While we should lay blame on the xenophobic violence squarely at the door of the state for a number of reasons clearly stipulated by a range of experts, we also need to consider the role of the media.

Our research over the years has revealed that:

  • While the overwhelming majority of media take clear editorial positions opposing and condemning racism and xenophobia there are also a number of ways in which some contribute to supporting negative stereotypes.
  • While it would be clearly unfair to suggest the mainstream media provoke or support the violence they do need to take responsibility for the manner in which they have contributed to where we find ourselves now.

It is highly unusual, indeed exceptional to find stories that clearly stereotype foreign nationals. Rather as a pattern what we tend to see is how short reports, often based on police reports contribute to negative stereotypes. An example would be crime briefs where a story will note how many people have been arrested over a weekend and say how many were arrested for illegal possession of firearms, drugs etc, and also a number of “illegal foreigners”.  Sometime the stories will give their nationalities, e.g. 12 Zimbabweans and 6 Nigerians. In and of itself the story isn’t unfair but as a pattern over time lumping illegal and or undocumented migrants together with criminals perpetuates particular stereotypes as to people’s legality and also equates their actions as being criminal.

These stories are then often supported by others where news sources will note a person’s nationality and it won’t be challenged in the item – effectively allowing the stereotype to stand or be supported. To be clear, a person’s nationality can and should be included where it is relevant and adds value to a piece. If not, why include it in the first place? A person’s nationality doesn’t determine their actions, to suggest it does is fundamentally racist.

The third concerning element is how images can also contribute to supporting stereotypes. This issue is often linked to how we portray the loss of life, particularly African lives. We saw, for example in the recent massacre in Kenya the dead bodies and the grief stricken family in close ups and brutal images. Over time and combined with stereotypical images of starving children, poverty etc these images work to reinforce negative stereotypes about Africa and Africans. It is important to stress that it isn’t that these events don’t happen or shouldn’t be reported, rather that we need better ways of reporting them.  The example that highlights this is if we consider the coverage of the recent air disaster in Europe. In Kenya we saw the dead and dying in graphic detail. In Europe we saw distant, largely sensitive images of the families who lost their loved ones, but we didn’t see the body parts from the disasters in mainstream media. Again it isn’t one event but that this is generally true as a pattern of coverage. So we never see the ages of school shootings in the USA but mainstream media will show dead and dying Africans.  As a pattern this serves to reinforce stereotypes and diminish the value of African lives.

On the positive side, we need to commend media for raising and highlighting issues of racism and xenophobia and for taking clear editorial positions against them. It was thanks to the media that the comments by King Zwelithini were reported and highlighted. It is also thanks to the media that we see some excellent pieces and images and interviews that help us understand what is going on. The real challenge, as we see, with events like Marikana is for media to be playing a role and reporting issues before they end in violence and the loss of life.  Oftentimes the first we hear of issues is when there is violence, and indeed many communities know that for their issue to be heard they need to resort to violence so it will be covered in the media.

Reporting issues like racism and xenophobia are not easy; they need hard work and dedication especially if they are to get the audience’s attention. Currently many of our media are simply stuck fighting fires and struggling to cover the events of the day with too few resources to cover issues in an ongoing and dedicated manner. The problem of course is that while we can understand the challenges, unless all of us and our media find ways of reporting these issues on an ongoing and consistent basis where stereotypes are challenged, we will find ourselves in the same place again asking the same question, why?