Two newspapers received a MAD OAT Mad nomination, Sunday Sun for the article “My boob job can wait!” (13/09/09, p. 11) and The Times for “Can you feel the love?”1(15/09/09, p. 3). Both newspapers reported on celebrities involved in charitable causes in a way that failed to respect the rights of the children involved. A picture and caption provided by one of the newspapers revealed the HIV status of one child, while the other newspaper failed to protect the child’s right to dignity. In both cases the focus of the stories were on the actions of the celebrities and not of the children, whose purpose and inclusion served to highlight the celebrity rather than the children.

The article by Sunday Sun revolved around singer Mshoza, also known as Nomasonto Mnisi, who was donating money she had set aside for a boob job, for an operation to help a four-year-old boy who had a cancer in the eye. This article may be great publicity for the singer, but appears to exploit a vulnerable child who has a severe illness. While the singer should be commended for her actions, caution is needed by both the newspaper and celebrity to ensure that the rights of the child involved are fully respected and protected.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child which South Africa is a signatory to, states that children have the right to express opinions, especially about decisions that affect them, and to freedom of thought and expression.

The article did not even access the child for his views, which could be indicative of the lack of interest in him.

The Editorial Guidelines and Principles for Reporting on Children in the Media 2008 state:

“If there is a story on a child with a disability who needs treatment and the aim of the story is to elicit sympathy and possibly help raise funds, or if the story is about disfigurement or tragedy, in all cases ensure that the child is represented with dignity. Where possible reflect the child’s own wishes and hopes, as this will make the story more sympathetic and powerful.” (Media Monitoring Project 2008:82)

The article provided a picture of the child with what appeared to be a swollen, bandaged eye. Publishing a photograph of the child in this vulnerable state fails to respect his right to dignity and may not be in his best interests. He could be subjected to teasing by other children.

The newspaper’s decision to publish the picture of the child is questionable as they could have provided a picture of him where his identity was protected or where they had also accessed him for his views on the operation and illness.

The Times provided a picture and caption that focused on Elton John and a toddler he wanted to adopt with his partner. The caption mentioned the child’s name and insinuated his HIV-positive status by stating that he was from a hospital for HIV-positive children.

The guiding principles for reporting on children in the context of HIV and AIDS state:

“A child’s HIV status must remain confidential, unless the child wants to reveal her/his status, and through informed consent, is made aware of the potential consequences. Even if the child’s caregivers give consent, unless it is demonstrably in the best interests of the child, and unless the child him/herself consents, the child’s HIV status should not be revealed.” (MMP, CI, CSSR, Wits, 2005: 213)

The caption and the picture contravene these guidelines, as the child was not mature enough to be able to provide informed consent to his status being revealed. Furthermore, even if adult consent was given on the child’s behalf, revealing the child’s status is not demonstrably in his best interests, given the potential consequences for him, such as victimisation associated to the stigma attached to HIV and AIDS.

Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) advises:

“Do not further stigmatise any child and avoid categorisations or descriptions that expose a child to negative reprisals, including additional physical or psychological harm, or to lifelong abuse, discrimination or rejection by their local communities. Think about the effect of the story and the possibility of reprisals – the child will be there long after you go home.” (UNICEF and Media Monitoring Project 2005: 514)

This advice is particularly pertinent considering that there is a possibility that the child might not even be adopted by Elton John, as “Ukrainian officials say their country doesn’t recognise same-sex unions and that John would be too old anyway” (The Times, 15/09/09, p. 3).

As the founder of The Elton John Aids Foundation, established to “support innovative HIV prevention programs, efforts to eliminate stigma and discrimination associated with HIV/AIDS, and direct care and support services for people living with HIV/AIDS”,  one would have expected Elton John to exercise his responsibility to protect the child from the possibility of stigma and discrimination, before he is able to make an informed choice.

While these stories may be newsworthy, celebrities and newspapers need to display a greater level of responsibility towards the children involved, by prioritising their rights and interests. MMA again urges newspapers, news agencies and celebrities to exercise caution when it comes to issues related to children as no amount of money will ever amount to the value of a child’s privacy or dignity.

This commentary was sent by email to Sunday Sun and The Times for a response. No response was received

1 MMA has concealed the name and face of the child in the photograph to protect his right to privacy.
2 Media Monitoring Project. 2008.The Editorial Guidelines and Principles for Reporting on Children in the Media 2008 . Media Monitoring Project: Johannesburg.
3 MMP, CI, CSSR, Wits. 2005. Reporting on children in the context of HIV/AIDS: A journalist’s resource. MMP, CI, CSSR, Wits: Johannesburg.
4 UNICEF and Media Monitoring Project. 2003. All sides of the story. Reporting on children: A journalist’s handbook.UNICEF and Media Monitoring Project: Johannesburg.