When a man kills a woman: The ethics of the Oscar Pistorius coverage

by Bryan

At some point in the future, another famous athlete will kill another beautiful woman. This is inevitable. That’s why I was so disheartened with Katie J.M. Baker’s teardown of the Reeva Steenkamp/Oscar Pistorius coverage at Jezebel today. Baker said, basically, that the media was irresponsible for running pictures of Steenkamp from her work as a swimsuit model on their front pages, and that the AP and the New York Times had glazed over the severity of the crime and the totality of Steenkamp’s life to focus on Pistorius in their articles. She found fault with one NYT paragraph in particular, and I agree totally with her criticism of it, which reads:

His arrest is a stark reminder that violence is an everyday face of life in South Africa, where fear of armed robberies and carjacking prompt the wealthy to take refuge in heavily guarded gated compounds and arm themselves with handguns.

It is, of course, not a reminder of this, or not one worth mentioning. But the real problem, echoed by Deadspin later in the day, was boobs. I do not believe that the ethics of publishing swimsuit photographs of someone who was a swimsuit model, among other professions, aren’t as cut-and-dried as Baker and Barry Petchesky make them sound, and not leastwise because those outlets ran the newspaper covers themselves. Their defense might be along the lines of Jon Stewart’s, when he’s invariably asked if The Daily Show is a news program, and he invariably responds that it is not. I think you could make an argument either way with Stewart, and I think you could make an argument for or against Jezebel and Deadspin as being hypocritical by publishing photos they condemn, but I’m not interested in that argument or, frankly, what they did. I’m interested in what should be done the next time this happens. Because it will.

Baker didn’t propose a solution, which was the most disappointing part. My question is whether it is ethical to post posthumous photos of a professional swimsuit model. Steenkamp was a law school graduate in addition to being a model, and one commenter expressed her objections like this:

[S]he was also a qualified lawyer and modeled cosmetics, and that the photo on the cover wasn’t chosen as a direct representation of her career (again, she modeled more than just swimsuits) but to be titillating.

Of course, if a newspaper is going to put one photo on a cover at a time, it would be impossible to have a “direct representation of her career” if she modeled more than one thing. That the newspapers chose swimsuits is hardly suprising, but that doesn’t make it right. It also doesn’t make it wrong, and part of it has to do with your take on the modeling profession. Steenkamp chose to be a model. If you are a successful model, modeling is not easy. It looks easy, and that’s the hard part: Anyone can look good for a few minutes at a time with months of practice, but even then, it has to look easy. Like anything, it’s hard work — extremely hard, if you have to stay at a certain weight. She chose to do it, and she did it well. If one is going to attack the newspaper for publishing the photos because of the outsized effect exposed skin has on the human brain, one could see that as an indictment of Steenkamp’s chosen profession, and that she, herself, had exploited this outsized effect in her own way. One could say the newspaper was respecting her by showing off her work.

I don’t necessarily believe this. BlackSportsOnline, a site I respect for its breadth of coverage but cringe at which I cringe for its butchered grammar and constant barrage of pinup photos, ran a series of Steenkamp photos with their article, and it rubbed me the wrong way. For me, that was sexualizing her too much; my line was more than one photo. When I saw the covers of the Post and Daily News this morning, I wasn’t surprised, nor was I horrified. If we know about Pistorius because of his athletic accomplishments and now about Steenkamp’s looks because of her death, these are part of the same system that circumvents the logical parts of our brain. On the whole, we like stupid stories about athletes and we like pictures of scantily clad humans, and even if it was 55 percent for and 45 against, that’s a ton of people against. But this type of coverage isn’t immoral just because you personally don’t fall prey to these traps. It may be immoral, but it just means you don’t like it.

Maybe that’s not what Baker was saying, but she didn’t say much about why newspapers shouldn’t do this, except that this “is not [Pistorius’s] obituary.” Was it Steenkamp’s? Better question: If it was Steenkamp’s obituary, would it be right to run a photo? She chose to do this, after all: Saying that running a photo of her in swimwear implies that she didn’t take pride in her work, and that it’s less representative of her life than, say, a candid photo of her at home, is disrespectful to the work, whether that sounds insane or not. We don’t think twice about running photos of actors in their roles or chemists at the lab. Running the photo wouldn’t be disrespectful to her. But here’s the problem, and here’s why Baker is right. These things are not for Steenkamp — she’s dead. They’re for us. And running a photo of a dead woman in swimwear exploits our brains into not thinking about what to do when this happens again, and the next dead model’s boobs are up in our faces again, and the cycle of rage repeats itself, and we’re no closer to a solution. These are real people, not toys for Rupert Murdoch to play with, or for Katie J.M. Baker to channel outrage without having to say, in detail, why this is wrong and what to do about it, in face of all the temptations to do it the same way all over again. The forces of sex and violence are powerful. If we’re going to beat them, we’re going to have to try twice as hard. This wasn’t it.