity: the false confidence invested in him and the consequent disillusionment, the cynical told-you-so glee, the pleasure of gossip.
Subliminally, however, our collective fascination with the shooting represents a recognition that it is an everyday (dare one say "mundane"?) event. We are all, in the deep recesses of our consciousness, afraid that we may kill or be killed in an irrational moment of anger or neurosis. We feel guilty that we don’t do enough to oppose the violent tenor of our society; that, in ways mostly unacknowledged, we not only tolerate but aggravate it.
Those responsible for SA’s news content, from the Twitter timeline to the broadcast bulletin, have misdiagnosed their compatriots’ interest in the case. Like bad psychologists, they have dealt only with the surface phenomenon (and, indeed, exploited it). The substance that sits beneath that surface does not make for exciting, easy-to-sell news and analysis — but it is the real, important, necessary national story.
SA’s news consumers will gradually lose their appetite for the approval-seeking, self-serving media coverage of the Pistorius-Steenkamp narrative.
When the case returns to court, the real question SA’s journalists should be asking is: what would we make of this tragedy if the protagonists weren’t famous?
• Thurman is a senior lecturer at Wits University.
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