By Kotie Geldenhuys
These days the media is able to cover almost every aspect of the criminal justice system, from the bloody crime scene and the arrest of the perpetrator, to the trial and eventually the sentencing of the perpetrator. This, however, has not always been the case. Not that long ago, the public complained about coverage of crime scenes where bodies and body bags were displayed on television or in newspapers. With news now being available 24/7 on all platforms, the general public demands closer and more detailed coverage of even the most heinous crimes. The public wants to know what is going on. This was evident during the Oscar Pistorius trial which, it is claimed, received more media attention than the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Judge Thokozile Masipa’s banning of blogging and tweeting of graphic evidence by pathologist Gert Saayman gave rise to 2500 articles, news and social media hitting more than 106 000 unique inserts within 24 hours. When Oscar Pistorius vomited in court, it was carried in 2300 news articles and in nine days the media hit the 750 000 article mark (National Press Club, 2015).
A large part of the public is interested in wanting to know what is going on in the world and the media plays an important role in informing and educating them. In many cases the media is shaping the public's perception of a criminal incident including the potential perpetrator, the identification of the victim(s), the underlying situational notions surrounding criminal activity and the wider criminal justice system (Hayes, 2015). Although serious crime attracts substantial media coverage, the level of coverage will vary widely from case to case. The specific characteristics of the offence, the location and the background of the victim or perpetrator will influence the degree of media interest the case receives. It seems that the reporting of crime and judicial issues is often driven by dramatic events, violent crimes, the wealthy and high-profile personalities (Feist, 1999). As examples, one can look at the role of the media in the Lucky Dube murder, the Oscar Pistorius trial, the David Rattray murder, the Leigh Mathews kidnapping and murder, the Van Breda murders, the Griekwastad murders, former president Jacob Zuma's court appearances and the case against former national police commissioner, the late Jackie Selebi. In a country where too many crimes are committed against women, femicide also receives a lot of media attention as happened after the murder of Karabo Mokoena and Uyinene Mrwetyana. However, the substantial amount of media interest in a case can be a complex issue, but if it is managed well, the media can make a significant contribution as they can generate valuable information from the general public. On the other hand, dealing with the media can take up valuable time and resources during the critical early stages of an investigation (Feist, 1999).
Andy Feist, the Programme Director of Policing Research at the UK Home Office in London said in 1999 that newsworthy cases were overwhelmed by media interest and requests for information. He added that the competition for “angles” could encourage some reporters to behave in a way which might seriously hinder the process of an investigation and form public perceptions. Media houses want to be first with the news and sometimes do not worry about its impact on the investigation, the victims and their families as well as communities. In an attempt to get another angle and to report first on certain aspects of the case against Phindile Ntshongwana, the man responsible for the Brighton beach murders, the Sunday Tribune published a frontpage article about the “Grisly killing spree”. It appears that the reporter spoke to a survivor who had given them his version of events, something which is always very frustrating to investigating officers who usually want to keep detailed information about how a crime was committed away from the media. One of the reasons is to prevent possible copycats from committing similar crimes in an attempt to have these unrelated crimes included in the series under investigation. Another reason is that a suspect might simply repeat what he or she has read or heard in the media about the crime when interviewed or interrogated. On that same day, News24 ran a similar story, but took another angle and speculated that the motive could have been revenge as the suspect's daughter had been raped and, in the process, she was infected with HIV. By taking this angle, this reporter made the suspect look like a “hero” as people who had commented on the article said that they would have done the same thing if their daughter had been raped (Labuschagne, 2021).
Mr Feist however warned that when a case generates limited media interest, opportunities to appeal to the public for information can be constrained. The authorities often use the media as a tool to publish information about crime in an attempt to gather more information from the public about the crime so as to apprehend the perpetrator. Identikits are often released to the media to help with locating a suspect which often leads to the arrest of several perpetrators. Research however found that the news media has a limited effect when it comes to alerting the community to assist in the apprehension of criminals. A 2015 study conducted by researchers from the Birmingham City University in the United Kingdom among 103 participants, found that despite 24-hour news coverage of high-profile victims and perpetrators, the public failed to remember either the victim or the perpetrator. Therefore, news media portrayals of perpetrators and victims are often not successful in getting the public to recognise a victim or perpetrator on the street from a picture shown on the news (Brookes, Wilson, Yardley, Rahman and Rowe, 2015).