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Media must refrain from promoting stereotypes about children

30 January 2017

Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) gives a MAD1  to The Star newspaper for an article in which a child was identified when she was not supposed to. The article is about children living in poverty.

The story titled “Lives of children in poverty set to worsen” (The Star, 18/01/2017, p.9) talks about how the levels of poverty affecting children and especially those in the sub-Saharan Africa will increase from the current 53 percent to “90 percent of the 167 million children globally living on less than the threshold…” It’s based on a report compiled by Save the Children titled “Child poverty, inequality and demography”. The article highlights the severity of poverty affecting children and gives an analysis of the facts behind such phenomenon without identifying any child. However, a picture of a four year old girl child with a caption that names her accompanies the article in an obvious effort to emphasize and illustrate the problem. The photograph which makes no effort to blur her face to hide her identity shows the child in front of a makeshift house under a bridge, clearly living in abject poverty.

MMA advocates for the strict adherence to ethics when reporting on children. We always urge media to always respect and promote the best interests of children in stories about them. The Editorial Guidelines and Principles for Reporting on Children in the Media2  which were developed with input from children, journalists and editors of African media state in part, “... Always respect children’s dignity and well-being… When doing a story on a vulnerable child, make sure to be extra careful… Challenge negative stereotypes about children and conventional roles children occupy in the media (e.g. helpless victims) whenever you can”.

The conditions in which a child lives today might not be the same as those in the future and unfortunately such a picture as the one accompanying the article in question can for ever harm the child’s ability to interact socially. The Star has failed to protect the identity of the child in the story and ensure that her privacy is not violated. By using such a picture, The Star is promoting stereotypes about children based on their class and vulnerability. The publication also transgressed the Bill Of Rights (Section 28.2) in the South African Constitution which states, “A child’s best interests are of paramount importance in every matter concerning the child”.

Clause 8.1.1 of the Code of Ethics and Conduct for South African Print and Online Media gives a clear oversight of what is expected from the media when dealing with children’s issues. It stipulates, “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.” An evident public interest in the child’s picture and what it portrays is missing from the story. It is also unknown whether fully informed consent was obtained from the child’s guardians.

MMA emphasises that before the child‘s guardians can give their consent, the journalist as it their duty, should inform all parties including the child on the potential consequences of having their story or picture published in the media as well those of being identified. Media should realise that the well-being of a child is more important than sensationalising stories about them. We also believe there are many ways of highlighting children’s issues without using pictures that might subject them to humiliation presently and in future.

While MMA applauds the efforts in highlighting the problems facing children, we urge The Star to always promote the best interests of children in their reporting and to refrain from supporting stereotypes about them in vulnerable situations. We hope to read more articles such as the one in question without pictures such as the one used.

By Jacques Ndong


1A MAD refers to an article where the rights and welfare of children have been compromised through irresponsible media coverage
2http://mma-ecm.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/mma_editorial_guideline.pdf