Media frenzy: The case of Dewani's sexuality
“Dewani admits he is bisexual.” So what?
“Bisexual Dewani underwent hormone treatment.” Yes, and?
“Revelation: Dewani is bisexual.” Your point?
I am not quoting verbatim but, if you were anywhere near the internet on Tuesday, these were just some of the headlines being thrown around by publications in an effort to report on the Shrien Dewani trial.
If you were nowhere near the internet then you probably saw one of the many headlines on today’s front pages. The media houses went big on the #Bisexual trend that broke out on Twitter yesterday after a two sentence statement from Dewani that said he had sex with men as well as women.
On day one of the proceedings, the court heard a plea document submitted by Dewani, which was read out loud by his lawyer.
The document revealed details about the nature of his relationship with his wife Anni and some about his life in general. Mostly, it contained Dewani’s detailed account of events pertaining to the hijacking, which occurred that fateful night, and led, ultimately, to the death of his wife.
The events detailed in the document are, or should have been, the focus.
They are, after all, why Dewani finds himself standing trial, charged with murder, kidnapping, robbery with aggravating circumstances and conspiracy to commit these crimes. (He has pleaded not guilty to all five counts).
Instead, the media went with the one thing that had nothing to do with what makes someone a potential wife killer or not – they led with the fact that he was bisexual.
They handpicked two or three sentences from a document – which was long and more relevant to the trial in many more ways than those sentences – so that they could try a man not only for the murder of his wife but also to invent, so to speak, a motive for having done so: his sexual preferences.
Newspapers bought into the click-bait
That detail was, because of its sensationalism, transformed into the digital thing we all know and love – click-bait. Who cares about the rest of the information that was packed into that document when this is the one thing people will click on?
The bisexuality bait bled into newspapers, which hoped to achieve the same “success” in reporting the story.
Would more people buy newspapers because Dewani is bisexual? Or because being bisexual was being demonised? And what, in fact, did this “revelation”, as it was called by many published stories, have to do with the fact that he might have had his wife murdered?
“ Ja, êk het seks met mans [Yes, I have sex with men]” read Beeld’s front page, quoting Dewani in big, bold letters.
Why are the media trying to create something contentious out of something that really isn’t? It is irresponsible reporting and, more than that, it does nothing for the causes of sexuality and gender roles, causes that are already fuelled by age-old burdens and misunderstandings.
Should we not be doing a better a job of this?
At first glance, the Beeld headline, for example, is essentially telling the reader, who may or may not be ignorant on the subject and “taboos” of bisexuality, or sexuality at large, that this Indian man participated in sex with men, and so that’s probably why he killed his wife.
Trial by media? I think so.
The ignorance fuelled by homophobia
By the time the trend had gained traction, very few were concerned about the other details of the case. Very few kept their focus on the contentiousness of the subject matter, which is that this is day one of a trial of a man who possibly paid people to kill his wife on their honeymoon.
Instead, many were amused, and very vocal about their amusement, that this man swung both ways, so to speak. Outpourings of ignorance, fuelled by homophobia, were shared at a machine gun rate and, more than that, the cause of sexuality and all those affiliated with participating in positive discourse and the fight for human rights were dragged back by about 400 years.
Luckily, it did start a conversation, and there was backlash from the public who did think critically about this sort of thing.
But it is unfortunate that the media once again forgot how to be leaders in society, and that the backlash was mostly aimed at them.
Here are some examples of headlines and reactions to them as well as the reporting:
A murdered bride and a toplesss actress: new low for the front page of the ‘family newspaper’ that is the Sun pic.twitter.com/pC3kKbrL28
— Emma Barnett (@Emmabarnett) October 7, 2014
Dear journalists reporting on the #DewaniTrial bisexuality is not a ‘motive for murder’ hiding one’s sexuality might be,but sexuality isn’t
— Jen Thorpe (@Jen_Thorpe) October 7, 2014
It’s #BiVisibilityDay folks. We really exist, we’re not just a phase, or undecided, or too scared to be gay. Bisexuality is a Thing!
— Abi Nielsen (@AbiNielsen) September 23, 2014
Should the media not have been more aware of the damaging aspects of this before jumping on the bandwagon? Along with reporting that is fair and accurate, is the job of the media not also to educate?
There is nothing educational about implying that sexuality of any other sort (outside the confines of stereotypical sex roles for men and women) will lead to criminal behaviour.
(I can almost hear some aunty having a good old rant about this – “You see, he was doing the wrong thing, sleeping with men. That’s why he’s a killer. Sis! Now God is punishing him” – or something to that effect.)
Other revelations that skewed reporting
The M&G also acted in haste and went with “bisexuality” in the headline of the story – a story that was not about bisexuality at all but rather about other aspects of the document read out in court .
That Dewani said he and Anni had wanted a family of their own, for example, and that he was undergoing hormone therapy at the time to make himself more fertile again skewed reporting.
Our headline and blurb at the time made it seem that, because he was bisexual, he was less fertile and thus needed to undergo treatment. Incorrect. One had nothing to do with the other, so we pulled the title and blurb and changed them.
When we behave like click-scavengers, we teach our readers nothing, we do not contribute to society in a positive way, we engage readers for the wrong reasons. One commentator, for example, on our Facebook page, underneath the post with the original bisexuality headline, actually said that the world needs to be rid of all the gayness in order to become better.
A colleague raised a point soon after the incident: maybe all the headlines and the media’s way of reporting the revelation was, in fact, aligned with the case? Maybe it was a way to infer that Dewani’s bisexuality would serve as a motive for wanting to get rid of his wife, and that the state would argue for this?
But we’re not there yet, are we? That’s not the job of the media. It’s not the job of the media to distort facts, to perpetuate ignorance and far-fetched folk tales about sexuality. And it is definitely not the job of the media to imply motive and instigate a trial of their own without the events playing out as and where they should – in court.
If Dewani did kill his wife, there would be something wrong with that. If he did it, it would be because he is Shrien Dewani. But there is nothing wrong with his sexual behaviour. He is not being tried because he is Dewani, the raging bisexual.
That is how it should have been reported.