The Sunday Mail
CONTEXT is everything.
No institution knows this better and uses and misuses that knowledge more than the media.
If there is an angle or agenda the media needs to pursue, it will quote, misquote or half-quote people at will.
This includes withholding the full context of a story or tampering with it in some way to achieve a certain effect.
In my early 20s, I was a victim of such creative editing, so I know the irreparable damage the stroke of a pen can inflict.
I had a journalist acquaintance employed by a weekly tabloid that prided itself with spicing up its stories while taking just enough care to avoid legal trouble.
My acquaintance was working on a story meant to be a light Sunday morning read — nothing deep, really.
It was about the dating preferences of financially independent young professional women and how important men’s financial status were to them.
I happily agreed to help and was grouped with five other professional young women to discuss it light-heartedly, as my acquaintance took notes.
We could all take care of ourselves financially, so we agreed that money was not the most important consideration in relationships.
However, we all admitted that we would not mind dating financially well-off men because a little extra money and being spoiled was always nice.
It was nothing over the top; in fact, it was something young women talk about on occasion.
She asked for our photographs and explained that the article would be just a small piece in the social section, with what we had each said under our photographs in a horizontal strip.
I was excited about coming out in the newspaper for the first time, so I gave her my most beautiful photograph.
On Sunday, I was woken up very early by my ringing phone. It was a close friend.
I was dozy and could barely make out her semi-hysterical screams.
She demanded to know if I had gone crazy, what I was thinking, how I could have done that, and if I had I thought about what my parents and boss and everyone who knew me would think about me when they read the article.
With hardly any idea what she was talking about, I tumbled out of bed to go and buy the newspaper from the street corner. Even from a distance, I could tell something was wrong. I made out my photograph on the top headline news strip, alongside a photo of a raunchy dancer.
The captions were something about Harare’s wild nightlife and striptease dancers.
Next to my picture was a caption about a new kind of gold digger in town.
In that context, I appeared to be smiling suggestively into the camera. The optics were completely wrong.
In shock, I bought the newspaper but my nightmare was only just beginning.
When I opened the paper, I came face to face with my photograph, this time, fully blown up to about three quarters of the page, smiling even more seductively, in keeping with the Page 3 Girl of the Week that I was intentionally made to look like in that context.
The caption accompanying my photograph and full name screamed in bold letters: ‘I wouldn’t mind the extra cash!’
The headline and the story were mischievously twisted to sound like a sting investigative expose of the new type of gold diggers in town in the guise of young professional women working by day but hunting sugar daddies by night for extra cash.
My photograph and name were the only ones published and there was nothing about the other four girls.
I was the story!
My journalist acquaintance denied having written and presented the story like that and blamed it all on the editor.
Needless to say, and to cut a very long story short, I was humiliated, hurt and severely damaged. The story caused all sorts of problems in my life with my parents and my boss, especially because I had just started a new job.
Initially, the newspaper adamantly refused to apologise, insisting that I had said what I had said.
Eventually, after much pleading and negotiation, the editor agreed to issue an apology, which came in the form of an obscure sentence many weeks later buried deep somewhere in the newspaper.
However, there was no way to unread the story or unthink it. Even a thousand retractions would have had no power to untell the story.
Miriam Tose Majome is a commissioner at the Zimbabwe Media Commission.