Winter - 2013 PistoriusHistoryInTheMaking

Published on February 25th, 2013

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Oscar Pistorius’ Fall from Grace – From a Media Sociological Perspective

By Joachim V. Isaksen and Tor G. Jakobsen

The case involving famous athletic star Oscar Pistorius who last week was accused of murdering his girlfriend meets all the vital news value criteria. Looking at the case from a media sociological perspective the incident has all the important ingredients of a top news story. What exactly is it that makes this particular case so newsworthy?

On February 14, the 26-year-old Pistorius was charged with murder, after his girlfriend was found dead in his home in a gated housing compound. The accused is well known to the public, as he is a world-class sprinter despite having both legs amputated below the knee.

 

What determines the amount of media attention an event is given?

Reeva Steenkamp

News values, also referred to as news criteria, determine how much attention a news story is given by the media. Even if the media outlets give directions on news values, the audience will also influence the attention. News journalism is built upon a certain set of values, which is in the research literature referred to as an incident’s “newsworthiness.”

Galtung and Ruge have identified twelve news criteria that heighten the probability that a given event will become news. We will not go through all of the criteria but rather illustrate with some examples why this case is so newsworthy.

Cultural proximity and relevance are important news criteria, and we must point out that news values are not universal and can vary widely between different cultures. Even so, we will show that the elements of this case represent a uniqueness that crosses potential cultural barriers for media attention. Even if the event took place in South Africa it has received worldwide media attention, spanning from western media outlets such as BBC and CNN, to non-western media such as Al Jazeera, Japan- and China Times.

 

The gruesome murder

In order to achieve wide attention a story must first of all reach a threshold. The larger the event, the more likely it is to be reported. Events can meet the threshold criterion by the magnitude of the case. When it comes to murder cases there is a general rule; the more violent the murder is, the bigger headlines.

Reeva Steenkamp was discovered in a pool of blood in Pistorius’ home in the South African city of Pretoria. She had been shot on Valentine’s Day. It was later revealed that she had a fractured skull, and a bloodstained cricket bat was found on the scene. Oscar may have bashed Revaa’s head in before shooting her, which adds to the brutality of the case. The criterion of absolute intensity was met by the sensational aspect of the murder in itself. The criterion of intensity increase was met during the investigations, as more and more detailed information from the incidenct has been revealed.

 

Schadenfreude

If an event involves elite people and can be personalized or personified, the newsworthiness is heightened. The German loanword schadenfreude describes a person’s feeling of pleasure derived from misfortunes of others. Schadenfreude is especially strong if we are talking about a person loosing status, respect, and prestige.

For Oscar Pistorius, this is most certainly the case. His fall from grace is unprecedented. Even if people look up to the success of celebrities, it is also a human tendency to be attracted to downfall of success.

Pistorius is the son of a mining magnate, born without calf bone in both legs. However, he overcame his disabilities becoming a world class sprinter, even by able bodied standards. He became the poster child of the new South Africa, and the whole world’s darling in his fight to compete in the London Olympics. There he became the first amputee runner to compete in an Olympic game.

In 2012 he started dating Reeva Steenkamp, a South African model and socialite. They were the African version of Posh and Becks. In one night everything was taken away, and he went from a world celebrity to a person accused of first-degree murder, facing possible time in a South-African prison. Thus, he is now portrayed as a villain.

The unexpectedness, including unpredictability of the event, further adds to the story’s news value. No one either expected or predicted that a successfull world star celebrity would murder his girlfriend.

 

The underlying crime issue

The worldwide attention the case has received shows that psychological proximity to an event is more important than physical proximity. South-Africa is geographically far away from most of the countries where the case is being covered. Even so, the event involves concrete persons that are easy to identify with, especially compared to collective institutions and abstract processes. Pistorius is known throughout the world as a result of his athletic achievements, and a person people may easily identify with despite cultural differences. Steenkamp was a famous model and is often portrayed as a person of both beauty and brains, a person that easily becomes a role model.

South Africa has a very high crime rate, and the abuse of a loving partner is also very common. It is estimated that around 50 people are murdered each day. This has led to the blossoming of the private security industry, as the middle- and upper classes seek security. In 2012 Pistorius himself told an interviewer that he kept a cricket bat behind his door, a pistol by his bedside, and a machinegun under his window. He kept this arsenal despite the fact that he resided in a gated compound with security guards. The reason given was that the security “might be in on it,” referring to the reputation of private security firms in South Africa to operate together with criminals, even providing them with key information before a house attack.

Crime is one of the defining societal problems, but structural issues are seldom covered deeply by the media. However, when a crime can be personalized there is a human dimension involved, and people may thus identify more easily with the problem.

The presence of such high levels of violent crime and house invasions will most likely be an important part of Pistorius’ defense, as this provides the curtain for his argument that he thought Steenkamp was an intruder. The crime issue has been extensively exposed in the media in the aftermath of the incident. This demonstrates the importance of the personal factor when it comes to the amount of media attention given to a societal problem.

 

The loose detective on deck – adding drama to the story

Detective Hilton Botha

The media will focus on aspects of a case that will add to the drama of a story. Conflict is one of the most important means when a story is told.  If one of the actors may be defined as “the bad guy/ the villain”, while the other is defined as “the victim/the weak”, the dramatic aspects will be heightened. It is quite obvious that Pitorius has been depicted as the bad guy, while Steenkamp was the weak and innocent victim.

However, the prosecution of the famous sprinter took a dramatic turn, when it was revealed that the detective leading the case, Hilton Botha, himself, was facing charges of attempted murder. This added an extra element of drama and conflict to the case. Botha had allegedly been involved in an incident where he and two other officers fired at a taxi carrying seven passengers. He was thus taken off the case.

Some readers might recall the O. J. Simpson murder case, where the detective Mark Furman was part of the investigation of the murders of Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman. He came under heavy criticism and was later convicted of perjury. The Simpson trial, which has many similarities to the Pistorius charges, is the most publicized criminal trial in American history, and ended with the acquittal of O. J. Simpson. The O.J. Simpson case received extensive media coverage from beginning to end. Although there are important differences between the two cases, such as the question of guilt, they share the same pattern where a famous and popular athlete is accused of murdering a woman.

 

The ongoing drama of the case: is he guilty?

The threshold effect is reached by marking an increase in the intensity of an ongoing issue. The trials against Pistorius will add to the dramaturgical aspect of this case, and it is likely that it will get massive attention for several months. There are several aspects that are unclear, and needs to be figured out.

All the evidence inidicate that Pistorius shot and possibly beat Reeva Steenkamp to death. The question is whether or not it was done by mistake. Oscar’s defense is that he thought Reeva was an intruder. It has been pointed out that this seems like a shaky explanation, as a simple shout from Pistorius and a reply from Steenkamp would have made it clear that this was not the case of a home invasion. One theory is therefore that this may be a crime of passion. However, all of these uncertainties in combination with the dramaturgical aspects involved, are likely to elicit extensive media speculations, thus intensifying the coverage of the case.

To sum up, the more news criteria that are met the wider the attention, the more intense, and durable the coverage of the case. Once an event has become a big issue in the news, future events related to it are more likely to be reported. The case of Oscar Pistorius contains a mixture of all the important aspects that makes an event become a massive news story.

It is quite seldom that an event meets so many news criteria. The nature of this particular case has given the media the ability to combine several news criteria at the same time, simultaneously strengthening the effect it has on the audience.

 

Further reading:

Galtung, J. & Ruge, M. Holmboe 1965: “The Structure of Foreign News. The Presentation of the Congo, Cuba and Cyprus Crises” in Four Norwegian Newspapers, Journal of Peace Research, 2: 64–91.

 

*Cover photo by David Horsburgh, Steenkamp photo by Zennie Abraham, microphone photo by Global Sports Forum, house drawings by Rudi Louw, medal photo by David Jones, road sign photo by Herby Höningsperger.

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