Sensationalism, morality and the media

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

There is a difference between exposing hypocrisy for the sake of satisfying the public’s desire for scandal (thereby perhaps increasing newspaper sales), and doing so in a way that makes the hypocrisy part of a larger story. Much over the weekend coverage of Malema and Mbalula’s various indiscretions seemed to prefer the former, leaving at least this reader with the question: Why should I care?

It’s not obvious that we should expect moral virtue from political leaders – and even if we were to do so, we’d first need to agree on what those virtues are or should be. Who Mbalula has sex with is not my business, nor is it something that should be. Unless, of course, the Minister’s choice of sexual partner entails some direct impact on his credibility or on consistency between his words and deeds.

If we believe Mbalula himself, he was separated from his wife at the time of his liaison with Joyce Molamu, so it’s not even clear that he has contravened the standards he appeals for others to follow. Members of the public might nevertheless consider him a hypocrite, and this will no doubt complicate his attempts to position himself as the next ANC secretary-general.

But until Stephen Grootes discussed Malema and Mbalula in these pages, the liaison – rather than any of its potential implications – was the story. Likewise with Malema. It should be no surprise to any of us that he’s a far wealthier man than many of his supporters, and that he’s more likely to have friends who host R10m parties. Yet another example of the lack of consistency between his rhetoric and his actions is not, in itself, front-page news.

The timing of such a party and the way in which it dilutes the force of the Youth League march against poverty can be. But as was the case with the Mbalula story, the media focus was more on rubbing his nose in this apparent evidence of hypocrisy (notably also tainted evidence, in that the business class flights and accommodation were apparently sponsored by the groom).

Outrage and sensation might be effective ways to sell copy, but they do little good in fostering a society that welcomes debate, and is able to engage in it. There seems little reason to believe that these stories will do anything other than entrench existing positions, where either M&M are being victimised by some white media cabal, or are untrustworthy demagogues.

We get the society we deserve, in that we are that society and it takes on the forms we encourage. As someone said on Twitter over the weekend, what the public is interested in is not equivalent to the public interest – and it’s the latter that gives newspapers licence to broadcast what would otherwise be details of someone’s private life.

Where those details are not contextualised as part of a story that is in the public interest, such as succession battles in Manguang, the press is not only feeding our appetite for sensation, but also starts taking on the role of moral authority and watchdog. Feeding our appetite for sensation is the job of the tabloids – not of the few variably-respectable local newspapers we have access to.

And neither being a moral authority, nor policing whatever version of morality is concocted is their proper role. The line between reporting on the news and aiming for objectivity – or at least making your biases clear if you’re not interested in objectivity – and trying to regulate society has become increasingly blurred.

For this reason alone, the extensive overlap between LeadSA and some of our media is problematic. If we were to discover that a particular LeadSA campaign is founded on poor evidence, or that a representative of LeadSA was somehow corrupt, are the chances of reading about these matters in an Independent Group newspaper at all diminished by their affiliation with LeadSA? I’d guess the answer to be yes. But I’d also guess that if this sort of event were to come to pass, that we’d see much crowing from the competition, and very little analysis that tracks something we could describe as being in the public interest.

And where the media endorse this sensationalism by practising it, we cannot be surprised to find citizens thinking they should care. Not only care about details that are stripped of context and meaning, but also care so much for their own hyperventilations that they think their worldviews should be enforced on the rest of us. A recent example of this can be found in complaint laid against an advertisement for Axe deodorants, where a single viewer convinced the ASA that it was offensive enough to require being taken off the airwaves.

That the ASA were convinced by this complaint is mystifying, as Pierre de Vos has pointed out ( What is perhaps more perplexing still is how they can proceed from here, having set the bar for offence so low. Every advertisement that includes images of an attractive man or woman could be described as sexist, and if we pretend to be offended enough (or sadly, actually feel offended enough), will the advertisement be pulled? Or how about those Fatti’s & Moni’s ads that so offend us Pastafarians, in subjecting us to images of our deity being boiled, over and over again?

If someone in the public eye has done something that weakens their case or exposes them as a fraud, this can certainly be in the public interest. But simply pointing out their indiscretions is not – we need to hear what this implies in terms of some larger issue. Without that context and analysis, the media is feeding a large and ugly beast. We know the public want sensation. And it’s likely that they’ll want more of it if we keep giving it to them. But perhaps, we should be encouraging them to want less of it.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.