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The Media and Crime
Journalism and crime maintain an interesting relationship. Each relies on the other to survive and, in some cases, thrive. Media organizations regularly report on crime and often maintain “beats” or dedicated circles for which a particular reporter would be responsible, such as the courts. Criminals, on the other hand, also use the media for their own purposes. In some cases, criminals may try to gain publicity, either for themselves or for a specific cause. In other cases they may use the media to taunt the police. What cannot be denied is the relationship between the two. However, how should this relationship be defined? What laws govern it and where does one draw the line, be it a journalist or a criminal?
Among the various manifestations of the dynamic is the source of the journalist. For as long as journalism has been a profession, journalists have had to rely on “anonymous” tips from people for their information. These sources have been integral to solving a number of crimes and sometimes, if not often, these people have been criminals themselves. In essence, journalistic sources are no less different in role or function than police informants, and as such, they are often afforded the same degree of protection from the media as would be afforded a police informant. This is all well and good as this system helps to encourage people to speak out without fear of persecution and we would probably see many other crimes and scandals simply swept under the rug if not for it. However, there is another side to the coin which brings me to the heart of my discussion here. When, in fact, does this marriage of convenience between journalist and criminal break the rules? When is journalistic integrity lost?
With the FIFA World Cup fast approaching this year, the media has been inundated with stories seeking to highlight, sensationalize or dismiss the issue of crime in South Africa. However, there has been one particularly recent case that has caught the public’s attention. e.TV, a South African broadcaster, aired a news segment on the attitudes of local criminals to the police’s tougher stance on crime, as well as any potential criminal opportunities during the World Cup. The two criminals interviewed vowed to continue committing violent crimes against people during the exhibition, paying particular attention to foreign tourists. They also showed disdain for the new tough police approach and vowed to shoot any officers who tried to arrest them. The segment sparked an outcry with police demanding that e.TV hand over the identities of the criminals interviewed. The station refused to do so and two reporters have now been called in to reveal their sources. Journalists claim they cannot reveal the identity of their sources as this would jeopardize their journalistic integrity. Strictly speaking, this seems a fair point to make, but it quickly fades as the situation gets further complicated.
On Tuesday, January 19, 2010, police found a body with a suicide note and biographical information of one of the e.TV journalists. The man was poisoned. The note as well as the biographical data have led the police to claim that the corpse is actually one of the criminals interviewed. According to unconfirmed radio reports of the day, the man allegedly blamed e.TV for ruining his life and decided to end it, and this is where the issues of journalistic integrity get complicated. Was e.TV right to protect their sources? My answer is yes. However, what is the decision to air such a segment in the first place? I have to say no. It was a bad decision. Such a segment only served to sensationalize the realities of crime in South Africa. It was clean TV because the only good it did was probably boost the station’s ratings. However, the segment ended up turning the police against the station not to mention public opinion. Ultimately, it led to the unnecessary death of a human being.
In essence, this man, though he may be a criminal, sacrificed himself in the media spin of hits, ratings and sales, and that is the very antithesis of journalistic integrity. We in the media are encouraged to use all elements of society, criminal or otherwise, to pursue stories for the greater public good, and we should. However, when that line is blurred in pursuit of sensationalism and money, we have to ask ourselves, what line am I willing to cross and, more importantly, who will be hurt by this story. There are very few stories worth sacrificing life for and this was not one of them.
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