The media on trial: An investigation into the media’s portrayal of the law

Van der Spuy, Anri (2009-12)

Thesis (MPhil (Journalism))--University of Stellenbosch, 2009.

Thesis

ENGLISH ABSTRACT: The relationship between the media and the law is an important one, especially in an adolescent democracy like South Africa. On the one hand the law has the power to control the fundamental right to freedom of expression – the very core of the media’s existence. On the other hand, however, the media are vital mechanisms through which the law can ensure that citizens know that justice is being done. The media are therefore also powerful; having the ability to influence people’s perceptions of and respect for the law. The relationship between the media and the law is characterised internationally by frequent tensions and misunderstandings – a trend that has not escaped South Africa. Whereas some of these strains may be explained with reference to both the media and the law’s respective duties in a democracy; many problems are also caused as result of misunderstandings and inaccurate expectations of both parties’ responsibilities in a democracy. This study was thus launched from the premise that there is room and need for improvement in the relationship between the media and the law. The way in which citizens perceive the law (or legal consciousness) was investigated; as were the sources of such perceptions. Making use of a questionnaire distributed to a sample of students at two Western Cape universities, it was established that students’ opinions of lawyers and judicial officers are generally positive, but that they do not have much confidence in the efficacy of the South African legal system. The feedback also indicates that news and popular media are the most important sources of such opinions of the law – a context-specific finding that echoes similar results obtained internationally. Popular media as an important source of perceptions give rise to several concerns. Not only do citizens struggle to distinguish between fact and fiction in popular media; but most of the popular (legally-themed) media available in South Africa are furthermore imported from the USA. This tendency, defined in this study as the Hollywoodization of South African law, lead to concerns that citizens may not only be basing their opinions of the law on fiction; but also that such media are premised on a very different (American) legal system from our own. The importance of news media as a source was investigated more specifically by making use of a case study (the Inge Lotz/ Fred van der Vyver story). The way in which pre-trial publicity and court reporting may lead to the sacrifice of a defendant’s right to a fair trial was investigated by looking at the influences of news media coverage on the parties involved; the presiding officers, assessors and witnesses; and the perceptions lay audiences may have of the specific case and (consequently) the law in general.

AFRIKAANSE OPSOMMING: Verhouding tussen die media en die reg is ’n belangrike een, veral in ’n jong demokrasie soos Suid-Afrika. Aan die een kant het die reg die mag om die hart van die media se bestaansreg – die grondwetlike reg op vryheid van spraak – te beheer. Aan die ander kant is die media ook ’n noodsaaklike meganisme wat aan landsburgers oordra wanneer geregtigheid geskied, en wanneer nie. Die media kan dus die doeltreffendheid van die reg in ’n demokrasie ernstig beïnvloed. Die verhouding tussen die media en die reg word wêreldwyd met misverstande en probleme gekenmerk – ’n tendens waarvan Suid-Afrika nie afgesonder is nie. Hoewel van dié stremminge veroorsaak word deur die partye se onderskeie natuurlike pligte in ’n demokrasie, word sommige probleme ook veroorsaak deur misverstande en onregverdige verwagtinge van wat beide partye se verantwoordelikhede behels. Die studie is gevolglik onderneem met die uitgangspunt dat daar moontlikheid vir verbetering in die verhouding tussen die media en die reg is. Die wyse waarop burgers die reg beskou of ervaar (waarna in die studie verwys word as legal consciousness of regbewussyn) word ondersoek; en só ook die bronne van burgers se regsbewussyn. Deur gebruik te maak van ’n vraelys wat aan ’n groep studente by twee Wes-Kaapse Universiteite uitgedeel is, word daar vasgestel dat studente oor die algemeen baie respek het vir die regslui, maar min vertroue in die Suid- Afrikaanse regstelsel het. Die terugvoering bepaal ook dat nuus- en populêre/ gewilde media die belangrikste bronne van regsbewussyn is. Dié bevinding, wat konteksspesifiek tot Suid-Afrika is, bevestig soortgelyke gevolgtrekkings wat internasionaal ook aanvaar is. Die feit dat populêre media ’n belangrike bron van regsbewussyn is, lei tot talle bekommernisse. Behalwe dat daar reeds bevind is dat gebruikers van dié media nie kan onderskei tussen wat feite en wat fiksie is nie, word daar in Suid-Afrika hoofsaaklik Amerikaanse populêre media met regstemas versprei. Die gevaar is dus dat Suid- Afrikaanse burgers dalk besig is om hul indrukke van die reg te baseer op beide fiksie én ’n Amerikaanse voorstelling van die regstelsel (die sg. Hollywoodization van die Suid- Afrikaanse reg). Die studie beskou verder die belangrikheid van die nuusmedia as ’n bron deur ’n gevallestudie van ’n bekende Suid-Afrikaanse moordondersoek en regssaak (die Inge Lotz/ Fred van der Vyver-saak). Die aard van beide voorverhoor-publisiteit en hofverslaggewing en die moontlikheid dat dit skade aan die regverdigheid van ’n verhoor kan verrig, word veral van nader beskou. Spesifieke aandag word ook geskenk aan die moontlike invloede van dié tipe mediadekking op die betrokke partye; die onafhanklikheid van voortsittende beamptes, assessore en getuies; en die indrukke wat by gewone burgers oor ’n spesifieke saak – en dus die reg in geheel – geskep kan word.

Please refer to this item in SUNScholar by using the following persistent URL: http://hdl.handle.net/10019.1/1664
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