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News24 and The New Age’s intentions gone wrong

8 July 2016

Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) gives a MAD to News 24 and The New Age for identifying children in their reporting when it was not in their best interests to do so. 

My mom died in my lap’ – Cape Town girl witnesses mom’s deathNews24 (06/06/2016) reports on a 12-year-old who witnessed the fatal shooting of her mother after she was struck by stray bullets fired by gang members in the Cape Flats earlier this year. According to the article, the girl and her mother were on their way to a shop when the incident took place resulting in the mother being shot four times and dying within 10 minutes in the child’s lap. Both the child and her father are quoted in the article and recall details of the shooting and the events that transpired that fateful day.

News24 directly and indirectly identified the child by naming her and her parents as well as publishing a photograph of the child. Identifying a child under such circumstances is not only illegal, as she is a witness to a crime, but also puts the child at risk of being targeted by the perpetrators. ” News24 has therefore flouted legislation, particularly Section 154 (3) of the Criminal Procedure Act which states: “No person shall publish in any manner whatever information which reveals or may reveal the identity of the accused under the age of 18 years or a witness at criminal proceedings who is under the age of 18 years.” This is particularly concerning considering that the matter is in the hands of law enforcement and the journalist reports that no arrests have been made and the gang members still roam the streets.

Furthermore, by interviewing the child, the journalist subjected her to secondary trauma which may result from the child retelling her story. Although the article reports that the child and her father “have been seeing a counsellor”, it is unclear whether one was present during the interviewing process or whether any assessment was made to determine if the child was fit enough to talk to the media about her experience. Again, these are necessary measures that need to be taken in order to avoid any trauma to the child as a result of being interviewed about an extremely painful memory.

In the case of The New Age, a 10-year-old girl who was allegedly assaulted by her teacher was identified in the initial article “Pupil ‘assaulted’ by teacher” (31/05/2016, p.1). According to the article, the grade-five-pupil was physically thrown out of the class by her teacher after she was caught talking to her friend. This resulted in the child losing two of her teeth and sustaining minor head injuries. The child’s father laid a charge against the teacher.

The New Age directly and indirectly identified the child by naming her, her father as well as the school she attends where the incident took place. By identifying the child, The New Age like News24, contravened Section 154 (3) of the Criminal Procedure Act which protects children who are involved in criminal proceedings.

The New Age also went on to publish a series of follow-up articles, namely: “Corporal punishment’ teacher in class” (06/06/2016, p.3); “’Assault’ teacher faces suspension” (10/06/2016, p.3); “Father reacts to teacher violence” (17/06.2016, p.3); “’Change of school is the only option’” 21/06/2016, p.3) and “Teacher in court after assault on pupil” (23/06/2016, p.3).

In the follow up articles, The New Age reported on the fact that the teacher was allegedly still teaching despite the case being investigated by police and provided details around court proceedings involving the teacher.  The publication however, continued to violate the child’s right to privacy by directly identifying her and her father.

While both media houses should be commended for highlighting issues of gang violence and abuse and their impact on children, MMA notes that identifying the children in these stories was not in their best interests. We urge media to protect the identities of children in stories of this nature at all times to shield them from possible harm that might come as a result of being identified in the media.

We also request News24 to immediately remove the identity of the child on the online version of the article and to provide an explanation to readers for the alteration.

By Lister Namumba-Rikhotso and Ayabulela Poro.

*News24 has since changed the identities of the children involved in the online versions of the articles concerned.

The following exchange also took place between MMA and News24:

News24:

Thanks for raising this issue with us, and giving us a chance to respond. As background, the journalist exercised great care in compiling the story, because we are mindful of the fact that we do not want to cause secondary trauma.The journalist spent time with the family, and all conversations took place in the presence and with permission of the respective parents and the principals, as they agreed that it was a story that needed to be told. In the case of the girl whose mom died in her lap, the father actually said he was advised by the councillor that it would be therapeutic for them to speak about the ordeal.In preparing for the interviews, Paul spent time with the respective caregivers, explaining to them the impact and allowing them time to digest and opt out if they wanted to.The decision to publish was not taken randomly – in fact a lot of time was (and always is) spent on discussing it.In the end we went with our decision because it gave a voice to the families suffering, as their perception was that there was a lack of justice in the process.So please be assured that we at all times stay within the press code – the aim of the article is to help, not hurt.

MMA:

Thank you for your response. It really helps us when we get more information and background regarding the articles we select. We can tell that the journalist spent quite a bit of time within the community to best understand and relay what happened. This is evident in the manner in which the journalist reports on the effects of gangsterism and violence on communities in a descriptive and poignant manner. We must stress though that while the respective parents and principals agreed that the child’s story needed to be told, they may not necessarily be qualified to determine a child’s psychological state and the impact that having to retell a traumatic story might have on them. That is why we request that journalists, in such circumstances, go the extra step and speak to relevant counsellors or experts who are able to assess the child and their fitness to talk to the media. It’s important to get informed consent from the parents but this is not the be-all and end-all. Because of the devastating and long-lasting effect this can have on the child, the onus is on the journalist and the publication to ensure that all necessary measures are taken to prevent harm. We are guided by Section 28 (2) of our constitution which states that the best interests of the child are paramount in all matters involving the child and other international instruments such as the United Nations Convention on the Right of the Child which South Africa has ratified and other ethical frameworks and reporting standards for journalists.

As we did with The New Age, we would ask you to consider how much value you can really place in naming the child in this instance, particularly when you weigh this up against potential threats of gang members who are reportedly still roaming the streets. We know from our monitoring of the coverage of children’s issues in the media, that the most powerful reporting has come from those stories that have brought attention to various issues affecting children in a manner that does not compromise their privacy, dignity or safety.

We would urge you to be cognisant of these issues and to aim to protect children to the best of your abilities going forward.

News24:

No problem. We should never let our guard down when it comes to protecting the rights of our kids, but also other vulnerable people in our communities.

MMA also made contact with The New Age and this was the newspaper’s response to the commentary:

The New Age:

As a newspaper we are extremely sensitive to how the most vulnerable members of our community are reported in the paper. Children are on top of this protected group.
We are strict on cases of sexual abuse of any kind and go to great lengths to hide the identity of the child.
Beatings, starvation of children in schools and also receive wide coverage in our paper. Parents are mostly in the forefront of reporting these kind of abuse and with their permission, the parents can be quoted in the story.

MMA:

We have no doubt that The New Age had the best intentions in publishing the article in question, hence we decided to go with the headline we chose for the commentary. We also understand that sometimes, parents will request for their identities, and maybe even those of their children, to be published in the media. However, we must stress that while it is important to get informed consent from parents in these matters, this is not the final stop. There is greater responsibility placed on journalists and the media at large to ensure that all possible harm is avoided. This is ensured by the South African Press Code, basic ethical standards and guidelines when it comes to reporting on children and our very own constitution, which unequivocally states that the best interests of the chid are paramount in all matters involving the child. That a child was physically abused by a teacher in this instance surely warrants more protection of the child by The New Age.

We urge you to also consider whether this story would have had less impact, had it been reported without identifying the child in question. As an organisation that has been monitoring the coverage of children for over two decades, we argue not. In fact, we’ve seen examples of powerful reporting in the media, that has brought attention to various issues affecting children in a manner that does not compromise their privacy, dignity or safety. The New Age itself, has produced some great journalism highlighting children’s issues. Just last week, one of your articles “Scholar transport needed as some pupils travel long distances” (14/06/2016, p.9) by Shanga Khumalo was selected as an example of exceptional reporting. We are currently writing up a commentary on this piece which we will also send to you and also upload on our website. We hope to engage with you as a publication in those instances where we have concerns as we’d like to see more positive pieces that respect the rights of children in The New Age. We also hope that in future reporting of this story you will avoid identifying the child or his parents. As we mentioned we would be happy to provide resources, training, and useful contacts for reporting on children.

*No further response was received from the newspaper.