The unwelcome eye of journalism

Abstract: There’s been a nasty shift in South African journalism…

Swimming upstream is a challenging endeavour – ask any salmon – but when the end task is a noble one, even if death – as in the case of the Pacific salmon – follows shortly thereafter, it can be argued that it’s worth it. However, fighting against a tide of tabloid journalism has left science journalists wondering if it isn’t easier to completely change species.

Anyone entrusted with trying to get more science and critical thinking into the media, will be familiar with the edict of most editors that their readers, viewers or listeners ‘don’t have an appetite for science’. This is of course utterly ridiculous because we are all consumers of science; there isn’t a single element to our lives, and how we live it, that isn’t examined or improved on by science.

But there’s more. As mammalian life forms, humans are also the embodiment of science. Our internal organs are like chemical laboratories; our muscles, bones and joints expressions of physics; electrical activity powers our brains; and, at the more fundamental level we are little more than a handful of  those elements you may remember from the periodic table.

But that, it seems to editors, means nothing, especially so when a paralympian shoots his girlfriend. If the wash of politics, sport and celebrity gossip that is churned out by our media is the regular downstream flow that science journalists have to fight against to plant some seed of knowledge, the Oscar Pistorius trial is an opening of the floodgates.

It is the reflection of all that is wrong in journalism: tabloid sensationalism and a submission to, and fueling of, the human vagaries of prurience and voyeurism. So why do the media lower themselves to cover the trial in such intimate detail? There are two possible reasons: a disdainful sense of superiority by holding up a mirror to the seething masses, or because satisfying popular demand helps pad the bottom line.

Such journalism has existed for much of the modern history of newspapers, but it was invariably relegated to those red-topped titles that gave more prominence than the ‘more serious’ broadsheets to celebrities, crime, sport, spurious claims and downright lies.

But the ethical separatism that defined the media playing field has become blurred, especially so with the arrival of a whole new realm of players in the form of social media. The result: conversion of media platforms and a wild chase for a shrinking consumer base willing to pay for content, by providing more of the content the consumer is assumed to want – that which traditionally filled the coffers of the tabloid media. In South Africa this crossing-the-Rubicon moment was the creation of a channel on DStv dedicated to covering the Oscar Pistorius trial.

Outside of the affected families and those directly connected to the accused and the deceased, what proper reason is there for anyone to follow the court case? There is none. The sole ‘justification’ provided is that Pistorius is ‘famous’, with a whispered curiosity ‘bonus’ that he is missing the lower half of both legs.

It is the issue around privacy that has, possibly more than most, divided mainstream from tabloid journalism. Mainstream journalism has respected more the privacy of individuals – even the so-called ‘famous’ – unless their (mis)behaviour is in the public interest; i.e. in helping maintain a safe, healthy and fully-functioning society. Tabloid journalism, on the other hand, has declared that no-one can claim privacy, especially if their behaviour is deemed interesting to the public.

And there’s the rub. ‘Famous’ or not, what the accused in a murder trial got up to in their personal time, what the deceased had sent in a private text message or the blood spatter created when a round exited their body are not ‘in the public interest’. They are, however, interesting to a typical tabloid media consumer with an insatiable penchant for voyeurism, gore and self-aggrandising judgement; and by increasingly catering to the whims of this consumer, those media who are guilty have fueled the flood of poor journalism. If ever there was sign of the decline of humanity, this is it.

Struggling against this, and waving above their heads stories that affect us all, are the few remaining science journalists, wondering if their quest to open the window to the wonders of the natural world will now really make a shred of difference.

Originally published in the May 2014 edition of Leadership magazine.