Tag Archives: mainstream media

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…


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.)

Do we need the mainstream media?

Yesterday, mrtiedt left a great comment on my This is not good enough post. The full comment is on the other post, but here’s an edited version:

This raises an interesting point – given there are many excellent sources for information (twitter, blogs, primary materials, those MSM writers who we applaud and value) this lowering in value from the MSM is perhaps not such a big deal… if the MSM is left to those people who can’t be bothered doing anything more than buying the same paper they’ve bought all their life, and the rest of us rely on news sources we trust and respect, is the denigration a problem?

It is an interesting question. One we’ve talked about before, but it’s worth re-visiting at the start of the new year.

My answer is yes, it does matter. But you knew I was going to say that, right? It matters because not everyone has the time, knowledge and internet access to find reputable news from other sources. It matters because newspaper reading is still the best way to increase awareness of public affairs, because when you flick through a newspaper you see all the stories, not just the ones you’re going to read (Schoenbach et al, 2005). This finding wavers when looking at election coverage, but I’ll get to that later. It’s worth noting that there is no evidence that news websites encourage the same level of civic engagement as newspapers (Lee, 2009). No doubt because, in Australia at least, news websites are nothing more than a collection of stories about accidents, stories about videos of accidents, stories about twitter, stories about celebrities on twitter, stories about sex crimes, and stories about turbulence on Qantas flights. News organisations don’t take their websites seriously, so why should we?

Back to why it matters. I’m gonna stamp my foot with indignation and say it matters because we shouldn’t have to go hunting for adequate reporting. If journalists can’t even do basic reporting – Who, What, When, Where, Why and How – then why the fuck are they wasting their time being journalists? Go and do something that pays better and has a more secure future.

Now, to any journalist who says audiences don’t want “serious” news, I say that just means the way you present serious news is boring. Consider this: a 2004 study from the Pew Research Centre for the People and the Press found that 21 per cent of 18-34-year-olds learned about the presidential campaign from Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which is almost equal to the 23 per cent who got their campaign info from network news (Feldman, 2007). What makes this very interesting is that the National Annenberg Election Survey revealed that Daily Show viewers knew more about election issues than newspaper readers and tv news watchers.

There is no reason why news can’t be informative and entertaining. And no, that doesn’t mean turning news into a jokey re-write of a media release or putting an infographic into a story that has been written in the usual dull as dogshit way, interviewing the same people and pretending there are only two sides to the story and they are “slamming” each other. If that’s the best you can do, then please change careers and save the rest of us from your mediocre vision.

References not linked to in text:
Feldman, L (2007), ‘The news about comedy: Young audiences, The Daily Show, and evolving notions of journalism’, Journalism, vol. 8, pp. 406-427.

Lee, C (2009), ‘Pixels, paper, and public affairs: a comparison of print and online editions of The Age newspaper’, Australian Journalism Review, vol. 31, no. 1, pp. 91-104.

Schoenbach, K, de Waal, E, & Lauf, E (2005), ‘Research Note: Online and Print Newspapers: Their Impact on the Extent of the Perceived Public Agenda’, European Journal of Communication, vol. 20, pp. 245-258.

When stupid rules the news world

I complain about the shit that’s called “news” these days, but I’m not silly/elitist/wankery enough to believe that all news should be Serious Political Reporting About Serious Things. Of course there’s room in there for less-serious news and silly news. The problem is that the stupid stuff has moved from the last story of the bulletin or the weird news section on the website, and now sits alongside the real news.

And by stupid news I mean the mother-in-law email about manners that’s been reported by Fairfax, News Ltd and the ABC today. Seriously, a news story about an email that was forwarded to other people? In the nineties, sure, but now? Earth to Brint, it’s 2011 for fuck’s sake.

Besides being embarrassed for the MSM, I think reporting this story is a gross invasion of privacy. It is very clearly a private email between two people who are not public figures – and even if they were, unless the contents of the email were at odds with their public persona, there’s no legitimate news reason to publish it. And what happens to the relationship between the mother, son and partner now, after such an international embarrassment? The news editors in the UK and Australia who ran this story are responsible for damaging relationships within this family, all so their audiences can have a bit of a giggle. There is a very big difference between something the public may be interested in, and something that’s in the public interest. (This is why I wasn’t a successful journalist.)

When the MSM reports on “funny things on the internet” it feels like they are desperately trying to convince people that they’re relevant. That they’re hip, and they know what the cool kids are doing. Particularly because by the time the MSM reports on the “funny internet thing”, the rest of us have already seen it.

Political polling makes pissweak news

How do you do your job when every week you get a report on how much people like you? Because that’s what this constant polling about preferred prime minister is about: likeability. It has to be, because political reporting is all about personality and not substance, so how would you know if a leader is doing a good job?

These polls from Newspoll (News Ltd generating its own news) and Herald-Nielsen (Fairfax generating its own news) and Essential Media (Channel 10 generating its own news) are driving me mad. We’re not in an election campaign so what’s the point of weekly updates about whether people would vote for Labor if Kevin Rudd was in charge? Or the Coalition if Malcolm Turnbull was in charge? Seriously, what is the actual point of asking people these questions at this time? It makes just as much sense as asking people if they’d like a million bucks, and then making the results front page news (mind you, news.com.au and dailytelegraph.com.au would run that story because wah-hey, it’s wacky and zany and light-hearted). Let the parties do their own polling on these questions and sort it out amongst themselves. The only time these constant questions about leadership would be relevant is if someone was challenging the leader, or if one of the leaders was grossly incompetent. And as much as I dislike Tony Abbott, he’s not incompetent. Grossly opportunistic and mean-spirited, sure. But not grossly incompetent.

Before you have a go at me about censoring the news and/or withholding information from the audience, ask yourself this: How important is it, two years out from an election, to have weekly updates of voting intentions? Sure, chuck the info in at the end of another political story, but the polling shouldn’t be the only story. There is only so much space in the newspapers and bulletins for political news and every time news editors run these meaningless stories, we – their audience – miss out on something important or useful or relevant.

Political journalists are obsessed with the Gillard/Rudd story and the Gillard/Abbott story because they think it makes them insiders, like they know all the gossip, but it’s pretty meaningless as far as real news goes. I believe that news should be useful, otherwise it might as well be Home and Away or Angry Birds. The shit that’s laughably called serious political journalism is not useful. Focussing on the personalities and not the substance of policy and debate means that when the next election is held – and you know we’re in for weekly popularity polling for the next two years – we’ll just be voting on which leader we like the best, and not which party’s ideas are best for the country (yeah, yeah, I know I’m an idealist). And it will be all the MSM’s fault.

The revolution will be televised

With apologies to Gil Scott-Heron (who wrote his masterpiece 40 years ago), today, the revolution will be televised. Live on ABC News 24. And on commercial television if there are good images. And it will be blogged, and tweeted, and podcast. And you know what? It’s already happening.

2011 is going to be a year of change in Australia. The Government’s paid parental leave scheme began on January 1. The equal pay test case could mean that women are finally paid fairly. And the public conversation about quotas for women in management is starting to acknowledge that, contrary to popular opinion, we don’t live in a meritocracy.

But we still have bullshit like this:

SMH says women who file sexual harassment claims are copycats

SMH says women who file sexual harassment claims are copycats

And this:

SMH still calls rape a "sex scandal"

SMH still calls rape a "sex scandal"

Prince Andrew’s friend Jeffrey Epstein spent 13 months in jail (from 2008) for soliciting an under-aged girl for prostitution. He’s a registered sex offender. But according to the Sydney Morning Herald, it’s just a sex scandal. Wrong. A sex scandal is Tiger Woods and his bajillion affairs. A sex scandal is Max Mosley in a fun-filled Nazi-themed night with five prostitutes. If it involves an under-aged girl, then it’s statutory rape. It’s not a “sex scandal”. Plus, it’s filed in the fucking Lifestyle section. Yep, according to the SMH, statutory rape is a lifestyle choice.

I started this blog in March 2009 because I was sick of the way the mainstream media treats women. I was sick of the stupid little stories that (usually male) editors think will increase their female readership, but are really just an excuse to show a picture of a woman in her underwear. I was sick of the constant tits-and-arse treatment of female celebrities when I am an equal opportunity objectifier. I was sick of the way journalists write about female politicians’ hair and clothing. I was sick of all the opinion pieces (usually from women who have clearly benefited from feminism, but often from men) saying feminism is the devil and feminism has failed because we haven’t toppled foreign governments and feminists control the media, without giving equal space for opinion pieces saying it hasn’t failed. I was sick of women being blamed other people’s crimes. And I was sick of Janet “feminism has failed because my wealthy friends have chosen to raise families instead of taking silk at the bar, oh, and by the way, feminism has also failed because Western feminists haven’t fixed everything for women in other parts of the world” Albrechtsen being given a national platform to bang on about how feminism is wrong.

Shit, when I put it like that, it feels like nothing has changed. But I’m optimistic. I have a good feeling about 2011. International Women’s Day is a public holiday in Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Cuba, Georgia, Guinea-Bissau, Eritrea, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uganda, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Zambia, and women get the day off in China, Madagascar and Nepal. Here in Australia, I will be celebrating today.

It’s gonna be a good year.

Our own worst enemy

No, not women. You’ll never hear me say that. (Have you noticed that those who say women are their own worst enemy do so whenever the topic is sexist attitudes and behaviour? It’s a convenient way to deflect attention.)


The most noticeable thing about #grogsgate and #twitdef has been the silence from other journalists. Regardless of whether we are in the Massola/Mitchell camp or the Jericho/Posetti camp, journalists have stayed out of the public discussion about journalists, journalism and ethics, and this is a mistake. Our silence implies we’re siding with the journalists; siding with what looks to outsiders to be The Australian trying to discredit People On The Internet.

Bloggers are not a threat to journalists. Without journalists, we’d all be blogging about cats and Doctor Who, which would eventually get boring (the cat part, at least). And most of the bloggers who write about the news industry are writing about how it can be better. We don’t want journalists to be out of work – we want to know about what’s going on in our world and we need journalists for that.

But here’s the thing about that silence: journalists aren’t allowed to comment on stuff like this. I can only criticise the SMH because I don’t work for Fairfax. And, as a result of this blog, am unlikely to ever work there. (Although, in my defence, it’s the only newspaper I read which is why I blog about what’s in it.) As far as the print media goes – and by print, I include online because that’s where most of the content comes from – Australia is a two-company country so sticking the boot into the other mob is a career-limiting move. News organisations also have very restrictive social media policies that control private comments we make outside of work. They own our names.

The other reason journalists are quiet about this is because it’s drummed into us that we’re not allowed to have opinions, unless we’re specifically writing an opinion piece. We’ve adopted the idea of objectivity from American journalism and we hide behind it. I don’t buy the view from nowhere argument as reason to keep our opinions to ourselves. Firstly, because it doesn’t exist – bias shows in the people we choose to interview and the way we write the story. (Further, the idea that there are only two opposite sides to each story means we end up giving equal time to nutjobs). And secondly, because expressing an opinion about our industry is very different to, say, an environment reporter keeping quiet about being an active member of the Greens. Having an opinion about what we do is not a conflict of interest.

And so the conversation goes on without us and we look like we think we’re too good to discuss what we do with our audience. It makes us look arrogant and out of touch.

What are the organisations we work for so afraid of? That one single journalist, or even a dozen, might say in public – gasp! – that they disagree with what another journalist at the same company did? Are we, the journalists at the bottom of the food chain in these organisations, really that powerful?

At the moment, discussion about what we do matters a hellava lot. News organisations are spending a lot of money trying to find a way to make their audience pay for something they’ve always received for free. With news websites full of AAP copy and re-written AAP copy, they’d better include some free porn if they want us to pay for it. Oh, wait. Porn is already free on the internet. In that case, news organisations had better improve the product.

An unquestioning media

Sorry there was no post yesterday – my students have their websites due on Monday so there’s been a rush of consultations after class. So I didn’t get around to reading Ruby Hamad’s opinion piece in the SMH until late last night: Too many men still see women as sex objects.

This is the thumbnail they are running with it online:

Image of woman's naval and crotch

I’m guessing that illustrating an opinion piece about women still being seen as sex objects with a shot that reduces a woman to simply the place where the penis goes isn’t meant to be ironic.

Hamad’s point is one we obviously have to repeat over and over again:

Women are told to cover up to avoid the gaze of men. Warned that the mere sight of their skin can cause uncontrollable desire, for which the man cannot be blamed, they are not to walk alone at night, not drink too much, not stay out too late, not be in the company of men to whom they are not related.

The message is clear: should you fail to heed these warnings, whatever happens to you is your fault. And the punishment is severe.

Which brings me to the way Kristy Fraser-Kirk was treated by the mainstream media. As Ian McIlwraith writes in today’s SMH: No winners in DJs harassment case:

Fraser-Kirk lost the public relations war – which, when you think about, it is extraordinary on two fronts. First, that so much effort seems to have (successfully?) gone into discrediting her motives and character (often using the media as more than willing tools) and, second, that there should have been a ”war” to be fought.

After all, both her former employer, DJs, and boss, Mark McInnes, have never contested that she was subjected to behaviour that was inappropriate in the workplace.

And from Ian Verrender earlier this week: Spin doctors preserve boys’ club status quo:

Step 1. Soften the perpetrator’s image. And so it came. Mark is a great guy. Mark is one of the best bosses around. Mark’s pals, the movers and shakers, are sticking by him. Mark is swimming at Bondi beach.

Step 2. Downgrade the offence. He only touched her bra strap (after reaching under her blouse). Who hasn’t done that at a work function to a colleague? It was such a minor offence every company in town will be overjoyed he is on the market and will be trying to hire him.

Step 3. Turn the victim into the perpetrator and denigrate as much as possible. Fraser-Kirk was a ”junior publicist”. She had form. She has complained in the past. She is just after cash.

You can’t blame the spin doctors. They are merely doing a job. The sad reality is that those who should know better, who are supposed to inform us, not only listened to this garbage, but swallowed it hook, line and sinker.

Journalists work hard to sustain the myth of the larrikin journo who delights in asking annoying questions of those in power (Frith and Meech, 2007), but the reality is that these days we hardly even ask the most basic questions: why, and how. Those with power are usually our primary sources of information and we don’t even bother checking the truth of their claims. Case in point: the Coalition’s “we’ll stop the boats” slogan is dutifully reported without asking “how?”. Oh, and pretty much anything the Coalition says about the economy.

Decades of research shows that “sources with habitual, privileged access to the media tend to heavily influence the framing of both issues and individual stories” (Romano, 2004, p. 49). Romano’s study was on how the (Howard) Government controlled journalists’ framing of stories on asylum seekers and refugees, but it applies just as well to the Fraser-Kirk story. It is just astounding that every single news story painted her as a money-grabber making a big deal out of nothing – exactly what Mark McInnes’ team wanted. So much for a questioning media.

Australian journalists like to think we’re superior to state-owned media organisations in countries like China and North Korea, because we aren’t simply mouthpieces of those in power. But since we clearly believe that anyone in a position of power is telling the truth, I’m struggling to see the difference.

Frith, S. and P. Meech (2007), ‘Becoming a journalist: Journalism education and journalism culture’, Journalism vol. 8, no. 2, pp. 137-164.

Romano, A. (2004), ‘Journalism’s role in mediating public conversation on asylum seekers and refugees in Australia’, Australian Journalism Review, vol. 26, no. 2, pp. 43-62.