NZ media falls into the stereotyping trap – again

By Dev Nadkarni

For all its pontificating about media ethics and criticising media practice in the developing world, the west’s mainstream media persists in applying double standards in how it reports and comments on non-mainstream and overseas issues.

The Pacific Islands and Pacific islanders – including those living in New Zealand  –have borne the brunt of insensitive reporting and editorialising along with other migrant minorities for some time. And the trend continues – as two recent instances showed.

Last month a family of Fijian nationals of Indian descent was involved in what appears to be a case of extreme family violence. The badly burned body of the woman was found on an isolated rural road. Investigations found that her husband had fled to Fiji with the couple’s son. Following good coordination and swift action by the Fijian police, the man was apprehended and put in custody.

The New Zealand media fuelled wild speculation around the incident about the act of violence being an honour killing. This has been hyped on such a scale, that the New Zealand Police had to publicly clarify that the crime was being treated as a homicide and not a case of honour killing.

The communication from the head of the investigation team stated, “There has been reference by some media about an ‘honour killing’, I want to reassure our Indian community, Police are investigating a homicide enquiry.

Honour killings are certainly prevalent among the South Asian subcontinent’s communities – and these are reported from around the world from time to time. There have even been successful films based on real life incidents. But not every violent and heinous crime involving women of the subcontinent’s ethnicities can be dubbed an honour killing unless it is proven to be. This is exactly what the New Zealand media did.

Fuelling wanton speculation that this particular case could be one of an honour killing even as the police from the very beginning have been saying that it is being treated as a homicide was therefore insensitive – if not downright mischievous, which it could well be according to a conscientious media insider.

Would the New Zealand media have indulged in similar speculation if the incident were of a more mainstream nature – one that looked, sounded and felt more New Zealand than migrant?

Would reporters have phoned a clutch of experts to ask their opinion and broadcast them linking them to the news story even before the investigations were complete? Would they make speculative assumptions contrary to the investigating authorities’ specified line of inquiry (in which case clearly was stated as homicide)?

Highly unlikely that this would have been the case. Journalistic ethics would have been applied more rigorously – even perhaps with considerations of political correctness.

But honour killings, bride burning and the like is culturally a foreign issue – so it’s okay to speculate in cold print and over the airwaves, as it were. Even when the police say that it is being treated purely as a case of homicide – at least as of now.

Reporters went into overdrive to reinforce the speculation of the honour killing angle and contacted members of the Indian community for their reactions. The exercise was totally pointless. The Sharmas are from Fiji, where there is no record of honour killings in the manner that there is on the South Asian subcontinent.

But that did not matter to the media, which seemed determined to push the honour killing angle and keep talking about it at full blast. Not to be outdone, TV3 roped in Amnesty International to reel off statistics of honour killings around the subcontinent and how the malaise was following migrant settlements across the world.

Every major news outlet played along with the honour killing angle, interviewing ethnic Indian workers of women’s and social organisations to record their general statements about honour killings and linking them to this case.

New Zealand TV channels dropped their reporters parachute style into Fiji as they have done every so often in past decades and persisted with the honour killing spin though by then there was enough being said in other media that the phenomenon did not exist in Fiji.

Writer and Auckland University researcher Ruth DeSouza commented: “The reporting on this deplorable and heartbreaking story of a life brutally taken away resorted too quickly to cultural explanations for the crime.

“This has two negative effects. Firstly, the issue of family violence is sidelined; secondly, a stereotype is reinforced which ‘insider’ commentators have to fight against in order to have such a crime treated based on available evidence.

“Culture becomes something fixed and concrete, the efforts of ethnic community members to address family violence (endemic in every community with subtle variations) is hidden or pathologised. Surely responsible journalism could find out some more about this sad story before reaching for cultural explanations?

“While the desire to seek ‘answers’ after a death like this is understandable, when the media reduces complex cultures to stereotypes, it fails in its mission to inform.”

A veteran journalist who obviously appreciates inclusive reporting and journalism said, “You would be surprised that there is a kind of secret code to dismiss those who say no to the stereotyping. I’m off in a box labeled eccentric cynic. Somehow younger journalists who know this kind of labeling is wrong must be empowered … but [they] cannot fight it [entrenched attitude of their seniors].

A few months back, because of his derogatory remarks about New Zealand’s Governor General and the deliberate mispronunciation of the last name of an Indian minister who was in charge of the Commonwealth Games, the television host responsible had to resign after a raft of complaints to the broadcasting standards authority.

As of writing this, Indian community leaders in New Zealand were in the process of considering options if the reporting in the present homicide case merited another complaint to the authority.

One would expect the media to try to break stereotypes, not reinforce them.

So, in New Zealand, when Indians are not running dairies, liquor stores, driving taxis or cooking curry – and getting mugged or shot in the bargain – they’ve now got a new activity: they’re burning brides and killing for honour.

First appeared in Islands Business, February 2011