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Oscar vs the media

Oscar Pistorius

Murder-accused double amputee Oscar Pistorius was once the darling of the public. But since admitting to killing his beautiful girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, his reputation in the media has taken a serious knock. TheMediaOnline reports.

The murder-accused paralympian and gold medallist, Oscar Pistorius, is indeed being tried by the media. That is according to an analysis of television news bulletins from Valentine’s Day last year — the day he shot dead his model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp — to 31 December 2013. Pistorius has admitted to the killing but said it was an accident. 

Research company Media Tenor SA analysed more than 105 000 television news bulletins, across several languages in South Africa. Of these, 314 of the reports centred around Pistorius and Steenkamp.

“It was quite sensationalist,” researcher Minnette Nieuwoudt told TheMediaOnline.

“The reports focused a lot on his character, his reputation and personality traits instead of his actions. It almost became personal,” said Nieuwoudt.

Her colleague, researcher Ludene Brown, said in some cases, the negative statements in reports outweighed by far any positive statements.

“Pistorius was said to be given a trial by media and our data supports this,” said Brown. “Many convicted killers do not get close to this level of negative coverage. It is unprecedented.”

Asked if the media had already assumed he was guilty in its coverage, Nieuwoudt replied: “It would be unfair of the media to report on him as if he was guilty. But it is safe to say, no-one was assuming he is innocent.”

Even when the coverage reflected negatively on the prosecution, it did not help improve Pistorius’ image, she said. The state came under the spotlight after Pistorius’ defence lawyer, Barry Roux, cross-examined investigating officer Hilton Botha, casting him — and the State — in a bad light. But this did not nothing to repair Pistorius’ broken image, said Niewoudt.

“Even when the coverage reflected negatively on the prosecution, it was more about the administrative ability of the NPA [National Prosecuting Authority] and not his innocence,” said Nieuwoudt.

“Very, very few media were singing his [Pistorius’] praises.”

On Steenkamp, it took the media a while to gather some information on her because she was not as well known as Pistorius. But once coverage started focusing on Steenkamp, it was very emphatic and painted her in a positive light.

“When you look at the initial coverage on Steenkamp, there was very little coverage of her, “said Nieuwoudt. “I think that relates a lot to the fact that she wasn’t very well known.”

“There was definitely a change in coverage in terms of volume and tonality. The media started portraying her as a poor pretty girl who was shot in an incident of rage. That was what it was leaning towards. Although it was never outright positive, it was much more empathetic to her as the case progressed. Much more than him.

“My instinct tells me the media likes a damsel-in-distress type of story. The outright victim is something that resonates with a lot of people. The fact that she was very beautiful, it made her a bit of an icon.

Pistorius, on the other hand, started getting increasingly negative coverage over the months after the shooting.

“There seemed to be a slight change in the tonality. Also, with regards to Oscar, he was initially compared to fallen sport heroes — then this changed to a more the general criminal comparison. First, he was an athlete who stumbled. Now, he’s a criminal, who used to be an athlete,” said Nieuwoudt.

Although Media Tenor SA did not formally analyse in detail the international media coverage of the case, it did pick up heightened foreign media attention.

“Although we did not delve into that in a lot of details, it was high on their media agenda, especially related to other African news stories,” said Nieuwoudt.

“That probably relates to his public profile and what he achieved in the international space. There was a fair amount of focus on him in the international media.”

Pistorius goes on trial on a charge of premeditated murder in the North Gauteng High Court on Monday, 3 March.

His communications team have launched a Twitter feed, @OscarHardTruth, designed to give “factual updates” on the trial. Its profile reads, “Truth Shall Prevail. Innocent until Proven Guilty. .” In just 24 hours, it has over 16 400 followers, but only follows 28 – mostly international media outlets.