Are A Man’s Dying Moments Appropriate for Page 1?

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Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) condemns in the strongest possible terms the police brutality that led to the death of Andries Tatane. Tatane died after he was beaten and reportedly shot by police during a “service delivery protest” in Ficksberg in Free State on Wednesday 13th April 2011.

The media is to be commended in focusing citizens’ attention on this case of police brutality, by leading news bulletins with reports of this incident, and by reporting it on their front pages.

What is of concern to MMA is that some newspapers chose to publish a front page image of Andries Tatane’s dying moments as he lay in the arms of a man, who was clearly stricken with grief.

The image that appeared on page 1 of Business Day, Daily Sun and Sowetan is very powerful, emotive and compelling. However, MMA cannot ignore that this particular image invades the privacy and dignity of both a dying and a traumatised man, laying bare these incredibly intimate moments.

MMA has to ask why it was chosen as the front page image for these three daily newspapers. Was it to inform, to agitate, to sell newspapers or was it so important that to hide it would be unconscionable? Only the newspaper editors can explain their decision, and we believe that they should do so.

When The Times ran a front page image of a dead infant on the 21st of July 2010, its editor Phylicia Oppelt acknowledged that it was an extraordinary image to publish on page 1. An editorial was published alongside it to explain this decision. It made very clear that it was not done lightly, and the editor explained her public interest motivation for using it.

However no-where in Business Day, Daily Sun or Sowetan was such an explanation offered.

MMA yesterday praised SABC 2 and 3 for warning its viewers that it was about to show graphic and violent footage before broadcasting reports on Andries Tatane’s death. However it condemned SABC 1 for failing to do the same. SABC 1 went on to apologise for this failure during its airing of Generations yesterday evening (14 April 2011) and MMA welcomes its apology, as a core step in redressing some of the harm that may have been caused.

As the public broadcaster SABC is held to a higher standard, however all media have a responsibility to treat violent and invasive images with extreme care. Indeed the Press Coderequires that “due care and responsibility shall be exercised by the press with regard to the presentation of brutality, violence and atrocities.” By publishing such a traumatic image on their front pages, Business Day, Daily Sun and Sowetan made no effort to protect the public, including children and sensitive readers, from exposure to violent and traumatic imagery.

To suggest that there was no other way of sensitively covering this story, would be to ignore the respectful and informative way that other newspapers managed to report on Andries Tatane’s death. In particular MMA would like to commend The Star, The Times and Beeld, for giving such prominence to the story, and for exploring the issues involved, while remaining sensitive to the privacy and dignity of Andries Tatane, and those who grieve his loss.

It is internationally accepted that showing the final moments of a person’s life can and should only be done in exceptional circumstances. BBC’s editorial guidelines for example explicitly state that “There are very few circumstances in which it is justified to broadcast the moment of death.”

Surely the responsibility on our media to be sensitive to the impact of an image of a man’s last moments must be even greater as our country continues to strive to shake off the shackles of our violent past. We must acknowledge that we are still working towards restoring dignity to all as emphasised in our constitution.

Accordingly South African media have a greater responsibility, especially in this case when one considers that this man died as a result of his stance in publicly demanding the basic human rights and dignity of his community.

An image of violence can in certain circumstances incite more violence. Alternatively an over exposure to images capturing intimate moments of grief or death, risks creating audience apathy or fatigue. It would be a great disservice to Andries Tatane if either of these were to occur as result of the publication of an image capturing his dying moments.

MMA’s position is not that violent or traumatic images should never be published, but that if they are, this is as a result of measured consideration, and that the reasons for publishing such an image should be explained.

MMA requests that each of these newspapers explain their choice of front page image today (15 April 2011), and encourages all media, both broadcast and print to strive to achieve a balance between informative and sensitive reporting.

William Bird
Director
Ashoka & Linc Fellow
Media Monitoring Africa
Formerly:
Media Monitoring Project
Mb: +2782 887 1370
Tel: +2711 788 1278
Fax: +2711 788 1289

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