The commodification of Reeva Steenkamp’s life
Season two of Aaron Sorkin's series The Newsroom tracks journalists in an American television news show agonising over a ground-breaking story. They pour over the details, check and cross-check the facts, and agonise over whether to run the story. After several months, they do. And they fail. Dismally. The earth-shattering story about the United States dropping Sarin gas is revealed to be false. The whole thing was a fantastically staged, elaborate set-up, built on the vengeance of an angry source and a producer willing to go to any lengths to fuel his career.
The show presents an incredible, yet idealistic and romanticised idea of what newsrooms should look like, filled with rousing monologues, high drama, multiple problems in the representation of women and an atmosphere of self-righteous indulgence that has the benefit of hindsight. It is television's idea of a newsroom that bears little resemblance to the real thing. However, it raises questions about the kind of journalism that we require, deserve and need in our democratic context.
This week, the Sunday Times published what is arguably one of the most salacious and sensational headlines of the Pistorius trial thus far. Their front page read 'June drops Reeva "no sex" bombshell'. The story details how June Steenkamp's memoir Reeva: A Mother's Story reveals how Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp did not have sex in their short relationship. Barry Bateman quickly refuted the claim, sharing a Whatsapp message between the two to counter the claims. In a context where words and information are governed by capital that co-opts the idea of the 'public interest', very little, if anything, is sacred.
This trial is by no means the first instance of the willingness to go to any lengths to get the story, neither is the Sunday Times the singular exploiter of this particular story and sole proprietor of deplorable headlines. The structure that governs how these stories get told is based on a need to sell papers and advertising, drive clicks, and often leads to a disregard of ethics as the media navigates the murky line between supply and demand that makes us wonder who really defines content. How to balance news values, a corporate power structure, meticulously researched facts and details, public demand, journalistic ethics and ratings remains a crucial conversation that can seem skewed in capital's favour in instances like this.
Since the morning of 14 February 2013, sensation and disregard for Reeva Steenkamp's life and dignity have been a consistent through-line in this story, albeit with some exceptions, and journalists try to navigate the thin line between telling the story and reporting the facts, while maintaining journalistic integrity and consideration for the human life lost. Often though, it seems there are no limits to what can be seen and unseen, what is private and public, and an equally thin line between concern for Steenkamp's dignity and what is in the seemingly free-for-all realm of 'public interest' that is often used as a justification for problematic content.
According to the Sunday Times, 'In the books, Reeva's mother dissects every text, tweet and e-mail in the brief relationship, looking for hidden meaning'. This is not unlike what has happened in the media, where every aspect of the trial has been mined for new content and angles. Such is the nature of the beast.
"The Pistorius trial is putting enormous strain on journalists to churn out an incredible amount of content on a trial which pretty much anyone has full access to in other media. We feel it too, and we're far from perfect ourselves - in fact, we were accused of straining for outlandish new angles on the case just this week. But it must be said that some of the news stories to come out of the trial so far are plumbing new depths of absurdity and desperation."
One wonders what the motivation behind writing this book is. A need for money? A misguided and counterproductive attempt at closure, perhaps? And more crucially, what can be justified in the name of giving Reeva Steenkamp a voice? We need to simultaneously ask ourselves what can be justified in the name of public interest, telling the story and fourth-estate journalism and what kind of society creates the conditions for this kind of news.
In journalism school, students become familiar with the mantra that governs what appears on front pages: 'if it bleeds, it leads'. The Pistorius/Steenkamp story continues to dominate our headlines, exposing the very best and worst aspects about journalism, and laying bare the social structures that endorse the tabloidisation of people's lives. There has been excellent coverage that has considered the stories behind the story, particularly from Rebecca Davis, Ranjeni Munusamy, Margie Orford and Sisonke Msimang, who have questioned the limits of justice, the structures and narratives at the heart of this trial, and how there is particular justice for particular people. However, there have also been front pages like this week's Sunday Times that should make us pause to question how we are all complicit in the creation of this type of media as producers and consumers of news. So often we are colluders in the very thing that we critique.
In this trial mainstream coverage closely resembles tabloids, dissecting various aspects that are on the ultimate periphery of any interest in justice. Every detail of both Steenkamp and Pistorius's lives has been up for publishing, which means that justice, and dignity for Reeva Steenkamp seems secondary to sensation. Many of the salacious details that have emerged do in no way serve justice, but serve our appetite for this kind of content as both media and consumers. As Steenkamp's life has been reduced to tabloid fodder and commodified for sales, views and clicks, even the fourth estate journalism houses often found themselves wandering the murky ground of tabloid territory.
Reeva Steenkamp's death has been turned into something that has market value. The proliferation of books on the trial, from journalists to ex-girlfriend's mothers and now Steenkamp's own mother, raises a question about the limits of journalistic ethics, the influence of capitalism, our supposed right to see it all, and concern for how to give Steenkamp a voice and maintain her dignity. It has become nearly impossible to ascertain whether consumers of news are driving the demand, or the media is creating it. We all participate in this circus, whether in this story, or others, and there are hard questions that we need to face as we turn the mirror on ourselves.
We have to constantly remind ourselves not to forget the victim at the heart of this trial, Reeva Steenkamp, a name that has often been "voluntarily disregarded" as "it is the male narrative that dominates our media outlets". Her life and death have become a commodity. We are all complicit in this, to varying degrees. In a world where capitalism touches everything, we cannot be immune from the Pistorius 'contagion' - as Ranjeni Munusamy phrased it.
As the State has put forward their intentions to appeal, this story will continue to live on our front pages and timelines, and we will continue to reflect on the questions it raises. Crucially, we need to ask ourselves, what is the true value of a human life in a world where every aspect of our lives is governed by the inescapable concerns of capital?
Danielle Bowler holds a master's degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which includes often making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellebowler