Oscar Pistorius trial or media circus? Concerns from South Africa

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A South African court room (Credit: Arboresce via Flickr)

“Journalistic ethics will be stretched” during the media coverage of the Oscar Pistorius trial in South Africa, journalism professor Anton Harber wrote in a Feb. 13 column for Business Day. Harber, the Director of the Journalism Programme at the University of Witwatersrand, addressed next month’s trial in his recent column.

Pistorius, nicknamed Blade Runner, admitted killing his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp, last year. He says he thought she was an intruder when he shot at her through a door. He will be tried for premedidated murder.

While the trial will get lots of attention in the media, Harber wonders if the response will be appropriate and proportionate and asks if devoting so many resources is worthy of the media’s attention or for the public good.

“In the rush for fresh angles on a story with saturation coverage, the paper-thin distinction between serious and entertainment media will fade away,” he wrote in his Business Day column.

iMediaEthics e-mailed Harber and another South African journalism professor, Herman Wasserman, to learn more about media concerns for the coverage of the trial.

Harber listed social media and sensationalism as two major issues to watch.

He stated in an e-mail to iMediaEthics that the media should “just stick to the old rules of court reporting: respect the process, stick as close as possible to the facts of the case, provide context.”

Harber’s column suggested his belief that “the media will turn it from a murder trial into a spectacle” and that, sadly, the sensational aspects of the case are catnip, and will almost certainly hijack the real news. He wrote:

“It is a dream, once-in-a-lifetime narrative: a disabled but photogenic accused admired for his athletic bravado, a beautiful and loved victim, her penniless parents watching helplessly, an arsenal of guns, garages full of fast cars, and a tale of twisted love that went wrong on Valentine’s Day. If you pitched this for a soap opera, it would be rejected as too far-fetched.”

Harber also stated the obvious. News outlets “give just a fraction of the time, resources and coverage to the average daily court case – the mother on trial for stealing bread to feed her child” who fails to post a bail of R100 (about $9.25).


Social Media will easily churn sensational and inaccurate reporting

Harber stated that the media and public should be wary of tweets about the case, as information will be shared outside of full context and sometimes without accuracy.

“I think one has a responsibility to understand that the 140-character snapshot can give evidence with little context or explanation, so can easily distort,” Harber said in his e-mail to iMediaEthics.

He warned, “Court cases are complicated and hard to capture on Twitter, so one has to be careful. An allegation made by a witness now can be discredited in a few minutes.”

Further, noting the trial “will have comprehensive – even excessive – coverage” of Pistorius,

Likewise, Rhodes University media studies professor Herman Wasserman told iMediaEthics in an e-mail that he shares Harber’s concerns about how the devotion of resources toward this one headline-making case could be better used.

“The obsessive coverage of the trial points to the larger asymmetries in our society,” Wasserman pointed out to iMediaEthics. “The media leaves no stone unturned in its coverage of this trial, but neglects the questions of social justice, conditions in our prisons, restorative justice for the poor etc – the example of the poor mother that stole a loaf of bread in Harber’s column.”

But, because of the heavy news coverage of the trial, at least the facts will be available to the public, he suggested. “There is a huge amount of public curiosity in the trial, and keeping too tight a lid on it will probably only result in more rumours and inaccuracies being bandied about,” he told iMediaEthics.

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Oscar Pistorius trial or media circus? Concerns from South Africa

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