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.