It is back. Bigger, better, louder, more covered, and just as pitiful as ever. The Oscar Pistorius Murder Trial Series Two has finally begun.
Following a 17-day break, Paralympic and Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius will again face the North Guateng High Court in Pretoria to answer questions about the suspected murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, on Valentine’s Day last year. Chief prosecutor Gerrie Nel (AKA ‘The Pitbull’) called for the break in the proceedings due to schedule conflicts, allowing an aggrieved and “broken” Pistorius relief from the glare of the media.
Great news, though! It is back on our screens. In my view, nothing could be more telling of the increasingly sensationalist style of news reporting that has come to be known as McJournalism – a comparison between McDonalds and the media, theorised by Bob Franklin.
Franklin notes how the media has begun a process of dumbing down news, where all the value is placed on quantity not quality. He cites Max Weber, who first identified the concept of McDonaldization in his analysis of modernisation, and found four dimensions to the notion: efficiency, calculability, predictability and control. Each may be applied to the trial of the “Blade Runner”.
First, efficiency. The obtaining of the material in the trial is easy to get a hold of. Our media outlets needn’t push the boat out to acquire it when all they have to do is latch on to the content being screened across the whole of South Africa. Indeed, NBC’s Elisha Fiedlstadt writes how the coverage is “fit for the big screen”. A notion which makes me nauseous.
Calculability – how big can we make this? The BBC is providing us all with live updates from the court “as it happens”; bombarding us with in-depth analysis of how many times the accused broke down in tears, giving us all the juicy goodness of one man’s suffering. The public enjoy human-centred stories, so the news media outlets can easily see the potential market for churning out the same material every day knowing a number of the public will lap it up happily. What Andrew Marr described as news “McNuggets”.
This covers the third dimension of predictability. How different was the coverage last time per day? How much will it differ this time? Answer: not at all. Regardless of whether there is any knew revelations in the trial or not, the media will still provide us with extensive coverage of what is going on in the court room.
Control is a difficult one. Franklin writes how control is the ability of the press to attract us to that juicy headline, but not divert our attention from advertising content. The chairs in McDonalds are comfy enough to seduce us into taking a seat, but not enough to keep us hanging around. Nevertheless, we still come back for more.
It is arguable that the coverage of the Pistorius trial follows a similar process to this. Juicy bits of the court room drama are being exploited to the max with the new access the media has to it. In the past, as University of Stirling teaching fellow Dr Margot Buchanan said to me, the press could only report what “had happened” in court; now they can report to us what is happening. That allows for all the emotion and reality of the courtroom to be relayed in all its glorious colour in visual and audio, instead of trying to convey it merely through written description. I was appalled one morning whilst driving to university to hear the voice of a waling, sobbing man coming from the radio saying, almost incoherently: “I didn’t kill Reeva!”
We are forever being shown still images of Pistorius with his head in his hands, sobbing and proclaiming his innocence. This image does not appear to sway the public, with just 7% saying they see him as innocent. Indeed, University of Stirling lecturer Eddy Borges-Rey, who teaches photo journalism, raised an interesting point. He told me about how the selection of photos from the trial are key to establishing our perception of Oscar Pistorius.
You can have “innocent Oscar” when he is in tears, or you can have “arrogant” Oscar, when his face shows determination and coldness, Borges-Rey told me. Evidently, “innocent Oscar” is not wavering the public.
However, it is with a heavy heart that I open my browser and my homepage of Google News (don’t judge) is again filled with headlines like “Oscar Pistorius Trial: Defence in Critical Phase”, “…Pistorius Trial: Athlete was “Frantic”, “‘He was broken. He was screaming, he was crying, he was…'”, “…as it happened”. See what I mean? One cursory glance at the headlines and it is clear the media are loving this sudden ease-of-access they have to unlimited juicy news. That is just today! What about last time, when headlines like “Pistorius versus the Pitbull” were taking centre stage?
If this is not the demise of professional, decent, and credible journalism then tell me what is.