Resources - Media Analysis

Lazy newsgathering distorted murder news

25 March 2008

As a reader of Daily Sun newspaper, you will very possibly have a different understanding of what recently happened in Zandspruit, Honeydew than if you were a reader of The Star. The angle these two newspapers took on the story of the 7-year old girl who was found dead on the 10th March 2008 allow for an interesting comparison. The Star focused on the accusations that the police failed to act on several phone calls from the family to report the missing girl. Daily Sun however did not mention this at all and limited its reporting to describing the incident, making the reaction of people to the police completely unfathomable. These stories gives a clear example of the necessity of balanced reporting.

The articles referred to in this casestudy were published on the 11 March, one day after the girl was found. The Star opened with the following words on the front page: “Her daughter goes missing and is found murdered… after cops said: ‘there are no vehicles’ ‘it’s too dark and dangerous’. Excuses, excuses!” (The Star, 11/03/2008, p. 1). The Daily Sun reports on the event with a quarter page article on page 4. The headline: “Girl found dead in veld. She was strangled, but was she raped?” (11/03/2008)

The headlines give away the focus of the articles. They seem to be significantly different. To compare the two articles, both the content of the articles and the context such as size and page number were analysed.

Daily Sun: Another horrible murder

The Daily Sun elaborates on what has happened to the little girl. The journalist writes about what has happened and where, and what the unsolved issues in the police case are, ie. whether or not the girl has been raped. Alongside this, a protest march by the residents of Zandspruit is mentioned. “Residents marched yesterday to show their anger over the young girl’s murder, and at the same time, demanded that justice be served.” Why justice needs to be served and to whom is unclear. Nothing else about this march is mentioned in the article. Yet this march and more so the reason behind this march is one of the central issues of the article published in The Star
.

The Star: Police failure in murder case

The Star puts the murder in a different perspective. They explain how the family of the little girl tried to get assistance from the police in looking for their missing child, but they did not respond because there were no vehicles available. A few hours later, they supposedly refused to come because it was ‘too dark and too dangerous’. These refusals of the police and the reasons they gave for this are the main subject of the article. The murder of this young girl is a news story, but the failure of the police to respond to a call for help make it important front page news. The inaction of the police is an essential fact in the truth around this incident. The lack of this information in the Daily Sun article means that that journalist has failed to get to the root of the story.

How is it possible that Daily Sun missed out on this key information? The article did mention the central questions every good article needs to answer. What happened, to whom, when and where? Because the article reports on an unsolved murder case there is an argument for leaving the fifth question, ‘Why?’, open at this point. The error did not occur in writing down the facts. The mistake is more likely to have been made in consulting a variety of sources. It appears that the Daily Sun journalist has based this story on the information that was given to him by the police. No other source is mentioned in the story. The reporter for The Star interviewed family members, a spokesperson for the Honeydew police and Zandspruit’s community leader. By using different sources to gather information, all different versions on the incident are collected.

All of the above has had its influence on the prominence of the article in the papers. In The Star, three quarters of the front page are dedicated to this story, whereas Daily Sun gives it one quarter on the fourth page. The Star uses a large photograph to illustrate the grief of the mother. Daily Sun sticks to text. This has everything to do with the information the journalists gathered on the story.

The Star gave a front page follow-up story on this article the next day when a suspect was arrested. This article contained a statement by the SAPS about stronger sanctions on not responding when a missing child is reported. (“Dramatic justice for little girl”, The Star, 12/03/2008, p. 1) The day after that another article further explained the confusion of the family of the little girl and the steps taken by the Honeydew police. (“Families split over arrest in child slaying”, The Star, 13/03/2008, p. 2)

Daily Sun
placed a small follow up the next day on the bottom of page 4. The article mentions the arrest of the suspect and reports the Zandspruit community members marched to the police station in anger. The reason why they were angry is still not explained. “Angry community members marched to the Honeydew Police Station after the body was found. They demanded that the culprit be arrested and though action be taken against whoever was responsible for the cruel murder.” (“Suspect held for rape, murder of girl”, Daily Sun, 12/03/2008, p. 4)

A danger in the insufficiently researched article in the Daily Sun can have a great impact on its readers. Not only are they denied access to essential elements of the story, they can get a wrong impression about the motives of the Zandspruit community. In the Daily Sun version of the story, they start marching because they are upset by the murder. Yet in The Star’s version, the community of Zandspruit has a more far-reaching reason for being angry, in particular, at the lack of action on the part of the police.

- -Babeth Knol