Reporting Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp

There’s something quite sinister about the way the mainstream media reports violence against beautiful women. The focus on the woman’s appearance always has a touch of “she drove him mad with her beauty” (he couldn’t help himself) or “he loved her so much he had to kill her” (aww, romantic) that sits very uneasily with me.

Reeva Steenkamp was killed yesterday. Her boyfriend, Oscar Pistorius, has been charged with murder. I can’t imagine the grief and the loss that her friends and family are feeling, and I really hope that blogging about the coverage does not cause them more tears. I decided to blog about it because I think there’s something sick about the words that journalists are using.

This is the way smh.com.au presents the story on their homepage:

The caption reads: Pistorius murder 'shock': Police attended previous "domestic incidents" before "Blade Runner" allegedly shot dead girlfriend

The caption reads: Pistorius murder ‘shock’ Police attended previous “domestic incidents” before “Blade Runner” allegedly shot dead girlfriend.

Reeva Steenkamp is the main image, but she isn’t even named. I’m quite surprised they didn’t get “model” in there somewhere – “Model ‘murdered’ by Olympian” is more their style.

This is the headline: ‘Obviously we are shocked': Pistorius charged with murder of model girlfriend. Again, no mention of Reeva’s name, she’s just a model girlfriend. An interchangeable pretty woman. But there’s something else going on here. The art of headline writing is lost online, because journalists include every term that someone might plug into a search engine to find the story (just as I have included both names in the headline and tags of this post). Which means the journos at smh.com.au don’t think anyone would be searching for Reeva Steenkamp’s name. Why is that?

This is how the story refers to Reeva Steenkamp, from the first par to the last:

South African police have charged Olympic amputee sprint star Oscar Pistorius with the Valentine’s Day murder of his glamorous model girlfriend, but played down reports she was mistaken for a burglar… charges of killing 30-year-old model Reeva Steenkamp… The blonde was shot four times… Steenkamp, once a FHM magazine cover girl…

These are the only mentions by the journalist in a 736 word story about her death. (There’s a quote from Pistorius’ father – “Our thoughts are with the family of the woman involved in this tragedy” – and a quote from Sarit Tomlins at Steenkamp’s management agency – “the kindest, sweetest human being; an angel on earth” – but I didn’t include them because they’re not the journalist’s words.) Keep in mind that of those 736 words, the last 383 are about his “colourful private life full of model girlfriends, guns and fast cars” and his achievements as an athlete.

Smh.com.au has a second main image on this story as well:

The caption reads: Reeva's final love tweet: She was excited about Valentine's Day. Hours later the girlfriend of Oscar Pistorius was dead.

The caption reads: Reeva’s final love tweet: She was excited about Valentine’s Day. Hours later the girlfriend of Oscar Pistorius was dead.

The story – ‘A day of love for everyone': model tweeted before being shot dead in home of Pistorius – is fucking appalling:

The leggy blonde model tweeted that Valentine’s Day should be “a day of love for everyone.” Instead Reeva Steenkamp was shot dead in the home of her boyfriend, paralympian superstar Oscar Pistorius, who was charged with her murder… the glamorous South African celebrity… The freckled blonde who appeared in scanty bikinis on magazine covers and sashayed down fashion ramps…

Wow.

This is how dailytelegraph.com.au presents the story on their homepage:

The caption reads: Paralympic and Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius has been charged with murder over the shooting death of his model girlfriend.

The caption reads: Paralympic and Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius has been charged with murder over the shooting death of his model girlfriend.

Although Steenkamp isn’t mentioned in the caption, the main image is the person charged with the crime (as is the case with every crime story, unless the victim is an attractive woman).

The headline is Oscar Pistorius charged with murder of girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp and this is how the story refers to Steenkamp:

PARALYMPIC superstar Oscar Pistorius has been charged with the murder of his girlfriend who was shot inside his home in South Africa, a stunning development in the life of a national hero known as the Blade Runner for his high-tech artificial legs… Reeva Steenkamp, a model who spoke out on Twitter against rape and abuse of women, was shot four times… Police have played down reports that Pistorius shot dead Steenkamp thinking she was an intruder, saying they had dealt with domestic incidents at his residence and will oppose bail… Pistorius was at his home at the time of the death of Steenkamp… earlier reports that Steenkamp may have been mistaken for a burglar by Pistorius did not come from the police… Capacity Relations, a talent management firm, earlier named model Steenkamp as the victim of the shooting.

The dailytelegraph.com.au story shits all over both smh.com.au stories and I recommend reading it. It’s less sensational and doesn’t focus on Steenkamp’s appearance. It’s by “staff writers” who have brought together copy from several sources, and whoever did it, well done.

(As an aside, here’s something that I just can’t comprehend: according to saynotoviolence.org, in South Africa “a woman is killed every 6 hours by an intimate partner”. Holy fucking crap.)

The version on the ABC website (from Reuters and AFP copy) starts well, but in the end has more words about how it might affect Pistorius’ sponsorship deals than it does about anything else. And, oddly, this bit:

Steenkamp, a model and regular on the South African party circuit, was reported to have been dating Pistorius for a year, and there had been little to suggest their relationship was in trouble.

Um, does that mean that if their relationship had been in trouble then the crime would make sense?

Journalists really need to think about the words they use. Because when I look at the coverage of this story on the websites of the ABC and a supposedly intelligent broadsheet, the impression I get is that journalists believe Reeva Steenkamp’s appearance/job is good for getting clicks, but it doesn’t matter that she was killed because she was just a model. If that’s really the way that Australia’s online journalists think about women – and keep in mind that most online journos are under 40 and tertiary educated – then it’s not just the crusty old guys in the industry who are the problem.

Update 16 Feb: Ok, since I’m criticising the SMH for their coverage, this is today’s story, these are the actual first five sentences of Pistorius breaks down at court appearance:

A tearful Oscar Pistorius has been remanded in custody after being formally charged with the murder of his girlfriend.

He was wearing a dark suit, tie and blue shirt when he appeared in the Pretoria magistrates court on Friday.

He broke down in the dock as magistrate Desmond Nair formally charged him with the murder of Reeva Steenkamp, 29.

A sobbing Oscar Pistorius has been formerly charged with the Valentine’s Day murder of his model girlfriend.

The 26-year-old Paralympian gold medallist wept on Friday as Pretoria magistrate Desmond Nair announced a single charge of killing blonde covergirl Reeva Steenkamp.

I hope no one actually read that before it was published, because if they did they should get their arse kicked. (The story is dated yesterday, so it’s been online for at least 12 hours like this.)

24 responses to “Reporting Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp

  1. I was completely horrified that all the reports on ABC radio this morning simply referred to Steenkamp as ‘Pistorius’ girlfriend’. Even when they talked about her work and where her family lived she was never given a name. To describe a person purely by their relationship to their murderer is so distressing.

  2. What kind of bizarro word are we living in where we are (rightly) praising News Ltd reporting, and bagging Fairfax, on this kind of story?

    Of course, only one of these two organisations is employing a ‘paywall’ model. Maybe if we want ‘journalism’ rather than ‘clickbait’ we will need to be better-prepared to open the wallet?

    • But that doesn’t explain the ABC, and why their coverage of pretty much everything is so bad these days.

      Credit where it’s due to the Tele’s online editor, Simon Black. I worked with him a few years ago and I know he would be thinking carefully about the way his site covers this story.

  3. I had only heard the ABC news report, so until I read your blog, I had no idea of Reeva Steekamp’s name. Thank you for putting this analysis together and thank you Simon Black and the Tele journalists. The ABC reporting standards do seem to be descending and also include a surprising amount of opinion (on radio, at least) from reporters in the field. I would really rather the facts (and all of them) so that I can form my own opinion.

  4. I hadn’t heard too much on the story (kinda intentional), so I am glad to get most of my info from your post.
    As far as the women killed in South Africa, watch “Blood Diamond” sometime. It is fiction, I think, but it portrays this kind of stuff well.
    Scott

  5. From smh.com.au today: “Steenkamp got a degree in law from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and was voted in…” got a degree? gee that sentence flows brilliantly.

    • I saw that front page on twitter yesterday. Disgusting and so inappropriate. Yes, some of Steenkamp’s job involved modelling bikinis, but journalists need to remember that she’s in the news because she has died, not because she’s launching a swimwear range. It shouldn’t be this difficult.

  6. I’m unimpressed with the “Other newspapers use bikini images of woman killed- how disgraceful” accompanied by the offending images. ‘New Statesman’ is doing it too: a bet both ways.

    • Yeah. It’s an odd call because if you just write about it with no image, then there’s no record if they change it. But everything’s online now, so you can write about it without even linking to it, knowing that people can find the image if they want to.

  7. Yesterday I read commentary at Shakesville predicting the coverage would either start blaming the victim or making excuses for Pistorious. Today the papers are running “Pistorious weeps” and talking about how violent South African culture is after reporting Pistorious kept a number of weapons and has been violent towards his partner in the past.
    Some of it is because he’s a sporting hero: and perhaps his lawyers have already been on the dogger to friends in the media. I believe we are also seeing the lingering traces of male domination in our culture. If Steenkamp had killed Pistorious, she would not be receiving sympathy this early.

  8. And five minutes after I click “Post comment” we have Pistorious’ family seeking sympathy for him at ‘The Age’.

    • Yeah. I understand why a family would want to go to the media to insist that their family member is innocent – I think that’s completely normal – but I just don’t think the media should be reporting it as a Big Story. None of them were there so how would they know?

  9. there are no words. although the victim is not as famous as her partner, surely her name was about to become much more well known, and a responsible media outlet should have included her name in the headline if they had any respect for her as a person.

  10. I am a 50-something-year-old woman ( in this sexist world, I am definitely over the hill!!!) and have only recently discovered your excellent blog. I would like to thank you for sharing your reactions to media comments and generally sexist crap – you make me feel less alone in this machist world and I am educating my sons and their girlfriends to take a step back and take a critical look at the rubbish that passes for journalism these days. Your comments have encouraged me to come out fighting and not to let a single sexist, biased remark slide.Many thanks.Juju.

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  13. Yep. And Yep.
    I think we can safely say that Hot Dead (White) Women reporting goes in the same basket as Missing White Woman reporting. Actually (and you have probably already seen this, NWN- but check it out anyway), after Mathew Newtown violently assaulted his partner, Rachel Taylor, GQ Magazine named her woman of the year, describing her as “dangerously beautiful”… “The Look is her primary weapon of mass seduction. It sparkles on celluloid, sizzles in interviews, sucker punches folks on the street and becomes a veritable supernova on red carpets. Given the chance, the look from Rachael Taylor could bring kings to their knees, turn empires to dust and raise hell itself.”

    Dangerously beautiful? What does that even mean? And who is supposed to be in danger, exactly?

    Her weapon of mass seduction? A weapon? Really? Do men feel victimized by women they feel attracted to?

    Urgh, I could go on all day about this… but off to Melb to celebrate international women’s day week :)

    • I think “dangerously beautiful” means “so beautiful she’ll make men do silly things, like hit her, but it’s because she made them do it. With her beauty”. I HATE shit like that.

      But I love that you’re celebrating a day week!

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