His name was Emmanuel Sithole. He came to Johannesburg from Mozambique, selling cigarettes on the pavements of Alexandra township. To make a living. Until his path crossed that of a group of South African men who tried to steal his goods. He made the mistake of resisting, and for this he was stabbed in the heart. He became one of the seven people killed (up to the time of writing) in the latest spate of xenophobic attacks in South Africa.
We know all this – including the fact that the police moved in quickly to arrest Sithole’s attackers – because a photojournalist, James Oatway, was on the scene and documented the attack as it happened. We saw it play out on the front page of the biggest newspaper in the country, frame by frame: first, the knife, thin and lethal, lifted above Sithole’s head, ready for the plunge as the victim holds out his hands in a final plea. In the next, he is already on the ground, among the rubbish strewn on the streets, pleading for his life. But in vain – another man is already hovering over him, monkey wrench at the ready. The next two frames are of a bloodied Sithole on a pavement, blood soaking through his clothes, the life ebbing out of him.
Is this the journalistic version of a snuff movie or the "first rough draft of history" in the public interest? The journalists did not remain on the sidelines entirely. Oatway and his colleagues rushed Sithole to hospital, but to no avail. Among the questions that followed in the aftermath of the attack and the Sunday Times reporting of it, were the familiar ones about "objectivity" and involvement. Should the photographer have intervened? Should he have intervened earlier?
In an interview with ENCA, Oatway explains the immense pressure under which photojournalists have to make decisions which then reverberate for long afterwards. The whole attack, he says, was over in two minutes – there just wasn’t time for the luxury of considering various courses of action. “My job is to record what happens,” he says. “This is what I do … There was no other call for me to make, I’m a photojournalist.”
One could ask further questions, about the decisions made after the heat of the moment had passed. Should the pictures have been published on the front page of a newspaper, where children could see it? Should the media not allow people to die with dignity, and find other ways of telling the story? What about the feelings of Sithole’s family – who among us would like to see the last dreadful moments of our husband, father or friend consumed by all and sundry while having their Sunday morning cappuccino?
Then there were questions of whether the media would ever publish similar pictures of dying white people, and whether such coverage could fan revenge or lead to copycat attacks. Language is also important – how we talk about people, in the language of victimhood, as "foreign nationals" or, as the Daily Sun did so irresponsibly in 2008, as "aliens".
What is clear is that the media, while exercising care and compassion, should not forsake their monitorial watchdog role to keep government accountable for its failure in leadership or King Goodwill Zwelithini for his reckless utterances.
This is not the first time that these questions have been asked. A classic case in this regard was Kevin Carter’s photograph of a starving Sudanese child, with a vulture waiting behind her. Photographers are often accused of being vultures themselves, while the audiences consuming these images don’t necessarily question their own behaviour or complicity in forming part of a market whose demand is being fed.
The weight of these questions can wear people down, while they are doing what they consider to be a job in the public interest. The photographers too deserve our compassion. In the ENCA video, we can see the fatigue in Oatway’s eyes, as he speaks of his anger and sadness at having witnessed the senseless killing of a man in front of him. Hopefully Oatway can find solace in the good consequences that his report has had, as the alleged killers have been apprehended and appeared in court. For Carter, the unbearable weight of seeing became too much in the end. His suicide note read: “I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings & corpses & anger & pain ... of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners”.
These are questions we all have to ask ourselves, as we are all members of a global media ecosystem, and to some extent become co-producers of journalism as we share these pictures on Facebook, Twitter and blogs. In his book Media and Morality, Roger Silverstone argued that the key question that media producers and consumers have to ask themselves is that of what the "proper distance" would be from which we witness news events on a daily basis. If we stand too far, we can become callous voyeurs of pain and tragedy. Then we run the risk of never developing an empathy that goes over into action, because suffering seems beyond the reach of our compassion and care. Too close, and we may be misled to think that no difference exists between "us" and "them", that we understand the "Other" totally, and that our own little world therefore does not have to change at all. The challenge, it seems, is not to be so overcome with tragedy that it leaves us paralysed (Susan Moeller’s "compassion fatigue"), but at the same time guard against thinking that we are so familiar with pain that differences and power relations cease to exist between viewer and object. Yeats said it already: "This world is more full of weeping than we could understand."
As was the case with his compatriot Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave, who was burned alive during the xenophobic attacks in 2008, Sithole is likely to become an iconic image for the violence that is currently besetting our country. For this powerful symbol we have Oatway to thank. Although good consequences is a tenuous position from which to argue for the ethical justification of actions (we should rather let principles and values guide our actions, as all the consequences of actions are not always possible to foresee, and such a utilitarian argument could lead to situations where any means are justified to serve an end), Oatway and the Sunday Times’s actions could be justified from their consequences in this case.
But these are all the kind of ethical questions that could be described as procedural – they have to do with the day-to-day application of press codes and their guidelines around accuracy, objectivity, truthfulness and minimisation of harm. We should not stop there. The case of Emmanuel Sithole should prompt us to ask more substantive questions about how decisions are made in newsrooms, how journalists see their role in society, whose stories get told, and who gets to speak. But perhaps even more importantly than questions around how stories get covered, Sithole’s story should also force us to confront the news values that determine which stories do not get covered. Is it ethical, for instance, for a newspaper to lead with a story on a prominent theologian and youth movement leader’s alleged extra-marital affairs, or an online new service to lead with a story on the injury of a rugby player, while people are being mowed down in our streets? We see a lot of criticism of the public’s right to know when the state exerts pressure on the media, but the same scrutiny is not brought to bear on pernicious market forces that determine news agendas to the extent that they also feed into an ignorance of the "other" who fall outside the narrow interests of commercially-defined news markets.
A related question is what happens to these stories once the immediacy of the events have passed. Does the media move on to the next event, covering another spike in violence, crime or scandal, or do they stick to the story and try to get to the bottom of it? The wall-to-wall coverage of Oscar Pistorius’s court appearance was a case in point – it obscured for instance the much less sensational but very important Farlam Commission into the Marikana massacre, and in turn when the case was over, attention to gender violence, the conditions in prisons and the rights of disabled prisoners again fell off the daily news agenda.
If the way we cover xenophobia, or ignore it, is determined by market forces alone instead of a desire to understand our society and change it, journalism loses its moral claim to protection and safeguarding.
And then we could adapt Stuart Hall's well-known question about cultural studies in a time of AIDS, to be directed at the media during conflicts like these: “Against the urgency of people dying in the streets, what in God's name is the point of journalism?”
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