Dealing with racism and the serpent of confirmation bias
Reporting on race and racism, the scourge plaguing the social fibre of South African society, is probably one of the most difficult media ethical dilemmas journalists face.
Penny Sparrow, Velaphi Khumalo, Vicky Momberg, Julius Malema, Adam Catzavelos, Suzanne Govender, Nkola Motata – all are prominent examples of racial slurs the media have extensively been reporting on in the recent past. Many more examples of racial insults probably fill the social media ether, examples of stereotyping in the worst possible way.
Complaints about News24’s reporting of these racism incidents land on my desk regularly. A few of these are from vexatious complainants who clearly do not understand the duty of the media to report news as accurately and truthfully as possible, while trying to minimise harm in the process, and fiercely guarding their independence from interest and pressure groups who do not like to hear the message of racism in their fold.
Others are more balanced and question the media’s willingness to give attention to the derogative way some people use words to describe other ethnic groups in this “wide and woeful land, alone under the great southern stars”, to quote Guy Butler’s translation of NP van Wyk Louw’s Die Dieper Reg.
How social media influence, direct, distort and blow up these incidents of racial intolerance is a study by itself and a diligent litigator scouring Twitter, Facebook and Instagram would most probably find enough cases to prosecute racists for many years.
People tend to use social media as a personal megaphone to broadcast their prejudices. Yet they totally underestimate the damage they cause, quite often even venturing into the more serious legal problem of defamation, beyond crimen injuria – which landed Momberg two years in jail.
A litany of South African defamation cases is waiting in the wings after the benchmark H v W case of 2013 in which Justice Willis found for the plaintiff following defamatory remarks on Facebook.
In a recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review, Prof Emily Bell of Columbia University’s Journalism School in New York, emphasised that our “news ecosystem has changed more dramatically in the past five years than perhaps at any time in the past five hundred… Social media hasn’t just swallowed journalism, it has swallowed everything. It has swallowed political campaigns, banking systems, personal histories, the leisure industry, retail, even government and security” (my emphasis).