South Africa dominated world headlines this week. The sentencing of paralympian Oscar Pistorius on Tuesday ended up being the biggest story in the world on that day. TheMediaOnline spoke to Tonya Khoury who analysed the local and international coverage since the first day of his murder trial.
Tonya Khoury, managing director of media intelligence company ROi Africa, is relieved the trial is over. She spent 270 days analysing items about Pistorius on more than 200 million platforms – online, print and broadcast. Every few days a story would appear in local media about the story – based on Khoury working smart technology behind the scenes to not only analyse what the media is saying, but also, and perhaps more importantly, what the public is thinking.
The results were staggering. More than once Oscar Pistorius dominated other major events, including follow-up coverage of South Africa’s own 2012 Marikana shooting, where more than 30 mineworkers were shot dead by police. Hearings of the commission of inquiry into the deadly labour violence, which is certain to go down in history books as a turning point in the labour landscape in South Africa, did not attract nearly as much attention as the paralympian shooting dead his model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.
The missing Malaysian plane, Ebola, Nelson Mandela’s funeral, and the Soccer World Cup were all international stories with one thing in common: At times, they were all overshadowed by one, single story – Oscar Pistorius.
“On sentencing day on Tuesday, Oscar was the biggest news in the world,” said Khoury.
“You couldn’t make this stuff up. It’s a person who overcame massive adversity, he was a golden boy, and then he had this magnificent girlfriend and, on Valentine’s Day, he shoots her. And the verdict is on 9/11. And then you have [convicted killer] Mikey Schultz showing up in court and swearing on radio later that day. And you have ex-girlfriend Samantha Taylor flying to the UK and giving interviews about how scared she was of Oscar. It was just like a soap opera that never ended.”
According to the data analysed by Khoury’s company, verdict day – when he was found guilty of culpable homicide – was the second biggest in terms of coverage, with 400 000 unique published items – 20 000 fewer than sentencing day.
“When I say unique, that excludes retweets, shares on Facebook and reposts. I would break my machine if I added that!,” said Khoury, who uses smart technoology situated in over a 100 countries, that tracks data in 75 languages globally. The technology converts everything into text and then searches can be done using key words. This includes social networking site Twitter, hard copy print (which gets scanned into Khoury’s system), radio and television (voice converted to text), global online newspapers and social media.
“We are really a global stage,” said Khoury.
Other big days were when prosecutor Gerrie Nel cross-examined Pistorius in the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria.
Of the three legal eagles – Nel, Judge Thokozile Masipa and defence lawyer Barry Roux – the state prosecutor became one of the “celebrities” of the trial.
“They gained a cult-like popularity,”said Khoury.
Masipa dominated conversations the most, but if one took sentencing and verdict days out of the equation (days on which she would feature prominently because she was reading the judgments), then Nel won the popularity contest.
“If you take those two things out of the context, Gerrie Nel walks it – four times more than Barry Roux.”
Roux started off strongly. Khoury points out that there were even songs about him, such as, ‘I’m Barry Roux, and here’s my badass crew’.
“But Gerrie Nel definitely got far more [coverage]. People wanted Oscar to go down.“
Khoury said on the day of the verdict, 75 percent of the conversation was negative about the culpable homicide verdict, instead of murder. Even on sentencing day, members of the public were still hoping for a life jail term.
“People are also negative about the sentence (five years’ imprisonment, but he could be released after 10 months). People are very cross about that.
“There are definitely also Pistorians (Pistorius supporters) out there, but there are few. It comes primarily from news reports about them.”
In terms of the family, Reeva’s mother, June Steenkamp, received 42 percent attention throughout the trial, compared to Oscar’s uncle, Arnold, who took 22 percent.
But a lot of the coverage around June also centered around “blood money”– the money offered by Oscar to the family – and the Steenkamp’s parents’ decision to sell their story to international media.
“Barry Steenkamp (Reeva’s father) came out very small, he was not really in the picture.“
Then there were some key witnesses in the trial who were big topics of conversation – most notably, the State’s first witness, Michelle Burger, and also Reeva’s cousin, Kim Martin, who testified in aggravation of sentence.
“Kim came through very strongly and let’s not forget Michelle Burger. She rallied the most social media commentary, she stood her ground firmly and it was right at the beginning,” said Khoury.
Witnesses torn apart on the stand by Nel – and the public – included the defence’s probation officer Anette Vergeer, and forensic geologist Roger Dixon.
Some it was “scathing”.
“Vergeer got so much press… a lot of coverage, and a lot of it was about her hairstyle!”
Khoury said that initially, the public would get very upset about key events in the trial, but then after a few hours, the jokes would start coming.
On the day Pistorius went to prison, the initial consternation around the possibility that he would only serve 10 months in prison, turned into an online joke on Twitter, with the hastag, #thingslongerthanoscar’ssentence. Eventually the hastag trended internationally. Users joked that Pistorius’s trial was longer than his sentence, as was Kim Kardashian’s marriage and Jacob Zuma’s walk from his bedroom to bathroom at Nkandla.
“We deal with very, very intense situations, and then we try and make light of it, to deal with it,” said Khoury.
“You just can’t believe how much interest there was in this case.”
IMAGE: Oscar Pistorius in happier days. Wikimedia Creative Commons / David Jones
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