This weekend, the Sunday News featured an article about the reported gang rape of a 16-year-old female student in Bulawayo.
The report, which documents the girl’s traumatic ordeal as she travelled from a schools’ sports competition, featured a photograph of the young woman lying limply on the ground, seemingly unconscious, with a group of bystanders looking on at her.
As a result, conversation ensued on social media around the ethics of the newspaper, and how the photograph exposed the young woman, already dealing with the trauma of the rape, to further shame and condemnation.
Not only did the Sunday News publish the photograph, but the paper also chose to name the school the girl attends, as well as give her age. As such, anyone who might vaguely recognise her from the photograph can go through a process of logical deduction to ascertain her identity.
Victim blaming and excusing perpetrators
And what this amounts to is victim blaming; a cruel process of piling more scorn onto a person who has already suffered enough of it. As a result, readers are eerily encouraged to become voyeurs to the situation and pass their own judgements about it. And sadly most of these, as do most warped ‘justifications’ for rape, centre on what the girl was wearing, what she looks like and other physical attributes that should never ever be used as excuses for any form of violence.
As a result, the victim is at fault, while the perpetrator is excused for their savagery.
Another pertinent example of this is found in an article featured in last week’s Herald, titled ‘Teacher fined for displaying manhood’. In it, a 36-year-old primary school teacher is reported to have been fined a sum of $100 for public indecency in exposing his erect penis to a 17-year-old girl and her friend on her way home.
But as one reads the story further, one realises that the issue goes further than ‘public indecency’. As the article continues to state, the teacher followed the girls and tried to grab one of them. This girl escaped and then sought refuge at a nearby house with the teacher still in pursuit. He is said to have forced his way into the house through a window before residents finally apprehended him.
How, one wonders, do the charges against him then settle at public indecency and not attempted rape? The magistrate presiding over the case is even quoted as advising the teacher to “learn to behave in the right manner”, warning him that “such conduct in the future might attract imprisonment”.
It seems our current default is to deal with such issues with a light rap over the knuckles, and not the severity they require.
Imagine, just for a minute…
Returning to the first example, I would like to move from what we know from the media reports and imagine what we don’t know, what the news media might not care too much to delve deeper into.
Imagine, as is likely to be the case, that this girl has been absent from school since this ordeal occurred almost two weeks ago. I would think that due to the sensitive nature of her case, only the management of the school would be made aware of the attack on the girl. Imagine again that there might have been rumours swirling around about the whereabouts of the girl. High school students often have fertile minds, and even more fertile tongues, so I assume that much gossip might have been doing the rounds about her absence.
But none of that hearsay could have been confirmed, surely. At least not until this exposé, which – beyond any doubt – singles out the girl to the entire school and makes what should be a private situation a public trial.
She is 16 years old. And I know that at that age, I was extremely self-conscious and concerned about being the focus of anyone’s attention. Many teenagers navigating their characters and identities are this way, anyway. But now, she is 16 years old, a survivor of a gang rape and the subject of everyone’s attention in a school of young people who can be ruthless and callous in their assessment of things.
I assume she is in Form 4, probably sitting for her Ordinary Level exams at the end of the year. As a result of this entire ordeal, her studies have already been disrupted. And now, her reputation has been decimated too.
I wonder if anyone thought about all of this, or even cared, before making the decision to run with this photograph and information, showing more interest to drive hits and clicks to content than to be responsible.
The death of empathy?
In my university journalism class, I recall our lecturer engaging us once in an ethical debate about taking photographs. In the situation he posited, each of us was to imagine that we were heading home and as we approached our destination, we noticed a ball of fire engulfing our respective houses.
Would you take a photograph of the situation first – for the sake of the news value the situation presented? Or would you abandon all responsibilities associated with being a journalist and run towards the house to see what and who you could save?
The question was meant to get us thinking about which we are first; journalists or human beings. Now, I do not make the distinction to mean that journalists are not human beings – of course they are – but the whole exercise was intended as an interrogation of our levels of human empathy, even within conducting a public duty.
While there was general consensus that most would ditch their cameras and run towards their homes, fearing for the safety of family and valued possessions, this consensus became less certain as the situation became more removed from one’s immediate concerns.
So, if the house was just a house one came across on their way home, they might take photographs first and then help second. Or they might just run off fearing for dear life. This is not new as the greater part of humanity is structured around self-preservation first and care for those beyond oneself as a secondary interest.
These days, anyone with a camera-enabled phone can play the role of reporter. We have seen videos go viral on Whatsapp and amateur photographs leaked via Facebook. And while ‘professionals’ should know to abide by the standards of ethical journalism and not expose victims of a situation to further harm, they often don’t bother. As such, why should the more amateur – a bystander or passerby, for example– feel any responsibility towards protecting anyone’s dignity? Why would they, if the custodians of the journalistic craft don’t either?
But still, the personal motivations for taking, and then sharing, such images boggles the mind. Have we become so insensitive that documenting each other’s suffering gives us some sort of satisfaction or sends us into thoughts of personal profit?
Have we lost the instinct to help, or at least empathise?
And beyond that, where is the ethical conduct that should guide journalism? I would truly expect an editor to have stopped that image from going to press, understanding that one of the basic tenets of the journalism is to inform, while doing the least amount of harm to those affected by a situation.
But did anyone ever think of this girl, and that they may have broken the last bit of strength she may have been holding on to? Did anyone ever think of her – a young woman with a life of her own, a future, dreams and aspirations – or did they choose instead to focus on how her strife could sell some newspapers and elicit some social media feedback?
Yes, the Sunday News may have gotten the clicks, hits and page views it desired.
But at what cost?
The main image is republished from www.annyjacoby.files.wordpress.com