Defend Truth


We treat death far too glibly in our media


William Bird is the director of Media Monitoring Africa, Ashoka and a Linc Fellow.

All the people I know who have lost a loved one know the feeling, something inside you dies also, and it never goes away but it gets better with time. Our media has much to answer for and certainly can ensure they cover death in a more compassionate manner.

Losing a loved one is a terrible thing. Just over a year ago my dad died. I joked with my two children it was because he had been to the dentist that morning – but I realised that might not make them inclined to go to the dentist – but I struggled to deal with the real cause of death which was a massive bleed in his brain.

Thing is, I recall everything about that time, where I was going, what the weather was like, details are so clear and vivid it is like it was yesterday. No, I find these days I can often barely remember what I did yesterday. To be more accurate, the details are so clear, the pain so present it was like it was just a few hours ago. In fact, we were lucky. Death invariably visits us all and as these things go it was about as non-horrific as it could be, he wasn’t in pain and we can enjoy his memory and celebrate now.

For the most part, we treat death far too glibly in our media. I can understand why many journalists treat it with nonchalance – precisely because our journalists see, sometimes the very best but, most commonly the worst our society has to offer. A story on police abusing an abused child? Our media report that. Massive car smash? Ambulances, paramedics, police and journalists see it and have to tell the story. It is easy for them all to be desensitized. Marikana? Had it not been for some in our media we may never have known what really transpired, people being killed with no dignity in brutal awful awful ways. Tragically of course this is not new – It was much much much worse under apartheid, life had even less value, and people were killed, shot, blown up, humiliated, tortured, thrown from windows of John Vorster Square, assaulted and left to die with no medical care. And under colonialism and slavery people, black people, in particular had no value beyond what one might sell a person for or pay for their labour.

Of course it isn’t just that death is such a common issue for us – after all people die all the time – it is about the lack of dignity and the violence associated with it. It means it isn’t just death we are desensitized to but the violence and lack of dignity, how lives are devalued. The irony of course that there should be greater space of value and compassion for those who die in brutal undignified circumstances and ways.

With our history, the assumption that all peoples’ lives have value is a relatively new idea for our society. While new it is considered to be vitally important such that the right to life is enshrined in our Constitution. But what makes it so life affirming is that the values of dignity and equality are foregrounded. So my interpretation is that all people don’t just have the right to life, but to a dignified and equal life. There are many who dismiss our constitution by saying it is just a piece of paper, and that people need homes, water, sanitation, food, employment, safety – not a piece of paper. While understandable the Constitution represents not just our supreme law, but also the promise of what we could be as a nation.

Be that as it may – we cannot deny that far too often too many people die, violent undignified awful deaths and that as a society we seem desensitised. Sadly it means people need to die in numbers, black people, and poor black peoples especially before their deaths are explored, explained and given some measure of dignity. The Life Esidimeni tragedy is a case in point. Had only a handful of people died it may not have even made headlines. There are exceptions of course, like the death of Michael Komape, the six-year-old boy who drowned in a pit toilet. Had it not been for the work of NGO’s like SECTION27 however it is possible we may not know his name.

All the people I know who have lost a loved one know the feeling, something inside you dies also, and it never goes away but it gets better with time. Every Easter we know hundreds will die needlessly on our roads. Thousands of families will have their lives changed forever, people will be further desensitized, and as a nation we become that bit less compassionate. It is simply too much to take in so many deaths, and if you have experienced it already as so many millions in our country have – it seems a tall ask for them to be even more compassionate for the lives of strangers. Of course there are some who have seemingly endless capacity for care and compassion, the social workers, those who work in the child abuse sector, those who work with abuse, victims and survivors. We have an abundance of heroes.

We can understand why for the most part peoples lives, poor people especially don’t seem to matter, and it is part of our history – but we owe it to those who stay behind to ensure that we do things differently. What needs to be considered is that the violent undignified death serves only to make the grief, shock and horror of those left behind even worse. On top of the grief of losing a mother, father, brother sister, child, partner, friend, we force our people to deal with the indignity and violence. The pain of the family of those massacred in Marikana was deepened by the brutal undignified manner of their deaths. The trauma of losing a new-born to something like diarrhoea, should be criminal as it could be so easily avoided, as could the life changing pain the family goes through.

More recently we know hundreds have died as a result of an outbreak of listeriosis, it only seemed to matter when the food recall happened, and what has been absent has been the compassion and consideration for those who have lost loved ones. When a company advertising snack biscuits, TUC posts an advert making fun of the fact that they are not polony, we should be outraged. They are after all trading on the deaths of adults and children in order to sell more of their own product. Doorknobs. They withdrew and apologised but they need to apologise to all the families as well. We need the CEO of TUC to go to the houses of the grieving families and say sorry, I allowed my biscuits to be sold by making fun of the death of your loved ones.

Our media has much to answer for and certainly can ensure they cover death in a more compassionate manner. We have seen that when they try they can do so, as we saw with various media reporting Marikana where some like City Press ensured that gave names and faces to all those killed, they had a personality and a family. We saw in the Oscar (Pistorius) murder trial that Reeva (Steenkamp) was treated with dignity, her life was celebrated, we knew her family and the loss they felt of their precious daughter. Can we say the same of the families of those who have had their infant die from diarrhoea or listeriosis because they weren’t able to seek quality medical treatment in time?

What about our leaders? So wrapped up in their own egos they use the language of violence, of stereotypes. It might make headlines but they honestly think it will help build or break our country and compassion? Do they think inflammatory language is really going to change the lives of the poor and give them more dignity? Do they appreciate that their language may just result in further violence and the undignified deaths of more people? We must do things differently. We need to call out politicians when they use violent language, we need to let them know it perpetuates a cycle a violence, and continues to reinforce the colonial notion that not all life matters. DM


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted