Wailing Women on etv News

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In the month of August, Women’s Month, the Media Monitoring Project (MMP) monitored the media with a specific focus on the portrayal of women. This is part of MMP’s work as an independent media watchdog, fundamentally concerned with promoting Human Rights in the media.  During the monitoring of the news bulletins it appeared the women were often shown crying to add drama to the various stories.

Over the years, MMP has looked at e-tv in a number of different research projects and have noted the positive changes in the format of the news bulletin.  The news bulletin format has changed over the past year to incorporate more in-depth stories and greater analysis, whilst providing the viewer a good idea of news stories by covering more stories very briefly.  This seems to be a good balance considering the time constraints of a news bulletin, rather than as was done in the past – covering more stories with few covered in depth.  However, despite the positive changes, e-tv continues to stereotype women and particularly Black women in their new bulletins.

In this update, MMP looks at the portrayal of women in e-tv news at 7PM, in particular as wailing victims of external circumstances and grieving subjects. Nine items were found in this month.  This is not a new trend for e-tv and MMP has previously highlighted gross violation of women’s rights to privacy and dignity.1  There is a strong race element to such stories, in that although white people are sometimes pictured, most commonly Black women are shown.  This is then a continuation of the practice of the Public Broadcaster during Apartheid which made use of such images of Black women crying to reinforce the idea of Black women as helpless powerless victims and to desensitise viewers to Black suffering.  In effect, coverage of this type is part of broader coverage which says White lives are more important than Black2.

Women were shown crying after loved ones had died, complaining about poverty and even dying. More than once, the news item end with the soundtrack of a woman crying fading out as the story ended. These acts constitute a violation of the women’s right to dignity and privacy, and in particular their right to grief privately.  This constitutes a violation of basic journalistic principles of:

  • Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects;
  • Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief;
  • Recognise that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance3.

The news on 5 August 2007 when reporting on the fires that annihilated many shacks in Alexandra township in Johannesburg is one such example. Struggling women and children are shown, walking around the blackened earth. Some families lost all their belongings. The narrator says: “As the family tries to contain their grief…” whilst a weeping woman is shown. The camera does not respect the fact that she lost everything she had. It violates this woman’s right to privacy, and also the right to a dignified representation.

On the 15 August e-tv news took advantage of the willingness of a mother to explain what happened to her son. The mother of a young policeman explains how he saw her son being shot and set alight. She tells every gruesome detail she can remember from the attack. At the end of the item she explains that her son was the sole provider for her family, that’s the moment she cannot control herself anymore and bursts into tears. e-tv zooms in on the mother, who is crying inconsolably. Although the story is of interest to viewers, close-ups of the mother’s face were not necessary.

e-news on Sunday 19 August shows a woman being brought to an HIV clinic in a wheelbarrow. The woman is very clearly in a bad condition and wailing and crying out loud. e-tv explains how long the journey took them to get to the clinic, as the people shown are from a very poor community. The woman is mumbling and crying as the camera zooms in on the dying woman’s face. Although it is critical to cover stories around HIV/AIDS, a subject on which the media in general is often quiet, coverage of this nature is likely to further stigmatise the infection and there is no clear indication that the woman consented to having her HIV status disclosed.  The media should only disclose someone’s HIV status with informed consent4.

On 2 August, an attempt was made to limit the harm done by this type of coverage, with a story about Zimbabwean women who are forced by shortages to cross the border into South Africa to buy food. The identity of the women was protected by being filmed from behind.

Two stories from the period looked at White people.  The one story illustrates patterns of coverage of the different races, not only by e-tv, but by most media.  This story, on the 6 August, covered the court case of the suspected murderer and paedophile Theuns Olivier. A dramatic voice tells how the mother of the little boy who was allegedly killed by Olivier looks into the eyes of her son’s killer. “It was the last thing he saw”, says the narrator, as you see and hear the mother of the child crying. Instead of letting the already shocking facts of the case speak for themselves, the piece employed unnecessary sensationalism. Viewers see a close-up of the victim’s mother as she grieves.  This story is interesting as the victim was white and was accorded far more coverage in the media in general.  However, it also shows how the indignity, traditionally reserved for Black women is now accorded to White women5.

This type of reporting raises three separate issues.  Firstly, it can harm those pictured in this way.  Secondly, it creates and sustains stereotypes about women.  Thirdly, it reinforces negative ideas about Africa.  Women pictured in this way have had their dignity infringed on.  This can have further implications in the way they are treated by their community and can affect criminal cases that have not yet been heard in court.  It also entrenches the view of women as passive victims, rather than active agents of society.  This type of coverage of disasters is in keeping with general patterns of coverage which give depth and follow-up stories of disasters, crime and terrorism that happens to White people, whilst providing superficial coverage and a lack of follow-up to stories of Black Africans.  This creates the impression that Africa is plagued by disaster and crime, and implies that Africans are ‘naturally inclined’ to crime.

The MMP would like to encourage e-tv to continue to cover such stories, but in a way that is consistent with the dignity and privacy which is accorded to every person in South Africa according to the Bill of Rights.  Such coverage would not continue to show Black women as powerless victims.

By Edger de Kroon, Albert van Houten and Sandra Roberts


1Previously MMP wrote about similar disregard for the dignity of those who have suffered tragedy.
2For in-depth background and the latest research read The Revealing Race Report
3From the ethics code of the Society of Professional Journalists
4For more details, visit http://www.journaids.org/livingwithhivaids.php
5 … and children, the MMP highlighted how this was the case in the coverage of the Jeppestown police massacre. The pictures and analysis is available at http://www.getmad.co.za/MADGLAD/tabid/277/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/10/Jeppestown-police-funerals—Negative-pictures.aspx

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