We, our stereotypes and our media
We think stereotypes help us to understand our world better, which explains why they have a continuing presence. As an inter-cultural trainer, I have to step around stereotypes carefully and get my point across.
I just saw the episode on the role of the media in the reporting of the murder of Marianne Vaatstra. A couple of days ago, I read an account and saw a video on the inside story of the investigation of the murder of another young woman in Noida in India. She was Arushi, and like Marianne, was brutally murdered. One factor common to both is the intense media attention they get.
The other is the relationship between stereotyping, public sentiment and the media. What I see in both these cases is that when our stereotypes combine with the forces of present day media, we create weapons as lethal as the ones that put an end to the lives of the two innocent women.
‘Medialogica’ is the programme on television that explores public sentiment and the role of media. ArgosTV is currently broadcasting a 6 episode program on Ned 2 on Monday evenings. Should one trust it, one thinks?
When Marianne was killed in a field in 1999 in Friesland, the first to be thought of as guilty were asylum seekers in a temporary camp in the vicinity of the murder. Days after the crime, one newspaper reported a local person as saying, ‘Slitting a throat – that is not the Dutch way to settle things.’
From 1999 to 2012, the highly charged local population never stopped believing that the murderer was non-Dutch and quite certainly a Muslim male asylum seeker.
Photos were published of the suspects in newspapers and a couple of men were arrested in Turkey because of the pressure on the Ministry of Justice by the public and the media. Much of the emotion that drove the media and the politicians came from people’s sentiments as expressed in open letters to the local press. And television also played its part.
The Ministry of Justice was accused by the opposition of being swayed by public opinion and the media. So they secretly conducted a DNA test and made the result public. It showed that the DNA as revealed by the sperm found on Marianne’s body pointed to a person of western European origin. This was a year after the murder and still sections of the press continued focussing on asylum seekers as the ‘top accused’.
In the national press, the most widely read newspaper, the Telegraaf published an anonymous letter from a person claiming he knew the accused because he had shared a prison cell with him in Norway and had had a chance to peep into his address book. When the journalist responsible who’s interviewed in ‘Medialogica’ is asked how she could publish such an unverified letter that made an innocent asylum seeker look guilty, she answers, ‘because it could have been like that’.
In ‘Mediologica’, another journalist admits that although he had received reliable information that the accused asylum seeker could not have been at the scene of the murder because he wasn’t in Friesland on that day and the days after it, he went along because that is what the people wanted to hear. He says in ‘Medialogica’ that this is the first time he admits this.
The real murderer, who has confessed after he was arrested last year as a result of another DNA action, is a Dutch man, a Fries, married and with children. And yes, he says, he did slit Marianne’s throat with a knife after he had raped her. To make sure she died and could never reveal his identity.
In the case of Arushi, one of the police officers declared very early in the investigation that she was murdered by her father. Since Arushi had ‘sleep ins’ with her friends, she was a 13 year old with ‘loose morals’. That the cook was found dead on the terrace a day after Arushi’s murder was detected was evidence that she and the cook were having an affair. According to this policeman, a good reason for the father to also kill him. The press hailed this as the most obvious solution to the crime. The father, after all, is Punjabi and Punjabis have a tendency to kill their daughters (and their lovers if they can) to save their family honour. This policeman’s inept and hurried ‘solving’ of the case is one of the first stories to have excited the media. As for the mother, the whole nation watched as she didn’t break down and cry on NDTV eight days after her daughter’s murder and her husband’s arrest. That day also happened to be Arushi’s, her only child’s 14th birthday. This makes her, according to people, un-motherly and un-womanly since women, and Indian women especially, are emotional. Therefore she is guilty. There have been media reports and shows in which the character assassinations of a 13 year old, her father, her mother and a Nepali cook trying to earn his living far from home have been fed by similar kinds of stereotyping. Reports on the Arushi crime with gory details thrown in have got higher TRP ratings than the most popular of soap operas on Indian television. Her parents are still fighting the case to pin the guilty person and clear their names. As her mother says, ‘we owe it ot her’.
The makers of Medialogica in the Netherlands say that their aim is to create a consciousness amongst people about the workings of the media. They chose the case of Marianne to open the programme with the intention of shedding light on how in the first ten years of this century, sentiment was more important than the facts in this particular case.
May I add that such sentiments, the stereotypes we nurture, and the media we are a part of beg for some self-reflection in these times.
The link to the Marianne episode on Medialogica is here.
In Arushi’s case, to set the record straight, Shree Paradkar, journalist at the Toronto Star, and cousin of Arushi’s mother published an article and made a video. The link is here.