What is it we want from our media at a time of ugly anti-social violence? Brutal honesty, which would show that many of our compatriots are proud xenophobes? Caution and sensitivity, which would favour careful language and a choice of pictures to capture the hate which gripped our streets without offending or falling into tastelessness? Determined optimism, which would prioritise coverage of the few who show compassion above the many who show hatred? Or cold analysis, which would have us move quickly to probe the causes and effects?
These are questions I asked while taking a close look at the coverage of the first few days of the violence in May in two leading Johannesburg newspapers: the Daily Sun and The Star.
The Daily Sun is a mass market tabloid which has grown in the last few years to become the country's biggest daily by far, selling over 500 000 copies nationally, mostly to a working class readership. In its flamboyant way, the most noticeable aspect of this paper's coverage of the initial week of violence in May 2008 was its frequent and consistent use of the word ‘aliens’ to describe non-South Africans. The violence was flagged repeatedly in headlines as a ‘war on aliens’ (‘It's war on aliens – 20 bust for attacks’, 13 May; ‘War against aliens: Thousands forced to flee Alex’, 14 May).
In the tabloid tradition, ‘aliens’ usually refers to little green visitors from outer space, but the Daily Sun was referring to black visitors from much closer to home. The word has the same effect: emphasising foreigners as outsiders, different and strange, not part of us, even threatening. To describe the violence as ‘war’ implies a formal exercise in defending the country against this invasion, and invokes such dramatic phrases as ‘war on terror’.
It is striking that the Daily Sun, in contrast with most other media, downplayed the violence. On the first Monday after the violence broke out in Alexandra, the Daily Sun had no coverage, though this was probably due to early Sunday deadlines. On day two, it had only a short inside story. The first time the story appeared on its front page was on Wednesday, three days after the violence broke out and when it had dominated national headlines for 48 hours.