The media inadvertendly promotes violence
The effect of violence depicted in the media tends to divide people into opposing camps.
Some believe that there is a causal link between the media's portrayal of violence and violence in society. Others argue that there are a multiplicity of causes of violence in society, with no straightforward link between what is portrayed in the media and the actions of individuals.
However, the debate itself reveals compelling evidence for both sides.
Studies show how media violence has contributed to greater violence but also show media to have a minimal impact alongside the multiplicity of other causes of violence.
The debate has been raging in many countries for decades and there seems no imminent resolution.
Violence begets violence
It is extremely difficult to support any contention that South Africa does not have extremely high levels of violence. Statistics about murder, abuse, domestic violence, common assault, sexual harassment and racism all support this contention.
Given South Africa's brutal colonial history, followed by systematic state segregation and state violence, it is little wonder. To deny this, is to deny our past and present. It also dooms our future to greater violence.
Along the way, our media has portrayed and represented our violent history and our present.
As much as it may be necessary to talk about "the media" in general terms, we need to be clear about which media we are referring to. We should also be aware that although there may be some commonalities and shared perspectives among some media, there are significant differences between and within different media.
I will refer to news media, print, radio and television, but we also need to consider non-news media and programmes, as well as the different types of media, such as public-private, community and small commercial.
The key is this: media does not simply mirror our society or the violence within it. The media's portrayal of our society and violence is informed by a number of factors, including basic ethics and news conventions, audience, political perspectives and, to a degree, ownership (although this last point is a debate in itself).
If media served merely as recorders of history, the role of the media would be a simple one. Rather, the media plays a crucial role not only in reporting events but in shaping what we think and how we think about those events.
During apartheid, many mainstream print media and the SABC portrayed violence in very particular ways. These often served to reinforce racist stereotypes and justify state violence.
Violence was often typified as "black on black" violence, as if somehow it was endemic for black people to attack black people simply because of their race.
In doing so, the explanation and descriptor served to simplify and hide bigger and far-reaching political and societal explanations for the violence.
It also served to further dehumanise those involved: if black people could attack black people simply because of their race, the implication was that black people themselves were prone to violence. By contrast, when the police force or then-defence force acted, it was framed as being in defence of public property and to restore peace and order.
Fast forward to the early 2000s and not only was violence being reported, but it was an integral component of a crime wave seen to be sweeping the country. The media picked up on it, as did political parties. Citizens were portrayed as victims of ruthless criminals and a discourse of victimhood pervaded. It is important to note that this is a pattern. It is not one item that does this; it happens again and again over a period of time.
Victimhood is rooted in fear and has a historical context that is often linked to crime. The problem with representing people as just victims or as victims-in-waiting, is that it does not lead to greater understanding or even action.
The issue of victimisation is dealt with in detail in a paper called "Have no doubt it is fear in the land, An exploration of the continuing cycles of violence in South Africa" by Brandon Hamber, prepared in the run-up to the 1999 elections.
In discussing how political parties in the elections used crime to exploit the fear that permeates the South African mindset, Hamber says: "Crime rates are genuinely high, but the general populations fear of victimisation is on the whole out of proportion to the real threat. "It is this situation, understandable and realistic as it is on some levels, that makes us see violence in our society as spinning increasingly out of control, even when it is not. In the long run this fuels a sense of helplessness in the society – in turn psychologically empowering the criminals and preventing us from finding solutions."
Some radio stations, like Radio 702, were known for their extensive crime coverage, but they were not unique and after a few years shifted their position.
There were some exceptions; Classic FM which took a deliberate decision not to report on crime as a general rule. Some papers, for instance Business Day, still tend not to cover crime, unless it has clear policy or broader societal implications.
Although there have been some significant shifts in how crime, gender-based violence and race are reported, violence continues to be reported largely in event-based stories.
The stories carry graphic detail of the violence, they tend (in the case of crime stories) to be one-offs, with little or no follow-up and the subjects are often merely victims. As Hamber notes, this is likely to deepen the sense of victimhood and helplessness. Critically, though, such coverage does not enable or give a sense of how violence can be prevented or ended.
The delayed release of crime figures give credence to views that they may not be as accurate as they should be, which added to fear rather than reducing it.
In addition, with some exceptions, there tends to be minimal analysis of the crime figures in the media. Crime and the violence associated with it tend to focus on the incident, not the policies or processes that surround it. In the case of child or gender abuse, violent graphic details and horrific crimes may be widely reported, but the causes and the context of these are seldom examined.
Perhaps more common these days are so-called "service delivery protests", which in many cases are not about service delivery issues at all, but vary in cause from lack of response and engagement from the local municipal officials to concerns about corruption or inadequate services.
A tragic circle has developed around them. Protestors are aware that one of the few ways they will have their concerns heard is if they use violence because many media outlets will only cover their concerns if there is violence.
Violence begets violence. It is a difficult cycle to break. The recent trend for journalists themselves to be attacked and to be the victims of violence makes the cycle harder to escape.
We witnessed this most recently in the De Doorns strikes in the Western Cape. Not only does it make the journalists's jobs more dangerous, but it also reduces the opportunities to lessen the violence, expand and examine the causes of the violence and potentially prevent it.
The consequences and causes of violence are seldom explained or delved into; the exceptions highlight this. The violent death of Andries Tatane in Ficksburg was widely reported, but the reasons for the march in which he was participating were seldom explained.
Some exceptions included the Mail & Guardian, which recently carried a follow-up on the state of Tatane's community, highlighting indirectly the futility of his death. At the time of his death, police brutality was condemned but, again, the causes and broader implications were not examined.
There has, however, been a shift as a result of the death of Emidio Macia (who was dragged behind a police van) and the tragedy of Marikana, which have kept the issue of police brutality on the news agenda.
In the case of Marikana, there was initially also little explanation and the conflict was typified as a dispute between Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union and the National Union of Mineworkers. The early reports of the violence were largely event-based, and it was only after journalists made their way to Marikana that more detail emerged through better coverage.
The reports by Greg Marinovich, for instance, offered a fundamentally different narrative of events. Suddenly the complexity of what had occurred started to emerge.
Despite this, the voices of those involved were also initially ignored, thus denying the victims and other miners their full humanity. Again, some media went to significant lengths to address this; perhaps the most striking example was City Press's efforts to give a face and story to each of the deceased miners. There were also in-depth pieces with miners' families and with people living in the surrounding informal settlements.
These examples highlight the capacity for media to show the real human cost and context of violence. Regrettably it took a tragedy of the scale of Marikana and some strong criticism to reach this point, and there are still too many instances of violence where the real costs remain uncovered.
High profile violent events can serve a positive function in the media by informing people not only of the incident but also of the issues and context (including the justice system) that surround it.
The death of Reeva Steenkamp followed by Oscar Pistorius' s arrest and bail hearing made huge news. At the same time, the technology and social media reporting ensured that citizens were informed of all the details, in some cases minute by minute.
Although there may be some legitimate concerns about the real public interest of the case, there is little doubt about the information value of having the full bail hearing tweeted and streamed live – it enabled audiences to learn the intricacies of how the justice system works.
We have seen a significant shift in how the major print media titles and some radio broadcasters report on gender-based violence and child abuse. Given the near-epidemic levels of these crimes and their impact on citizens, this is a crucial and very positive shift.
In the early 1990s it was not unusual for rape stories to focus on men's trauma as a result of the rape of their partners, to the virtual exclusion of the women who had been raped.
Some brave reporting by Charlene Smith, herself a rape survivor, helped to shift that. The recent rape of Anene Booysens has resulted in media outlets such as Radio 702 launching their own campaigns and initiatives to combat gender-based violence and child abuse.
The Sowetan also started a campaign in early 2012 to highlight gender-based violence each week to ensure that it is not off the news agenda. Some excellent pieces of journalism that examined gender-based violence were carried in the Mail & Guardian and given significant space and prominence.
Media Monitoring Africa has also seen a very positive response by a variety of media houses to improve their portrayal of children.
Media Monitoring Africa's first significant monitoring on children in 2003 showed that in 10% of stories on children, the children's rights were further violated. Children who had been exposed to violence were further traumatised by how their stories were reported in the media. Thus, while not directly contributing to the violence the children suffered, its impact on them was made worse.
The most recent research from Media Monitoring Africa reveals that only 3% of all items monitored further violated children's rights, a significant and positive shift.
What can we reasonably expect of our media in relation to reporting on violence? Is it their role to actively dissuade violence? Is that the role of all media or only of the public broadcaster? Or should all media seek to meet their audiences's needs and provide quality reporting so that their audiences are well informed and choose to act accordingly?
To the extent that violence itself undermines constitutional rights as it prevents and undermines other fundamental human rights, such as the right to freedom of expression, then it can be argued that it is certainly in media's best and long term interests to actively dissuade violence. But does this mean that they become emissaries for peace? Some of them may choose to, but the least we can expect is for them to improve their quality of reporting and get the basics right.
Improving the quality of journalism is easier said than done. Journalists work in difficult conditions with limited resources and limited capacity.
It must, however, be acknowledged that as easy as it may be to blame the media for escalating violence, they too are just people. People who live in a violent society, with challenged systems and a government under huge pressure. It is the responsibility of all to combat violence. The constitution gives a huge advantage; it offers a vision for all in South Africa, one that must be actively supported. Our research in 2010 about racism showed that all media that was monitored, including small to large, displayed a clear bias in favour and in support of our constitution and its values. The bias came through in countless editorials and can be seen regularly still.
The media thus supports the Constitution, but they must also be encouraged to practice its values and then apply pressure to all within South Africa, be they civil society or government, to do the same. In that way violence can be reduced and the realization of a South Africa in which there is equality and dignity for all can begin.
William Bird is director of Media Monitoring Africa, and an Ashoka and Linc Fellow. mediamonitoringafrica.org
Although this article has been made possible by the Mail & Guardian's advertisers, content and photographs were sourced independently by the M&G supplements editorial team. It forms part of a larger supplement.