Media ethics in South Africa

Recently the great debate amongst South African media organisations has been on whether to show/link to the beheadings in Iraq.

It all began when SABC showed the video in their Xhosa news. The producer was suspended and the SABC fined. Later, Vincent Maher, a lecturer at Rhodes University, ran a poll amongst his final year journalism students to see whether websites should link to the video. 75% approved

The other main media companies, IOL, News 24, Sunday Times and Iafrica, all disapproved of linking, claiming variously that it would give publicity to the perpetrators, or is simply gratuitous and would not add to the reader’s understanding. The Mail and Guardian was the sole main exception, claiming that it brings home the horror, and is an active choice as opposed to the SABC TV example, where the video was foisted upon viewers.

In trying to formulate my own opinion, I first examined my behaviour. I saw the link in the Mail and Guardian article I referred to earlier, but chose not to view it. I know my reaction would be horror and disgust if I actually viewed it, and I choose not to. I can’t say for sure if my view of the invasion would become more sympathetic, as IOL’s Babs Abba Omar says of his ‘leftist’ friends but I doubt it. The militants are religious fanatics with a warped understanding of life, and the US occupation encourages their actions – an emotional reaction to the video will not change this opinion.

So, back to the main question, whether I support linking to the video. Firstly, what are the main consequences of viewing the video

  • publicity for the militants
  • shock for the viewers, and an emotional reaction.

How will people react? In a variety of ways. Will they change their views, and become more or less supportive of a particular view? I don’t think that should be a consideration, as determining whether to show something because of it may shift an audience position is simply censorship. Media does this all the time, and the idea of an objective reporter has long been challenged, but it’s at least something to strive for (just as free will is a tenuous concept, but things quickly fall apart if you don’t believe you have it – but that’s for another day). So then, why not link? That leaves two main reasons:

  • to protect readers from harm
  • to not support the actions of the murderers.

Protecting readers from harm is a difficult one, we take elements from the age old pornography debate, and it comes down to the unknown. The problem, another old one, is that of the individual versus the group. Many individuals can watch pornography and murderous videos without harm to themselves or their understanding. Some societies protect children from pornography because they believe children are influenced by what they see, and without a well-developed understanding they will be influenced to imitate the behaviour. Since children learn to a large degree from imitation, I believe this is true. I also believe adults do the same, and many ‘adults’ are not able to understand or control their reactions. Watching a violent video, they may feel anger, and lash out with this anger, just as many in the US did at innocent people they associated with the killers after the World Trade Centre attacks.

I have less faith in people these days, at the same time as I have more. Human development is about awareness, growth, understanding ourselves. Many are at differing levels, and a rough seperation of adult/child puts many on the wrong side (some children are of course more developed in ways than some adults). As does no line at all – linking to the video allows many who aren’t ready to view it. Not linking disallows many who are ready from viewing it. And of course, putting myself in the latter camp, I would be annoyed at not being able to should I wish to. I’m trying to extend this beyond the video example, which I won’t view, to perhaps something like pornography, which I may view, but the principle is similar.

Hoever, the consequences to someone ready, but not able to view the video, are less than those to someone not ready but able to view the video.

So does that mean I support not linking to it, and in fact not linking to pornography either? And I haven’t even got to supporting the murderers, which doesn’t apply to the consenting pornographers.

I’m not entirely comfortable with that, and this exercise is reminding me of the pitfalls of this sort of philosophical thinking. The rational mind is only way of understanding, and it has serious limitations. It can convincingly and coherently argue on behalf of most viewpoints. I can quite easily separate the porn and beheading example by looking at the plus side of viewing porn – sexual exploration, overcoming unhealthy attitudes to sex passed on from parents or a repressive society. With the experience I’ve had of living in South Africa, moving from a highly repressive society to a much more open one, I saw how pornographic magazine sales shot up after they were legalised (horny people seeing what they had missed out on, the forbidden fruit) and have since collapsed again as people got bored (though some may blame the Internet). This is healthy to my mind. Most people have an ‘adult’ attitude to pornography – they choose whether to view it or not, and this is healthier than the sexual repression that came before. But I’m sure too it does some harm. So the choice there is between levels of harm. Let’s leave it at that, I’m not writing a book!

The video is a different example, as the benefits of viewing are much less obvious to me. The Mail and Guardian’s “bringing home the horror” doesn’t wash. So there are less, if any benefits, and some (I’m not going to delve into whether it’s more or less) harm to viewing.

So, without even needing to explore the question of whether the video supports the actions of the murderers (which simply adds to the harm side of the equation), I seem to be on the side of not viewing the video. As a further difference with pornography example, pornography is barred to children (a decision that makes sense with my harm argument, as children are, or at least should be in theory, more susceptible to the harm caused by a limited understanding). The Mail and Guardian links to the video without any attempt to bar it from children (would they do the same with a link to a hardcore porn site if they found it newsworthy? Surely not if they’re consistent).

So a rational investigation can bring up a fairly coherent viewpoint. But as I said earlir it’s easy to rationally support differing views, and these will mostly be based upon a highlighting of different facts. Rationality works well in a limited scientific environment, where an experiment is tightly controlled, leading to limited empirical evidence, which allows a simpler conclusion. The video question relies on all sorts of other facts, most of which we don’t know. How much harm is caused? Very difficult to settle that one. So, other factors help us decide. I’ll call them emotional and spiritual intelligence.

Not claiming much of them myselves, I find it difficult to bring them in on a global scale. It may be easy to decide whether to show the video to someone I know well, or a limited group I know well, and can draw upon these two other sorts of intelligence to make a better decision (will my child be able to view pornography when he is 18 without harm? I hope so. Can he now, at age 1 – probably, as he’s too young. Will I let him see pornography at age six? Probably not. Those decisions to me seem relatively easy, but to make a decision like this for the entire Internet community requires a level of spiritual intelligence I don’t have.

So, coming down to it, I don’t know. Always an honest answer. If I was to make the decision I would choose not to link directly to the video, based upon my earlier evaluation of harm caused. But, perhaps after some more years of developing my awareness, I may come up with a better answer. If you believe in a form of global consciousness, then the fact that we have the technology means we are ready (or better damn well learn fast). As the Mail and Guardian argues, the link is out there already.

But the argument forks into other arguments, the allure of this sort of thinking. Let’s leave it for another day.

Some links to further discussions, looking more at the media angle than my rambling investigation: