Sunday, 14 April 2013

How to Use A Sound Bite Unethically

Cardinal Napier
On Friday we witnessed the Mail & Guardian, which I have always considered to be a fairly reputable secular media source, degenerate.  It elected to ignore journalistic ethics and used a sound bite in a manner that clearly conflicts with what is generally considered to be an ethical means of using a sound bite in news media.  In doing so it vilified Cardinal Napier.

I would think that the idea that the media “should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context” would be common sense.  One really doesn’t need an ethics poster to come to this conclusion.

The entire interview published by the Mail & Guardian consists of four full A4 pages.  Actually, let’s be accurate, it is three and a half A4 pages.  (The first page is made up in part by the headline, the by-line and a photo of Cardinal Napier.)  The entire published interview report contains 1,457 words.

In contrast, the tweet from the Mail & Guardian to promote their report on the interview with Cardinal Napier, which was instantly pounced on by numerous tweeters, consisted of just 10 words: “Archbishop of Durban Wilfred Napier: I Don't Know Any Gays”. 

Unethical Sound Bite
The "Unethical" Sound Bite Tweeted

Yet these 10 words are now understood by most as the essence of that entire interview with Fatima Asmal.  What most people understand occurred in that interview can be summed up as follows:

Cardinal Napier was interviewed regarding homosexuality. Cardinal Napier was challenged about being homophobic. Cardinal Napier denied being homophobic, stating: “'I can't be accused of homophobia,' says Wilfred Napier, 'because I don't know any homosexuals."

I and many others are convinced, judging by the content of the tweets on this matter, that very few of the people who tweeted about this interview, have bothered to read the full report by Fatima Asmal.  If they had, they, like those of us who did read it, would inevitably be left asking some crucial questions.  Here is one set of questions that my little discussion group came up with almost instantly:

When exactly during this interview were these now infamous words of Cardinal Napier actually uttered and what was the actual context in which these words were spoken? 

You see, other than being mentioned in the very first sentence of the report, these now infamous 15 words are never ever used again or referred to again in the balance of the 1,457-word report!  These words of Cardinal Napier are never ever actually put into context!

Anyone who reads the report will know that far more, than whether Cardinal Napier was homophobic, was covered during the interview.  Here is a summary of the content covered in the interview:

·      Homophobia – 15 words (1%)
·      Napier’s resolve after BBC interview – 52 words (3.6%)
·      Napier’s busy schedule – 139 words (9.5%)
·      Napier’s relaxed interview demeanour – 143 words (9.8%)
·      Election of Pope Francis – 104 words (7.1%)
·      Rehash of BBC interview – 350 words (24%)
·      Church’s process for sex abuse incidents – 212 words (14.6%)
·      Contraception – 75 words (5.2%)
·      Same sex marriage – 338 words (23%)

There is absolutely no way that anyone can possibly even begin to justify that the sound bite used by the Mail & Guardian provides the reader with a fair reflection of the essence of the interview given by Cardinal Napier.  

I assume, though I could be wrong, that the sound bite used by the Mail & Guardian formed part of the conversation regarding same sex marriage. (Again, the fact that there is no clarity about when in the interview this statement was made, leaving us to guess this, is in itself a sign of shocking journalism.) Yet, even in the context of the same sex marriage conversation, the sound bite is still only about 4% of the entire portion of the conversation on same sex marriage.  

The bottom line is that the sound bite does not even reflect the essence of the same sex marriage portion of the interview, let alone the entire interview. 

There is absolutely no doubt whatsoever in my mind and in the minds of those with whom I have discussed this, that the Mail & Guardian has been extremely unethical and that it undoubtedly completely oversimplified the interview and highlighted an incident completely out of context.  To say this was extremely unfair of the Mail & Guardian is an understatement of note.

The Mail & Guardian undoubtedly needs to boost readership and keep the revenue flowing.  As a consequence they picked a topic that is dead certain to get people talking – Sex and the Catholic Church. Couple that with a cleric making a strange sounding statement and you have the right story to drive up readership and revenue.  

Well done the Mail & Guardian and Nic Dawes for successfully sacrificing journalistic integrity.  That this resulted in the vilification of Cardinal Napier is absolutely shameful.


  1. Agreed. I was also rather taken aback to discover that they had censored a comment I made pointing this out. It wasn't rude or anything (I don't generally swear at people online), just pointed out the lack of context so that we don't know what the Cardinal meant.

    I would actually be interested to know what he intended, given that it's unlikely that he doesn't know any people who fit the category commonly considered gay. I wondered if he had been attempting to deconstruct and delegitimise the whole concept of "gay" which comes out of a particular ideological context - to see people as people rather than as categories based on constructed identities rooted in their passions. That's something that I'd have sympathy with, but, given the media's inability to think outside of their own agendas, it would probably have been unwise to do. But that's just my speculation.

  2. Macrina, I was fortunate enough to speak with Cardinal Napier on the telephone this afternoon. He very specifically told me that he sees a person; not a homosexual, or a heterosexual or whatever other description the world may choose to use to describe that person. I believe that the journalist also clearly understood this.

  3. Thanks, Mark. That's interesting to hear. It seems like a hopeless cause...

  4. Definitely not hopeless cause. Remember the message of Easter; rising from the dead. After that nothing is hopeless.

  5. I will be posting something tomorrow about "knowing". We all assume that today it is unlikely someone does not know anyone who is gay, but are we right? Understanding what we mean when we say we know someone may reveal that we actually mean "know of", not "know". How many people do we actually know? I call it the Facebook phenomena - having lots of people we "know" but actually only "know of".

  6. That first line seems completely out of place and unrelated to the rest of the piece. Were they even spoken in the same interview?

  7. Yes, you're right of course! But I am occasionally reminded of St Anthony the Great's words: 'A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, "You are mad; you are not like us."'

  8. Looking around and the time St Anthony the Great spoke of seems to have arrived.