Despite a revamped Press Code that has tightened up on the portrayal of children, our media still has serious lapses in this difficult area. In the latest instalment of her “Backstory” series, Gill Moodie writes exclusively for Journalism.co.za:
The rule of thumb when it comes to reporting on children is think once, twice, three times about how you’re going to do – and then think again. And consult the South African Press Code or a media lawyer.
However, even though the revamped Press Code has tightened up on the portrayal of children – and is very clear that “exceptional care and consideration” must be exercised – our media still has serious lapses in this difficult area. The most recent lapse was the shocking front-page images (and a video put up on YouTube, now down) by the Kimberley-based DFA newspaper last month of an 18-year-old boy being raped by four others in a Northern Cape school hostel. (Click here for a City Press story).
There have also been eyebrows raised this year over the widespread use of a Facebook picture of the 16-year-old survivor of a family murder in the De Zalze estate in Stellenbosch. (Click here for a recent EWN story on the investigation.)
Other grey areas have cropped up in the story of the kidnapped Cape Town girl being found (she has been named by the family from which she was kidnapped; but the details of her current family and name have not been published) and You magazine’s story of an apparent separation of former cricket captain Graeme Smith and his wife.
The latter story was based on tweets from the couple, who have two children.
Media lawyer Willem de Klerk says the portrayal of children is incredibly complex and that each situation needs to be thought through by media organisation very carefully from both a legal and ethical perpective.
“The statutory network kicks in mostly when there’s some sort of court process starting to happen or an arrest. If it’s outside that process, there seems to be very little statutory protection [of children] and then you’ve got to go to the Press Code, which to my mind is not quite clear. It compels the media to exercise discretion and it’s not quite clear what that discretion must be based on.”
For example, says De Klerk, even if you obtain parental consent to identify a child as directed by the Press Code, this is still a potential minefield.
“You get stupid parents who consent to things that they shouldn’t so you must still think if it’s actually necessary to show the child’s face or name him or her.”
William Bird, director of Media Monitoring Africa (MMA), believes the De Zalze girl should not have been named or her picture published while De Klerk believes there is grey area in the publication of the picture.
“Firstly, her parents are dead so you cannot get their consent and you would like to publish her picture (from a public-interest point of view) because she has been through a hugely newsworthy event. From a privacy point of view, you could pick up her photo from her open Facebook page and republish it. From a Press Code point of view, my argument would be the publication of her image cannot reasonably be harmful to her. She’s not associated with having committed a shameful act so she is a victim of a horrific crime and the public has empathy with her.”
On the other hand, he says just because children put themselves out there on social networks doesn’t mean it’s OK for you to republish.
Children deserve special protection – even from themselves sometimes, he says.
Bird and De Klerk both say there were many problems with the Jan Kempdorp video and pictures being published.
“You can never, ever in any way – directly or indirectly – identify the victim of a sexual attack,” De Klerk told Journalism.co.za. “And what was done to this boy certainly qualifies as rape under the law.”
“Some of my [media clients] asked me if they could take screengrabs of the video and we decided “No” because it is degrading to the dignity of the victim and even with the bystanders – these are all kids as far as we know and they may become co-accused people or witnesses – it’s certainly not in their interests to publish.”
“It really was the most extraordinary failure on so many levels of ethics and it goes against the basic principle of minimising harm,” Bird says of the video and DFA’s front-page treatment of the story.
“You have to ask to what extent does this kind of information drive the story forward. Do you really need to reveal [these images] to get people to identify with the horror of the experience? No, I don’t think so. Are there other ways you can portray the story? Yes, if you use a little bit of imagination.”
Both the DFA and Pretoria News ran apologies after Bird wrote to them to register his concern while the DFA has asked MMA to do training on the issue in its newsroom.
“The story itself was reasonable but they lost the plot with the images,” says Bird, adding that the terrible harm done to the boy and his family emerged in a City Press story after the breaking-news reports.
“I don’t know why this has happened and I’m even more hurt that my son’s picture has been splashed all over the papers,” the boy’s mother told City Press in this story. “The ordeal was enough for him. He wanted to come out and tell his story to warn other children, but now this whole thing has been turned around. I don’t know what to do and I need to be strong for him.”
There are also questions of race and class swirling around this issue, says Bird.
Even though the De Zalze case is more complex because the extended family has allowed use of certain information, the lack of graphic images emanating from the murder is striking in comparison with the Jan Kempdorp story.
“The difference is that we’ve not seen pictures of the bloody household or pictures of the dead parents or the girl in hospital. We’ve only seen pictures of her happy and smiling. They haven’t been deeply distressing and hurtful images. Yet you see this kind of thing when people tend to be poorer or black or from developing nations, where their right to dignity and privacy doesn’t seem to matter as much.”
On the Graeme Smith story, De Klerk says one has to remember that the children of celebrities do not choose to have famous parents.
While reporting on the public break-up of a celebrity couple is fine, one should take steps not to identify their children, says De Klerk. One shouldn’t publish pictures of the whole family to go with such a story or the children’s names or names of their schools. (You did not publish these details or their pictures.)
Both De Klerk and Bird point to the ultimate guiding principle on this issue: our Constitution, which says the best interest of the child is paramount.
“The way that I look at it we are all – the media included – under this general Constitutional imperative to ensure that the best interest of the child is paramount,” says De Klerk.
Bird and De Klerk also say there is no defence in a news organisation saying that if the picture or information has been published by someone else, it might as well publish too.
“There’s not sufficient thought going into these processes,” says Bird, “and part of it, I suspect, is that we’ve lost a lot of experienced journalists in our media houses and this is one of the effects.
“These things are going to happen but then, for me, what becomes important is the things you do to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
“In as much as you want to report on something to convey the horror, you also have to realise that you’re reporting on the horror because someone’s life has been hideously changed and traumatised by an event. What you don’t want to be doing is to be contributing to that trauma.”
The South African Press Code
Regarding children, the Press Code says:
The Bill of Rights (Section 28.2) in the South African Constitution states: “A child’s best interests are of paramount importance in every matter concerning the child.” The press, applying the spirit of this section, shall therefore:
8.1 exercise exceptional care and consideration when reporting about children. If there is any chance that coverage might cause harm of any kind to a child, he or she shall not be interviewed, photographed or identified without the consent of a legal guardian or of a similarly responsible adult and the child (taking into consideration the evolving capacity of the child), and a public interest is evident.
8.2 not publish child pornography.
Child Pornography is defined in the Film and Publications Act as: Any image or any description of a person, real or simulated, who is or who is depicted or described as being, under the age of 18 years, engaged in sexual conduct; participating in or assisting another person to participate in sexual conduct; or showing or describing the body or parts of the body of the person in a manner or parts of the body of the person in a manner or circumstance which, in context, amounts to sexual exploitation.
8.3 not identify children who have been victims of abuse, exploitation, or who have been charged with or convicted of a crime, without the consent of their legal guardians (or a similarly responsible adult) and the child (taking into consideration the evolving capacity of the child), a public interest is evident and it is in the best interests of the child.
- Kimberley schoolboy rape: a case study on the ethics of reporting on children by William Bird, The Daily Vox, Feb 2015
- Children’s Views on the News, Media Monitoring Africa, 2014
- The first year of the new Press Council in SA: Utopia and hard lessons, Journalism.co.za, Feb 2015