Opinionista William Bird 24 April 2015

A violent ethical dilemma

Last week Sunday, The Sunday Times carried a series of images and a number of stories about the xenophobic violence. Three of the images used on its front page have drawn constructive criticism, with questions raised as to whether the paper crossed a line and if it was unethical in their coverage.

The issue of violent images is one which Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) has raised on numerous occasions over the years, from vigilante violence, natural- or people-made tragedies, attacks and terrorism. I am making certain assumptions in approaching this issue. It is important to note that making an argument for media not to use certain images is not an argument in favour of censorship, instead it is an argument in favour of media ethics and media that strives to meet their audiences needs, and enable them to understand and engage. To be clear, there are times and space where it may be justifiable or even necessary to show violent, brutal and or bloody images, in the news. We also need to make sure that we don’t generalize but, rather that we take each case on its merits, and critically, that we consider the context.

There has already been some critique of the journalists who took the pictures and wrote the story. James Oatway the photographer happened upon the story when he heard shouting. Doing his job he started to take photographs of what he was seeing unfold before him. Having witnessed the brutal assault of Emmanuel Sithole, he and his colleagues, instead of just leaving, acted, and they tried to get medical attention for the dying man. This was not an act of thoughtless journalists, but of active citizens who tried to help another person in need of urgent medical intervention. On the basis of the story and media interviews with Mr Oatway thus far we believe he acted ethically and humanely.

Our media does not exist in a vacuum In the current case we knew before the Sunday Times story that there had been xenophobic violence. We also believe that there are a number of factors that need to be taken into account by media when deciding to use violent and or graphic images.

Firstly what value does the image add? Is it sufficient merely to shock, or is that simply exploiting another’s violation to draw audiences? Another ethical consideration is whether there is a way of telling the same story and getting the same issue across with less violent and or graphic images? If there is, that should be seriously considered as a better option.

The second element is that we live in a violent society, we have a history of violence, we experience it on a daily basis. Through road accidents, crime, in more intimate spaces through gender based violence and child abuse, and that ignores the institutional violence. The impact of our history of violence is that precisely because we know how lives have been so violated; we need to seek ways of portraying and dealing with violence that don’t further traumatise, dehumanise or disempower people. Martin Luther King stated, “Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness.” While media should not be blamed for the violence in our society, it is clear they should be cautious and ethical in how they choose to portray it. Media also has an equal responsibility to their audiences to challenge violence – not just because it is ethical, but because violence undermines the right to freedom of expression and therefore limits the media’s ability to exercise and fulfill their rights to freedom of expression.

The third element, also linked to our history is focused on who we choose to show images of. There is a tendency to show black bodies, to expose black peoples’ most private moments, be they in death or grief. Recently we saw graphic images in mainstream media, both local and international, of the victims of the University massacre in Kenya. We saw the blood and bodies, another in a series of images of death and our continent. While there can be no question that we should know and be informed of the events, there are crucial differences between how disaster on our continent are portrayed against similar events in Europe. We saw no body parts from the German wings crash, nor did we see a narrative images of the grief stricken families. Similarly while Charlie Hebdo murders were extensively covered, we did not see the bodies of the victims or the grief of the families, nor did we need to, to understand the full complexity of the event. Yet with African tragedies the same rules for dignity and sensitivity do not seem to apply. Further to this, we know apart from black bodies being splashed on all front page stories, it is also important at some point to assess the language used along with these images and how the language also perpetuates other stereotypes. There are complex reasons for this and important debates to be had but for the present purposes, the graphic violence of black and African bodies in our mainstream media, and given our history and our democratic desires, we believe any use of graphic or brutal images of black bodies needs to be carefully weighed against this common portrayal.

Are the images and the story they tell in the public interest? This must be clearly distinct from whether the images are of interest to the public. In the current instance there is clearly an argument that can be made that telling the story of Emmanuel’s murder as a result of a xenophobic attack is in the public interest and it may also be of interest to the public. This could be compared to a story about a celebrity divorce, which may be of interest to the public, but has little public interest value.

What is not clear from the story or the images is that the attack was in fact motivated by xenophobia. This is a critical issue, for ordinarily using such images would not likely be published had the attack been motivated by other factors, such as, for example. an attempted robbery. A key justification for using the images must surely have been that it would help convey the senselessness and brutality of the xenophobic violence.

Another aspect to consider is whether the Sunday Times knew whether the relatives and family of Emmanuel Sithole had been informed of his death. We have seen case in the past where families have learned of the death of their loved ones from the media. A situation that clearly works against the public interest, and the dignity of the victim and their family.

That the images were used on the front page highlights not only the importance of the story but also opened up the distinct possibility of the images being viewed by children. This is not to say the images definitely should not have been used but it is an another critical element.

Indeed it is essential that we consider some of the counter arguments in favour is using the images. While brutal, an argument can be made that the images were essential, despite the potential for them to indirectly entrench stereotypes of black bodies, despite the possibility they may offend and disempower but precisely because those in power needed to see the images, to get a clear idea of just how brutal, senseless and cheap life is for so many people in our country. Without the images, the story may just have been a brief piece about another person being killed. Telling it the way they did and using the images may ironically have helped humanise and show real loss and tragedy. Certainly over the days since publication there have been strong views expressed about the importance of those in power getting a real sense of how violence dehumanizes, of just how brutal it is. In some cases, the argument goes, that in fact the images can force us to confront not just the violence meted out to Emmanuel Sithole but to all people within our borders, who feel that far too often their lives and experiences, pain and trauma are not seen or experienced by those in power. In this regard, that one person, an ordinary citizens life can highlight so many challenges can be seen as positive, and possibly lead us to ask about other forms of daily violence experienced by ordinary citizens, including gender based violence and child abuse.

Our president recently criticised the use of the images for portraying our country in a negative manner. An understandable view perhaps on some level, but also one that equally denies the violence being experienced by people within our borders on a daily basis.

What we need to understand, therefore, is the degree to which these and other factors were considered when the Sunday Times made the decision to use them on the front page. It would be enormously useful if the Sunday Times were to share the details of their decision, then we can make informed views as to whether the decisions they took were ethical and appropriate, and perhaps equally importantly we can start to debate and address how we reduce violence. DM


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