The world is focused on South Africa once more - this time because of our only global sports star's shooting of his model girlfriend. As people in SA and across the globe devour the news, perhaps this is a good time for us in the media to try a little introspection. By MANDY DE WAAL.
In a media climate saturated to fatigue with stories of corruption, government maladministration, rival union wars and striking miners, Reeva Steenkamp’s tragic death and Oscar Pistorius’ plummet from grace shook South African press into a high gear.
But as the Pistorius’ courtroom drama plays out to a global audience, it is not only the legendary ‘Blade Runner’ who is under examination; South African journalism is also under the spotlight.
On Tuesday 19 February 2013, British daily newspaper The Independent reported that “rumours and half-truths have been allowed to swirl around the murder case” in its story “Trial by media of Oscar Pistorius: facts, guesses and spin surround Reeva death”.
The UK’s Indy reported that Pistorius’ trial began in the public discourse “as soon as news of his lover's death reached the media,” and that “the first disabled global sports superstar has found himself deluged with accusations and insinuations masquerading as facts.” What’s clear is that social media and this murder case are together testing the ethics of local news companies and their allegiance to the truth versus their drive to be first to market with the news in the name of growing readership.
“A case like this - in which there is immense local and international interest and huge engagement from the audience on social media - presents extraordinary opportunities for us to figure out a complex, unfolding story with the tools that are available,” said Nic Dawes, editor of the Mail & Guardian. “But it also creates massive risks, because of the competitiveness of the environment, the requirements of speed and because the legal and forensic issues are complex and the picture can change very quickly.”
Photo: Nic Dawes
Dawes stated that media ethics should be the north star of news reporting regardless of format. “Sitting under all your reporting practice - whether it is Twitter or an 8,000 word feature - should be the basic principles of press ethics. Those don’t change because you are doing things fast,” he said.
“Ultimately what I hope we are going to see happening in this case is that the social regulation effect of social media will start to shut down some of the errors. Mistakes are being called out very quickly. The people who are credible reporters on these issues are being identified, and are becoming the central voices of this narrative,” said Dawes.
“Our job in a story like this is to help make meaning out of it, and we will handle it differently on the web and in print. On the web we will try and be fast and accurate and insightful, but we have to be very careful to keep on remembering who we are as a paper and do the coverage that makes sense in those terms, and to make sure that we don’t get so swept away by the extraordinary volumes of traffic that we are seeing that we allow that to become our load star, rather than the story,” the Mail & Guardian editor added.
For News24, the Pistorius saga has been an exploding visitors' numbers sensation and a cause for celebration. On Fin24, also part of the Media24 stable, the following ‘story’ appeared on Wednesday 20 February 2013: “News24 trumps rivals on Oscar shooting”. In the article, which had no byline, it was declared that News24 “was the go-to news website of choice, across mobile, web and app, both locally and internationally” for “one of the biggest news days for South Africa”, which was of course Valentine’s Day – Thursday 14 February 2013.
This year’s Festival of St Valentines saw Jacob Zuma deliver the State of the Nation address at the same time that Steenkamp’s body was about to undergo an autopsy. A week later, publicists MANGO-OMC would dispatch a press release very similar the ‘story’ carried by Fin24 on behalf of Media24’s digital media sales arm, The SpaceStation.
The release was headlined: “News24 outstrips competitors with breaking Valentine’s Day news”. It quoted News24’s Editor in Chief, Jannie Momberg, who said: “News24 has built up a reputation over the years in delivering the latest breaking news consistently. The death of Reeva Steenkamp and subsequent arrest of Oscar Pistorius was the biggest South African Internet news event since the popularisation of the Internet in the late 90s. The traffic on all our platforms reached record highs, but we were able – with some slight technical tweaks – to continuously inform our users on a stable platform.”
Not the entire marketing community was taken with the news.
Shauneen Procter, CEO of Idea Engineers, balked at the boast, which she said was distasteful in the extreme. “The media release and Fin24 story are unsavoury and mercenary. Fundamentally it won't immediately impact any commercial dealings I might have with Media24 on behalf of the clients we represent, but I have distasteful association with that brand now. It tarnishes the ambience of the brand, and both News24 and Media24 get contaminated.”
Procter called the spin ‘expedient’. “There is tactical and then there is specious, and this is on the specious end of the scale, which is unfortunate. They (Media24) generally run a very good media ship and I deal with them quite a lot - particularly on the glossies. They are innovative and smart, so they really don’t need to resort to scraping the barrel.”
Similarly, social media strategist Melissa Attree didn’t believe that news brand was doing itself any favours. “For media houses I do feel that great reporting is the strongest marketing tool. The Oscar Pistorious story is arguably one of the biggest crime stories the world has seen in a long time. The fact that it is playing out in our backyard has placed a spotlight on our media and the quality of SA journalism,” Attree added. “At the end of the day tasteful, factual, and objective reporting will survive and the sensationalist thin PR attempts will be forgotten,” she said.
Photo: Melissa Attree
Herman Manson, editor of MarkLives.com, said the trade media could expect a lot more of this kind of marketing in future because online news sites use numbers to enhance their standing and polish their image. “When big stories break, the circulations of the print papers go up and the unique user stats of online sites rocket. The nature of the news business means that they do best (in terms of sales, readers and sometimes journalism) when somewhere in the world, or with some-one, it's not going well at all,” Manson said.
“The News24 press release bares the reality of a changing news cycle and environment,” he added. “Parts of it (the release) could have been worded more carefully, especially where the site is being punted to potential advertisers, but given the context of success in the news trade, and coupled with the statistically driven nature of online news especially, it is probably the type of release we will see more of in the future,” the MarkLives editor said.
Likewise Geoff Cohen, CEO of 24.com, said the release merely captured a phenomenon they’d experienced – a surge for news on the Pistorius and Steenkamp story. “The intent of the communication was really to highlight the rapid shift in media consumption from main-stream analogue media to digital channels - particularly evident on days where there are high impact stories that touch people across SA - and our position relative to the rest of the market. Truthfully, we were amazed then - and frankly still amazed - at the rapid shift we have seen over the past week to digital, and we honestly thought it worth sharing,” he said.
Photo: Geoff Cohen
Still, the question remains – does the use of a story which touches the very heart of South Africa’s darkness make for good PR subject? Rhodes University’s Jane Duncan doesn’t think so.
“It seriously harms the news offering of News24, and I think it makes the company look like all it cares about is money, money, money, and puts profits above people. There is not a shred of suggestion in the press release that News24 is sensitive to how terrible the tragedy really is. It portrays them as a company that is profiting from someone else’s misery more than anything else,” says Duncan.
Photo: Jane Duncan
“One needs to bear in mind the controversy around the City Press coverage, which led to an outcry from the Pistorius family about not prejudging his (Oscar’s) guilt. I think this framing of the attitude towards news supports the view that Media24 is pandering to commercial consideration by reporting on the more lurid aspects of public concerns and that this at times overrides ethical journalistic considerations. This is not a message that News24 journalists want to convey to the public because it will damage their own credibility, and make the public look askance at their reporting – which has already happened to an extent. Further, this isn’t fair to journalists working at Media24 who are doing a very good job under really tough circumstances,” Duncan said.
But at the end, it is the public who’s hungry for the lurid details, and Duncan said that the statement was cause for introspection from the media consuming public. “We should be asking ourselves some hard questions. Are we consuming the story because it is genuinely in the public interest or because of our tendency to want to pour over the dirt on celebrities? Is our interest motivated by public interest or is it more lurid?”
Duncan said the Pistorius broke at the same time as the State of the Nation address, which got much fewer tweets, and that the Marikana story was now virtually falling below the news radar. “We need to ask ourselves what we most value, and face the fact that we are helping to create the very beast of a sensational media that we now criticise.” DM