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 dedicated “beats” or circuits that a particular journalist would be responsible for, such as the courts. Criminals on the other hand use the media for their own purposes as well. In some cases, criminals may be trying to get publicity, either for themselves or 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. Yet, how is that relationship to be defined? What laws govern it and where does one, either the journalist or the criminal, draw the line?
Among the dynamic’s various manifestations is the journalist’s source. 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 the uncovering of a variety of crimes and sometimes, if not often, these people have been criminals themselves. Essentially, journalistic sources are no less different in role or function than police informants and as such, they are often accorded the same degree of protection by the media as an informant would be accorded by the police. 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 more crimes and scandals simply swept under the carpet if not for it. However, there is another side to the coin which brings me to the crux of my discussion here. When, in fact, does this marriage of convenience between journalist and criminal break the rules? When does journalistic integrity become lost?
With the FIFA World Cup fast approaching this year, the media has been inundated with stories that have sought to highlight, sensationalise or refute the issue of crime in South Africa. There is has been one recent case in particular that has caught the public’s attention though. e.TV, a South African broadcaster, aired a news segment on the attitudes of local criminals to the tougher police stance on crime as well as any possible criminal opportunities during the World Cup. The two interviewed criminals vowed to continue perpetrating violent crime on people during the showpiece event with particular attention being given to foreign tourists. They also showed contempt for the police’s hard new approach and vowed to shoot any officers attempting to arrest them. The segment sparked an outcry with the police demanding that e.TV hand over the identities of the criminals interviewed. The station refused to do so and two journalists have now been subpoenaed to reveal their sources. The journalists claim that they cannot disclose the identities of their sources as it would compromise their journalistic integrity. Strictly speaking, this seems a fair point to make, but soon fades as the situation gets further complicated.
On Tuesday, the 19th of January 2010, the police found a body with a suicide note and biographical information on one of the e.TV journalists. The man had been poisoned. The note as well as the biographical information has led the police to allege that the body is in fact one of the interviewed criminals. According to unconfirmed radio reports on the day, the man allegedly blamed e.TV for ruining his life and decided to end it and this is where issues of journalistic integrity become more complicated for me. Was e.TV right to protect their sources? My answer is yes. However, what of 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 sensationalise the realities of crime in South Africa. It was pure TV in that the only good it did was possibly increasing the station’s ratings. However, the segment ended up turning the police against the station not to mention public opinion. Finally, it led to the unnecessary death of a human being.
Essentially, this man, though criminal he may be, was sacrificed on the media alter of hits, ratings and sales and that is the very anti-thesis of journalist integrity. We in the media are encouraged to use all elements of society, be they criminal or not, to pursue stories for the greater good of the public and so we should. However, when that line gets blurred in the pursuit of sensationalism and money we have to ask ourselves, what line am I willing to cross and, more importantly, who will get hurt by this story. There are very few stories worth sacrificing lives for and this was not one of them.