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News stories from social media require more vigilance to protect children

13 June 2017

Media play a crucial role in highlighting issues South Africa still faces when it comes to racism and race relations by highlighting racial friction and conflicts that continue to emerge in our society. The use of social media has also influenced dialogue in relation to these issues and how frequently they are reported on in traditional and online media as more of these stories are taken off social media by newsrooms. Unfortunately, media can fall into a trap when they fail to exercise caution by abandoning standard ethical principles when reporting on such stories and this is more concerning when children are involved.

One such example is a video which went “viral” on social media and was widely reported on and redistributed in mainstream news media. Now famously known as the “Spur video”, it shows a white man threatening a black woman and forcibly trying to grab the woman’s child. According to the various media reports, the altercation resulted from the woman’s child, a young boy, hitting the man’s child, in the playground of the restaurant.

Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) monitored how various mainstream media reported on this issue and as a result gives a MAD1  to those newsrooms that failed to sufficiently protect the identity of the children involved, therefore neglecting to minimise harm. 

Daily Sun’s “Footage shows man tried to grab a girl”  (24/03/2017, p.2) for instance indirectly identified the child through his mother. In addition, an editorial by Daily Vox, “Spur altercation would have been acceptable- by apartheid standard” (23/03/2017) was also selected for identifying the children involved through their parents and also through republishing the video clip in the story where no effort was made to blur the faces.  “Spur people-with a taste for white male violence” also published by Daily Vox (21/03/2017) names the woman and shows both parents and the woman’s children in a video clip.  While “Business is ‘fine’ following spur brawl: owner” published by Dispatchlive and Timeslive, (22/03/2017) makes efforts to blur the faces of the children in the video accompanying the story,  the parents are still visibly shown thereby indirectly identifying the children. City Press‘s “Man banned from Spur after violently threatening a woman”  (21/03/2017) identifies the children through the video clip where their faces and those of their parents are visible. And lastly, “Spur altercation ‘not a racist incident’” by ewn, (22/03/2017) indirectly identifies the children through the woman who is named and through a screengrab of the video showing the man.

Indirectly identifying children who are victims of abuse or who have witnessed a traumatic and emotionally taxing incident is unethical. While there may not be legal charges in this instance as reported in one of the articles, MMA implores media to consider the consequences of identifying children under such circumstances. Daily Sun for instance quotes the mother who says, “My son is seven, and where he goes, children tell him they saw his mother shouting in the video. I wish the media attention would go away for his sake”. Daily Vox, also quotes the mother who describes how, “The rest of the children are very traumatised, they can’t stop talking about what happened.”

Considering the mother’s own testament of the trauma experienced by the children involved, the media above should have taken due caution to ensure to minimise further harm. This is supported by the Code of ethics and conduct for South African print and online media2 particularly Section 8.3 which states that the media shall “not identify children who have been victims of abuse …without the consent of their legal guardians…and a public interest is evident and it is in the best interest of the child.”

While, it is commendable for journalists to cover events of abuse or racism, important ethical principles need to be adhered to when children are involved to safeguard their best interests.

These principles include not naming anyone associated with the child that may allow for his/her indirect identification even when they may have been identified on social media.

MMA urges media to always pay close attention to how stories involving children are reported whether the coverage is done to stir debate on critical issues affecting the society, educate or illicit sympathy. We therefore request those online media mentioned above to remove all information that may still indirectly or directly identifies the children involved in these stories. This means using pseudonyms where the parents have been named and blurring the videos where the children or their parents are shown. We also request that care is taken in subsequent reporting by all media.

By MMA Team.


City Press has since withdrawn the article from the website after engagement with MMA.
Daily Sun has since withdrawn the identity of the woman involved.

The following is Daily Sun’s response to the commentary

DAILY SUN

We have indeed taken note of the concerns raised.

The story at the time hogged national headlines. That is not an excuse.

We, as a responsible media outlet, should have been more conscious in our reporting in light that there were children involved.

As the Daily Sun editorial team we take the rights of children very seriously and we want to uphold that at all times.

Apologies for this late reply. We will continue to engage the MMA whether we have erred or we have gotten it right.

The following engagement took place between Daily Vox and MMA

DAILY VOX

1) We published the name + photo of the [name withheld], a 33-year-old
nurse (the parent and victim) in the video after speaking to her and
gaining her permission to do so. She has not expressed any issue with
the story/our coverage

2) The video had long been shared by the parent herself before we
published it. And was out in the public and shared hundreds of times
before we shared it. There was no need to block anyone’s faces given
that it was everywhere already. Moreover, the faces of the children
were not altogether very visible. Half of them have their backs to the
camera and the other half are on the side of table.

3) The story was about an altercation between two adults not children
and publishing the story, and video was an attempt to give it context.
We were among the first publications that gave the video context. It
also gave the child’s parent a chance to set the record straight.

4) We consider the rights of children, and are sensitive to their
rights, but given that the children were not physically harmed
(threatened and emotionally abused, yes, we agree but not physically
harmed) and given that the children were with their parent at the time
(and not alone), and that the parent had shared the video herself, it
was completely within context to publish the video. We try not to
publish “dead babies” or try to sensationalise black children or
bodies for clicks. We are careful. And this video is not in breach of
that policy.

5) We will consider your concerns for the future, but do not believe
our actions were unethical or unwarranted. The story needed to be told
and keeping it in its original form made more sense to us.

MMA

Thank you for your response to our commentary. We apologise for the time it’s taken us to get back to you as we had other urgent matters to attend to. We do however feel that it is worthwhile to engage with Daily Vox on this particular issue and respond to a few issues that you raised.

You mentioned that you obtained permission from the mother to reveal the identity of the child in your article. We can’t help but wonder whether this consent was granted from a fully informed point of view. This is especially in light of the fact that in your article you quote the mother describing how, “The rest of the children are very traumatised, they can’t stop talking about what happened.” Continuing to tell this story in the media, without the necessary precautions lends itself to perpetuating this trauma. Therefore, while it’s important to tell stories of this nature, and while certainly Daily Vox should be commended for, as you said, being one of the first to “give the video context”, this should never be done at the cost of the best interests of the children involved. We would like to stress that in many instances we’ve seen how parents who may give permission for their children to not be identified in the media, often do not foresee the potential repercussions of these actions. Therefore, we believe it is the journalists’ duty to not only inform their subjects of potential harm but to also act in the best interests of children when deciding whether to publish their identities or any other information that might lead to their identification such as the names of their parents etc. Just as Section 28 of the Bill of Rights states, children’s best interests should always be of paramount importance in all matters that affect them. The Code of Ethics and conduct for South African print and online media also supports this principle. 

In your second point, you mention the fact that you shared the video after it had already been shared widely even by the parent. We would like to remind you that no matter how widely known the identities of children or parents are, media still have a greater responsibility and duty to protect those involved
especially if there is potential harm as demonstrated in this case. Revealing the identities of the children in this instance opened them up to reliving the trauma they suffered when the abuse was taking place at the restaurant. We’d also like to stress that abuse does not need to be physical in order for it to have profound negative consequences on children and that those who are victims of emotional abuse should be given just as much protection as children who suffer physical abuse.

Furthermore, while you claim that half of the children had their backs to the camera, there is a need for consistency. Again, this means avoiding indirectly identifying children and sufficiently protecting them when they are involved in the story.

Lastly, we argue that whether or not an altercation is about two adults, as long as children are involved, precautions should be taken to ensure that they are protected. We feel that your story could have still highlighted issues of race, abuse etc., without sacrificing the well-being of the children involved. We therefore still request that you emulate the efforts of Daily Sun and City Press who have respectively withdrawn the identities of the children and their parents


1.A MAD is given to media for irresponsibly reporting on children

2.http://www.presscouncil.org.za/ContentPage?code=PRESSCODE