Is Oscar Pistorius being treated fairly by the media?

The media has had a field day with leaked details about what happened on the night Oscar Pistorius killed Reeva Steenkamp and we have all consumed it voraciously. It is the most fascinating tale to have emerged in a long time (or at least since the fall of the last sporting icon, Lance Armstrong, or the one before that, Tiger Woods).

But might justice be impaired by the evidence being leaked? Might Pistorius’s right to a fair trial be undermined?

Court reporters used to be taught that they could not introduce evidence, they could only report it as it emerged in open hearings and had to be very careful of any details which embellished the court record and which might prejudice the process of law and the presumption of innocence. Reporters who broke these rules would be called before the judge and magistrate, often in open court, and reprimanded and humiliated. They could even be charged with contempt.

But two things have happened which have changed this in recent years. Firstly, the sub judice rule – the legal reasons for the practices described above – has largely fallen away. A Supreme Court of Appeal decision in 2007 said the right to a fair trial now had to be weighed against the right to freedom of expression. Without a jury system, it was much more difficult for the media to prejudice the case, so the court narrowed down the restriction considerably. It is now very hard to break the sub judice rule and no-one has been called on it in recent years.

Secondly, we have the rise of social media. This means that whatever rules journalists might follow, there is a flow of information which goes through no gatekeepers and obeys few rules and gets out there anyway. So the reports – whether factual, or just rumour – spread virally and the media looks a bit silly if it is not reporting things that a lot of people are hearing about anyway.

It also means that both parties to a dispute have much greater capacity to use anonymous leaks to try and shape the story. It is no accident that Pistorius has flown in a high-powered international public relations consultant. His job will be to do just this: to counter the way the prosecuting authorities appear to be using leaks to frame the story to their advantage. It is this public relations battle that is most likely to prejudice public opinion and threaten to derail justice.

Even if journalists are within the law, there remains serious ethical and professional concerns. Evidence and allegations leak, whether it is intentional or not. This evidence is untested, and the other party is often constrained from responding to it, for fear of damaging their case. That evidence can convict a person in the public eye before anyone has been able to examine and challenge the evidence. A person who is technically still innocent until proven guilty may be unfairly accused and justice may be impaired – particularly when there are populist and opportunistic demands for quick and brutal justice.

So, even if the old rules don’t apply, and evidence or allegations or even rumour can be published, journalists have to be meticulous in making it clear that this information is untested and partial, that it is not the complete story and the accused is still entitled to a full and fair trial. They have to make sure they are serving justice and not one party in the process. These rules may not apply to everyone on Twitter, but it should apply to journalists who want to be seen to be credible and authoritative.

Twitter is largely just digitalised chatter: a fantastic tool to accelerate public discussion and exchange. There would always have been those who spread speculation and gossip about a case such as this, only now it spreads wider and quicker. Our role as journalists is to verify information, and turn it into something useful for the consumer because it is balanced, contextualised and understandable – something that gives them value and they are prepared to pay for. If we just do what everyone else does on Twitter, then we are devaluing our work at a time when we have to get people to see the value and be willing to cough up for what we offer them.

To do that, we still need to follow a set of rules and practices which separate what we do from the gossips and rumour-mongerers. Even if others don’t, we need to ensure that people know the partial and one-sided nature of most of the information that is emerging.

I am not suggesting we should not report the cricket bat and the number of shots and what gun he used and all those absorbing details. We would look silly if it was on social media and not the mainstream media. But we do have to be conscious of how we present and frame such information, and do it with care and responsibility.

Otherwise we make ourselves redundant as journalists. Why would people need us if we are doing the same as every social media gossiper?

16 thoughts on “Is Oscar Pistorius being treated fairly by the media?

  1. Very good intervention Anton. An important point that is missed in the current debates about fair trials and the sub judice rule is the importance of public debate. As you say this must go beyond gossip and insinuation and journalists have a particular role to play in sharing information, and providing sound analysis of legal frameworks and social conditions as well as relating parochial issues to larger themes. So, an agile public sphere must be fostered by journalists. Without this, courts would be a kind of insulated space where we assume that judges are some category of god-like creatures. Of course we have to respect legal outcomes, but public engagement with matters of evidence, argument and exoneration is surely a good thing in a democracy?

  2. Oscar has been tried and found guilty by some dreadful Twitterers. One can see them frothing at the mouth over their PCs. Dreadful. It is interesting that Hilton Botha, the investigating policeman in this case is the same person facing a wrongful arrest case being brought against him by – you guessed, Oscar. I would not be suprised if the SAPS spokesman outside Oscar’s home on the day of the tragedy did not have some ax to grind as well, which set the whole twit-machine grinding. Your post on this is timely; journalists should heed your caution.

    • @Marilyn Keegan your comment is how “the twit machine” starts grinding! Beware defimation charges from IO Hilton Botha. Read properly before you add your 2 cents! “@barrybateman: #OscarPistorius is now pursuing a civil claim against the complainant for wrongful arrest, false claims. BB”

  3. On the front page of the Star on Tuesday, they pictured the weapons he had applied gun licenses for and somehow wove those applications into the story with the subtext that he was a man arming to kill. British tabloids used his name and murder on day one, and the press has seemingly tried him and found the murder story far more sensational then the version he stated in his affidavit.

    After seeing some of the testimony today, there seems to be a lot more doubt in the states (and some people’s) opinion that he’s guilty beyond doubt of premeditated murder. We could even see that media outlets will start changing tack with the opinion winds, instead of responsible reporting that should have happened in the first place.

  4. I can’t agree with you more. From the time that the public managed to absorb the tragedy of what happened to the start of the rumours emanating from no-where the tide has turned. Most of it down to twitter feeds. The lynch mob are out and the dogs are baying for blood and the worst thing of all? No one yet knows the facts. Until OP had his say in court today all the info has come from heresay and the prosecution but who cares – we just want a salacious spectacle and the bloodier the dismembering, the better. Why can’t we wait before we judge? This man could and probably is going through the most awful time and until i hear something that makes me think that this was premeditated murder, I prefer to conclude that on current evidence he is innocent and the victim of terrible misjudgement.

  5. OP’s trial is shaping up like OJ’s! A messy sub-judice scrum ,
    SA law is becoming a farce , like many US trials of late .
    Justice comes cheap in the lands of “the free” ,, . . , , . .

  6. Oh I don’t know Anton, but I would be willing to bet that most people, albeit reluctantly, are more than willing to believe a Twitterer over a”journalist”. On the truth-telling roulette table, they have equal odds on being the one with the actual truth.
    Journalists today are just mere agenda driven scribblers and have become the snarling face of Armageddon with a sharpened axe to grind, whereas twitterers, mostly, are going on instinct alone.
    The word journalist belongs in the same shit-heap as used car salesmen, doctor and politician. Sadly.

    • I am just a normal citizen with no knowledge of anything else regarding the Oscar case, as that what I read on twitter and the newspapers, which pretty much is about as much as anyone else knows. But, I believe in innocence until proven guilty! Oscar is now a victim of the bloodhounds for sensation and selling figures on newspapers. And to think I actually wanted to become a journalist. Thank heavens God had another plan for my life. We do not know if Oscar is guilty, therefore, everyone needs to take a moment and step back and let the law take its course.

  7. I agree with Professor Dodson. I have found it disturbing and frightening to witness how public sentiment, led by information on social media platforms and media reports, has turned against Oscar before any facts were verified. And how they are baying for his blood. It distresses me, as the mother of a disabled child, to watch the spectacle of the public court and to think – what if that was my child? For a national newspaper to publish a cartoon with what some journo believes was the scenario in the bedroom that night just boggles my mind.

  8. It has been disgusting reading the papers in the UK about the Pistorius case. As a big fan of his I will admit I have bias and believe he is innocent but the media have been disgraceful. They try to portray him as an arrogant playboy who’s whole life has been an act leading up to this alleged murder. Oscar Pistorius is one of the most genuinely nice celebrities I have ever had the pleasure of reading about, watching or listening to and I refuse to believe that all that has been an act. The way some journalists relish things like this happening is sickening. It is the same with the Lance Armstrong situation and was the same with Tiger Woods. I feel sorry for those that have written articles on this OP case in Britain as they are truly disgusting people. I hope I never have to speak to any such journalists as I am not sure I could contain myself from speaking my mind. He is innocent until proven guilty and I believe he is innocent of the charge. After yesterday’s proceedings I am more confident of that, the only issue is that it is worrying how biased the investigator was and probably still is with his supposed evidence.

  9. This a refreshing piece of writting. The problem is that many people are not sitting at home following this case with Law degrees, so their opinion is purely based on what they read in the media. This case is still in its infancy, Evidence is largely untested from both sides and one should never forget the Constitutional right of all accused to be considered innocent until proven guilty.

    There is a reason an accused is afforded the right to test the states case because evidence can seem damning until its countered by counter evidence and cross examination.

    The state has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt and in law OP must create a doubt in their case that’s all. There are rules and procedures and rights involved in all criminal cases.

    I think at this stage its far to early to dismiss either the defence or states case. Let us wait and see what happens at trial.

    And ofcourse the most important thing, we must not let the court circus detract from the fact that an innocent, young promising woman lost her life. That is the tragedy in this story.

  10. Killing is killing, early or not early, The laws of this Country can say something different but the original law of God says loud and clear, that: “Thou shall not kill” The man must pay for his actions.

  11. The media is really bad -this week I have seen more scary things than I thought possible. But it is frightening how little the general public on social media understands about the very basics of the legal process. I don’t know if the answer is to televise trials (the magistrate read some mumbo jumbo from a con court ruling about it being bad because of highlights packages …) or to teach kids the basics at school or to create more local TV shows set in our courts. Here in SA they also keep on tying this case in with abused women!
    I enjoy the CNN reporting, especially with legal guys like Mark Geragos and Jeffrey Toobin discussing the case – just the facts.

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