Tue, Feb 26, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Lurid media frenzies reveal societal prejudice

Media frenzies sparked by tragic events such as the Oscar Pistorius shooting or the Madeleine McCann abduction illuminate the warped motives of the media-consuming world far more than they do those of the suspects that they scrutinize

By Deborah Orr  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Yusha

It was inevitable, from the moment the news first broke, that the world would be fascinated by the killing of Reeva Steenkamp. This is not least because the man who ended her life is the hugely admired, world-famous South African athlete Oscar Pistorius — but that is not all there is to it.

A crucial attraction of the story is its intense vulnerability to speculation. It offers an irresistible invitation for all kinds of people to project or act out their prejudices, vent their societal critiques and animate their passionately-held theories about the world, safe in the knowledge that the motivation for the events that took place in Pistorius’ Pretoria home in the early hours of Feb. 14 are never likely to be independently and irrefutably established by a third party. The media, of course, is only too happy to whip such excitement up yet further. When such stories happen along, they attract readers in droves.

In recent years, the most egregious of such “opportunities” have been the Madeleine McCann abduction in Portugal and the Meredith Kercher murder in Italy. In both cases, the truth — that it was a crime of opportunity committed by a stranger — was rejected by many in favor of the idea of intimate, domestic horror carried out by people so psychopathic, so quick-thinking and so coolly brilliant that they could commit an outrageous crime, behave in a flamboyantly self-publicizing manner in its wake and yet, through sheer nerve, still expect to escape justice. That both crimes were being investigated under criminal justice systems unfamiliar in detail to global audiences and beyond the reach of straightforward considerations about contempt of court made the manner in which they could be reported all the more “creative.”

In the case of the McCanns, victim blame was writ large. It was quickly decided that Kate and Gerry McCann were not behaving in a manner befitting people whose child had been snatched from her bed to disappear without trace, as if a reaction to something so appalling and strange could ever be “just right.” In a widespread act of collective counter-prejudice, it was decided that it was precisely because the couple was middle class, educated, respectable and in vocational careers that one had to be careful not to be influenced by such signs of their previous good character.

Even among people who refrained from the wildest speculations there was a feeling that “ordinary” people would have been charged with neglect. The McCanns and their friends had managed to persuade themselves that dining in the grounds of a holiday complex was like dining in their own garden. For this delusion of complete safety, this complacent ease with and security about their place in the world, they ought to be held to account.

In the Kercher case, similar prejudices were brought to bear. There was a reluctance to “fall” for the idea that middle-class US college students just did not tend to be involved in acts of group sexual torture and murder. Furthermore, Amanda Knox was a beautiful young woman. Contrary to evidence across the globe and in virtually all walks of life, there is a perception that beautiful young women are to be feared and despised because they are used to getting their own way.

Both the McCanns and Knox were accused of behaving oddly in the aftermath of the crimes, part of their “bizarre” behavior being the exercise of their bodies, which was rejected as an understandable resort that they undertook in an attempt to still the manic, runaway exercise that had taken over their minds, and was viewed instead as solipsism. Actually, their inability to comport themselves in a manner that would seem appropriate to the eyes of those they knew were watching them was far more likely to be an expression of guileless innocence than of calculated bluff. However, the ability of humans to interpret matters to fit their prejudicial worldview is impressively well developed.

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