More on the media and Caster Semenya

OK. I am  obviously in the minority with my view on the media’s handling of the Caster Semenya saga. I still think the media are being unfairly blamed for what must be a harrowing experience for Semenya and her family. But both GenderLinks’ Colleen Lowe Morna  and Wits University’s Professor Anton Harber believe the media unjustifiably invaded the athlete’s privacy.

“Journalists always have choices,” writes Lowe Morna. “They balance the right of the public to know against the right of the individual to privacy. A central pillar of media ethics is to ‘do no harm.’  The harm done by this leak is immeasurable.”

Harber writes: “I can see no justification for this terrible and hurtful intrusion into the personal life of Semenya. There are times when public interest may justify an invasion of privacy, but these should be the exception rather than the rule.”

It is true that the publication of this leak has caused harm. But “do no harm” is most certainly not, as Lowe Morna states,  “a central pillar of media ethics”. If that were the case, most of what passes for investigative journalism would be inadmissable. Journalists would be unable to function as society’s watchdogs. Lowe Morna is probably referring to one of Jay Black’s oft-quoted “guiding principles” for journalists, one of which is “Minimise harm”. Minimising harm means being compassionate, and recognising that your reporting could cause harm. But it also means balancing that compassion with the need to tell the truth and serve the public interest.

Harber, no stranger to invading people’s privacy during his years as a journalist when the public interest demanded it, argues that there is no public interest in this case. But given the speculation around and politicisation of this case, and the role played by bodies such as Athletics South Africa (ASA) and the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), I would argue that there is a legitimate public interest. If someone has agenda, then all the better for the facts to be aired.

Remember: the media did not first raise questions about Semenya’s gender. The media did not conduct gender tests on her without her knowledge or consent. The media did not try to cover this up. The media did not ignore medical advice to withdraw her from the World Championships. The media did not then try to persuade her to feign injury and withdraw from the 800m final. The media did not turn Semenya into a political football in South Africa. The media did not leak confidential results of the gender tests conducted by the IAAF. The media did not ignore the IAAF’s requests to speak to Semenya about the test results. The media reported those developments, and, assuming they are based on facts, you, the public, had a right to know about them.

Yes, some of the reporting around this saga has been ignorant and some of it has been intrusive. But I still maintain that the media had, and still have, a duty to keep the public informed abut the facts, and that blaming the media for Semenya’s plight is a case of shooting the messenger.

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14 Responses to More on the media and Caster Semenya

  1. Brave Heart says:

    The media has descended on Semenya like a pack of hyenas and tossed their ethics aside in the process.

  2. Brave Heart says:

    A case of the pot calling the kettle black? Or the question of ASA and the Media being tow sides of the same coin!

  3. Heyblondie says:

    The media have behaved disgracefully in this case. They have printed far too many inaccuracies and from all accounts, unsubstantiated reports of test results, which have still not been officially released by the IAAF.

    They should stick to printing absolute facts. Instead, many journalists seem to print their own opinions based on the same negative stereotypes that exist in society. Most don’t go to the effort of properly researching the issues.

    The issue does remain at the fault of the IAAF though. Without their disgraceful conduct, the media wouldn’t have a hold of this information.

    The media propagates negative stereotypes that exist in society for the pure object of increasing sales. The terminology used is outdated, inaccurate and offensive. If the media could at least treat issues and people with respect then it would be somewhat less problematic.

    Absolutey the media should be hounded in this case!

    • Robert Brand says:

      Heyblondie: SOME media may have behaved disgracefully. Like You magazine, which dressed Semenya up in high heels and short skirt to hammer her into society’s perception of what a woman should look like. But most media did not. Please remember: the media = thousands of different newspapers, broadcasters, blogs, etc.

      • Heyblondie says:

        I am a professional sportswoman and I am heavily involved in issues with diversity of sex in sports which is why I keep a close eye on this. I am generally more educated than most when it comes to issues of physiology between sexes which is why I know that a LOT of the media has really been printing some rubbish.

        I have media alerts sent to me everyday of articles related to Caster and Santhi etc, so I have been reading most of the articles written.

        Their facts have been very wrong and I know that they don’t know what they’re talking about. Many talk about intersex women having advantages over ‘normal women’ merely be being intersex, which isn’t true. They have sensationalised this, as they always do, because media loves this kind of controversy.

        There has been little to no respect at all to Caster’s life and they have openly discussed very personal information about Caster that she didn’t know herself. The fact still remains that official results have not been released and there is no confirmation of anything that people have written.

        People talk about the apparent ‘3 times the normal levels of testosterone’ and saying that it is up with levels of what men have. What does that mean? ….compared to what and to who? What are the specific levels?

        ‘Normal’ levels of testosterone levels in women range from 0.21 to about 3.0 nmol/L where as levels for men are around 9.0 to 30 nmol/L (I think). So, if we say ‘normal’ levels for women are the average of the range, then being around 1.6. 3 times that would of course be 4.8 nmol/L. Still lower than levels for men.

        When they are comparing the levels of Caster, who are they comparing it to? Everyday women or other sports women? When they talk about her body shape, they seem to be comparing her to ‘everyday’ women again. If you compare her to the other athletes, there really isn’t much difference in most cases.

        With other women I compete with, I know for a fact that some of them have higher than ‘normal’ levels of testosterone. Wouldn’t it make sense that this would be normal for elite and professional sports women? In which case, Caster would hardly be so different to the norm when it comes to elite sports women.

        I could seriously go on. I’m sorry, but there is very little defense for the way that *majority* of media has behaved. This poor girls life is pretty much all but ruined. And the media sure as hell haven’t helped.

        In saying that, there *have* been good articles, but the rubbish has far outweighed the credible ones I’m sad to say. And they are the ones that have tended to have the most impact.

  4. Brave Heart says:

    Quite right right Heyblondie, you`ve hit the nail right on the head.

  5. Robert Brand says:

    Heyblondie: you make some very good points – some of the reporting has been ignorant. BUT: the media are also exposing the disgraceful way in which Athletics South Africa has treated Semenya – conducting gender tests without her consent or knowledge by pretending to be doing a routine drugs test, and then covering up the results,allowing her to be thrown to the wolvesd when the whole thing exploded at the World Champs. And most of what I’ve read has been highly sympathetic to her and quite informative about the issues.

    • Heyblondie says:

      Yes, some sections of the media have in fact been very sympathetic towards Caster which is nice to see and it seems the worst of the media has in fact come from Australia. They seemed to be the source of the ‘leaked’ and unconfirmed test results.

      I’m not sure you’re correct re ASA though? …as far as I understand it, it was actually the IAAF that have been stated as conducting previous tests without Casters’ concent? From all reports, the ASA have been nothing but supportive of Caster.

      Some people are stating that the people around Caster, including the ASA in this case, have been at fault in letting her compete. …but nobody has done anything wrong. Caster is just a woman and an elite athlete who is very good at what she does.

      From what people have said (again, only what we’ve been able to read) Caster doesn’t look so extremely different in South Africa, compared to so many other S. African women. Could we all be applying very Western stereotypical views on what women ‘should’ be and questioning Caster based only on that? …just because she won and doesn’t look like a supermodel?

      Regardless of others faultering along the way, there is still absolutely no excuse that this information was leaked to the media by the IAAF and that it is all being discussed in such a public manner.

      About being informative …..well, I’m not sure I would agree. From a perspective of maybe not knowing anything about the issues at hand, it probably has been somewhat informative. But for someone who is more familiar with the extent of sex diversity, the reporting has still been very brief and shrouded in personal opinions. You can write entire books on this topic and short articles simply cannot, and do not, do it justice. A little information can be rather dangerous….

      For example: The media has written of numerous examples of ‘men masquerading as women’ in past Olympics and have sited these examples of women that have ‘failed’ sex tests. That were men! The truth is that there has only ever been one person found to actually be a male competing in Women’s sports …Herman Ratjen (or something like that). All other were in fact intersexed women.

      When the issue of the Indian runner, Santhi Soundarajan, is concerned, there is still no explanation of why she was stripped of her medal. The media still writes about her as if she ‘failed’ a sex test. But she didn’t. She is a woman with AIS and even according to the IAAF’s own rules/guideline/constitution, she should have been allowed to keep competing and should have kept her medal.

      Arne Ljungqvist (I think was the medical director at the time) was quoted as saying that he will take the matter further on Santhi’s behalf ….and never did! This poor girl, just like Caster, has been ostracized and shunned by the leaders of the sporting world and just forgotten about.

      ….and then the media write about it to support it and propogate and strengthen negative stereotypes and information that is in fact untrue.

      Sorry for going on about all of this ….you can probably tell I am rather passionate about the topic. Also furious at the way these women have been treated by sport, who should in fact be protecting their athletes. When it comes to women, they seem to be able to what the hell they want!

  6. Trudi says:

    We seem to forget that had it NOT been for the media leaks, this would have been a non-issue, as in the case of the numerous other women who had been tested for AIS. Their names have never been revealed and they were all allowed to compete.
    In this case information was published that should not have been in the public domain because no ethical scientist/doctor should have broken the patient-doctor confidentiality to reveal a patient’s medical information to a reporter – ESPECIALLY when knowing that the person concerned had not been informed and that all tests had not yet been conducted.
    Just as you do not publish the names of accident victims before family had been informed, reveal someone’s HIV status without consent, or announce in print that someone is suffering from a disease they were unaware of, it is morally indefensible to reveal such intimate medical information about Semenya just for the sake of a scoop.
    The South African media who then jumped on the bandwagon and claim the debacle had been caused by ASA, are hypocritical and refuse to take responsibility for helping to cause her harm.

  7. Heyblondie says:

    Yes, I stand corrected. I have read previous articles which link tests to IAAF.

    I have also just seen this article:
    http://da.org.za/newsroom.htm?action=view-news-item&id=7271

    ….hmmm. The plot thickens! :/

  8. Anton says:

    Robert,
    My criticism was clearly aimed not at ALL media coverage, but at those who ran with her medical test results last week before she even knew them herself. I specifically said that other media had to follow this story once it was out, and some did it quite sensitively. I have leveled no criticism at those who have pointed fingers at the authorities for handling this, and have pointed a few myself. You therefore misrepresent my views: I do not say there is no public interest in this case, only that there is insufficient public interest to justify not respecting her privacy and dignity by allowing the information to come out in an appropriate way.

  9. Robert Brand says:

    Anton, a question: if you, as a journalist, had come into possession of the leaked test results amidst all the speculation and high level of interest in the case, would you have decided NOT to run it? Be honest!
    My point is 1) that you can’t point fingers at “the media” generally without differentiating between how different media organisations had covered the case, and 2) that the level of interest in the case warranted publication of the test findings. And no, I’m not confusing the public interest with what the public is interested in: as has now been revealed, ASA knew about her status and ignored advice to withdraw her from the world champs. Publication of the leaked test findings helped expose the cover-up.

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