Reporting the alleged findings of the IAAF investigation into Caster Semenya was a gross invasion of privacy, writes Anton Harber in Business Day. But good may come of it if it allows us to challenge outmoded ideas of sex and gender. 

Anton Harber writes in Business Day:

JOURNALISTS are like high-wire artists: magnificent when they get it right, but with a long way to fall when they get it wrong. And the difference is often only a shift in balance.

The Caster Semenya story is a case in point. Let me state it firmly and clearly up front: I can see no justification for the gross invasion of the athlete’s privacy by those who published her (alleged) medical status before she even knew it herself.

There are occasions when such a breach of privacy and dignity can be justified by strong public interest.

For example, I supported the publication of medical records that revealed the problems with our previous minister of health, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang , because of the overwhelming good that would come out of ousting an incompetent from her post.

But these breaches should be the exception and not the rule. In Semenya’s case, there was no good cause served by leaking the information a few weeks earlier and causing such incalculable public humiliation.

Once the story was out, the rest of the media had to follow, but it was still possible to do so with respect for her difficulties and vulnerability, and at least some of our media did so.

I felt the Sunday Times did well in this regard, for example.

Her story is a classic. A young girl from a rural area bursts onto the international scene. But at her moment of triumph, as she is due to take the podium at the world championship, questions are asked that humiliate her and set her on a path of terrible pain for all the world to see and watch.

It is out of her control, and badly handled by the authorities.

The story has triumph and tragedy, it has glory and pain, it combines physical achievement with emotional devastation, it has conflict and complexity. It has a beautiful beginning and seems headed towards a terrible end. We have yet to see if there is a twist in this tale that will redeem us all. We are riveted. And by being so, we prolong Semenya’s public pain.

Those who think they are helping her by denying the problem (“Her mother knows what she is” or “We will not let her be tested”) are the purveyors of ignorance, promoting a small- minded nationalism over science.

Every time an editor chooses a picture, there is a decision to be made. One can choose one which makes her look more or less like a woman. Which is more accurate? Which is appropriate for the story? How do you balance the truth against the pain caused by the truth.

It is straightforward to deal with untruths that cause pain. You correct them and apologise. It is much harder to deal with truth that you know will bring hurt.

The contradictions at the heart of this story are immense. Most successful athletes are genetically unusual, which is why they can run or swim so fast. Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps are heroes for it, but Semenya is not.

For sport to function as it always has, and to prevent cheating, we need to draw a line between men and women, but we now know that it is a line that will always cut through a bunch of people in the middle.

But there is good that can come from this. Semenya challenges traditional notions of sex and gender. Where we saw a clear division between sexes — and tried to impose it on sport — we now see that there is a continuum.

If we emerge from this issue with a more nuanced sense of sexual identity and use it to break down the stereotypes that have prevailed and caused such pain and harm, if we pull our perspective in line with what the science is telling us, then it will be for the good.

Semenya could become the symbol of that challenge to outmoded ideas.

If journalists can use the issue to challenge ignorance and promote greater awareness of these issues, then we can climb back up onto the high wire.

* Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism at Wits University. This column first appeared in Business day on 16 September 2009.