Opinionista Yusuf Omar 14 November 2013

Citizen reporters: changing the ethics of publishing and broadcasting

It took about 30 seconds to kill Bongani Nkabinde. His last moments are now a series of pixellated blows to the head; the grainy images on a shaky fellow student’s cell phone camera. Nkabinde's father happened to be at the same clinic where he was pronounced dead. For the rest of his family, the news of their son’s death came when they saw his last breath… on a cell phone.

The incident sparked debate in newsrooms across the country. But here’s the thing. Editors weren’t arguing about weapons in South African schools. They’d been there, done that, got the headline. This time, things were different. This time, they were talking about their own weapons – words, pictures, sounds.

Should we show an 18-year-old being beaten and bludgeoned to death? That was the question behind closed doors. Seasoned hacks flicked through tattered media rulebooks, but there was a problem. A deep, intractable problem. You see, there wasn’t a chapter on this dilemma. The rules were there. But the game had changed. Decisions on graphic content are made daily but this was different. The video had already gone ‘viral.’

The floodgates of citizen-supplied videos are now wide open and the media’s role is to siphon what’s news. The newsmen of the ‘80s coined the phrase, “If it bleeds it leads”. Bad news sells. But it also comes at a cost; a cost you won’t find on any balance sheet.

“You procured and published what is ostensibly a snuff video,” prodded anchor Jeremy Maggs in a debate on eNCA’s News Night.

With his shirt half-buttoned, a healthy tuft of chest hair, and a 10 o’clock shadow, the Daily Sun’s Jeremy Gordin played the tabloid publisher to perfection. The Sun had broken the story, then uploaded the video to Youtube and Facebook.

“The issue is that young men are killing each other in Kwazulu-Natal schools. The issue is not some kind of abstract media ethics debate,” he said.

The Sun had obtained the video from the father of a child who witnessed the incident. He said he wanted the country to see what was happening in rural schools.

In fairness, the paper ran a front-page story, trying to contextualise the madness of the video. It told the tale of two rival traditional music groups. That’s more than some other media houses, which simply uploaded the video online.

Would Gordin air his own son’s murder? He umm’d and arr’ed, stumbled over his words, before saying that he would, as a newsman.

Gordin claims murder is a reality in schools. So, if South Africa is an inherently violent society, the video is an effective way to convey the message.

But Gordin’s logic didn’t wash with media ethics guru, William Bird. Armed with a private school haircut and a leather-bound copy of the Constitution, Bird was determined to take a stand. “Our Constitution talks about our founding values of dignity and equality. To suggest that we respect that – when we show someone being killed, putting it up merely on our site, in order to make money – is despicable. It’s the same kind of basic degradation of life as we saw under the Apartheid government.”

Bird had a case; the Constitution makes provisions for these eventualities. Ethics aside, uploading the video may have been illegal.

Social media law specialist, Emma Sadleir, also had her doubts. Sadleir says the video may have been newsworthy, but there were still too many unanswered questions. “The problem is that we don’t know whether or not the students can be identified, whether or not the perpetrators are under the age of 18. In South Africa you can’t identify an accused person under the age of 18.”

Would this have happened if the kids weren’t from rural KZN? eNCA’s Head of News, Patrick Conroy, thinks not. “If someone was killed at a high school in Jo’burg’s northern suburbs, do you think they would have uploaded the video?” He suggested that media houses might be placing a different value on the lives of people in South Africa’s backwaters. Conroy adds, “Don’t be fooled every time an editor suggests they’re just exposing the truth. Footage like this has a commercial value too because it drives traffic to your website which increases advertising revenue.”

He says context is key: “The question to ask is how much journalism is being done to truly understand the horror of what happened. Or, as in the case of one news site, are they just uploading the video and running pre-roll advertising over the pictures of a dying school boy.”

So, lots of debate. All possibly adding fuel to the fire as government questions the media’s ability to get it right. The Secrecy Bill sparked an outcry from Pofadder to Pretoria. Every reporter and his dog threw their hands up, claiming they deserved some credit, that they could be trusted to serve the public.

But the fact is, the public is now making content. The public is setting the agenda. The media might like to think it’s a gatekeeper. But in many ways, the horse has bolted. And a lot of us are still battling to make sense of it, one blood-soaked pixel at a time. DM


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