On a regular basis, South African media consumers encounter news stories and often graphic photographs of abandoned babies splashed across newspaper pages. It is perhaps for this reason that The Times’ reporting of a dead baby found in a water drain in Pretoria, surprised Media Monitoring Africa (MMA), not because it’s an out of the ordinary event, but because it was reported in a way that respected the dignity of the child. The reporting of this story and several others published in The Times during Child Protection Week, earned the newspaper a GLAD for its committed and quality coverage of children.
Child abandonment is a growing issue in South Africa.1 As an independent watchdog in SA, MMA has seen cases where the media more often than not are quick to shock the nation with graphic images of dumped babies accompanied by articles that feed into the public’s condemnation of our society, especially the mothers. A gruesome act inconceivable to most, the child’s lifeless body becomes another undignified, media-exposed object around which we reaffirm our moral stances while spitting outrage, before the media frenzy dies down again. Of course, abandoning a child is a horrible reality, but media need to remember that the victim is a child; one that deserves dignity.
As in the past, The Times’ front page article and photograph “Born to be dumped” (29/05/2012) could have easily succumbed to the temptation to aim for the ultimate shock factor, picturing the bare body of the child2, but it didn’t. Instead, the photograph is that of implication; a bag being wrapped and lifted by a police officer, with curious observing onlookers. The effect is the same, if not even more poignant. The article links the timing of this incident to Child Protection Week, bringing to the forefront not only the miserable reality many children face, but also the urgent need to address our failures to protect and nurture them.
Punctuated by a variety of sources and voices commenting on the issue of child abandonment from multiple angles, the article didn’t sensationalise but attempted to offer some insight into the causes and possible solutions to the problem. Included among these was that of Childline’s national training and advocacy manager, Joan van Niekerk, who stressed the need to stop putting the blame solely on the mothers and to start acknowledging the role fathers play. The almost complete absence of fathers and men in the majority of media discourse surrounding teenage pregnancies, motherhood, fatherhood and child abandonment is of concern and feeds into established stereotypes, such as girls being perceived as promiscuous and purposely getting pregnant to access social grants, putting the onus of pregnancy and motherhood entirely on the girls and women.
The story followed nation-wide outrage spanning almost two weeks over Brett Murray’s artwork, The Spear, featuring President Jacob Zuma standing with his genitals exposed. The front page article is reinforced by the newspaper’s editorial titled “The Spear must not make us lose sight of SA’s real issues” (29/05/2012, p. 14) reminding us that South Africa has more pressing social issues to worry about than the seemingly controversial artwork. Such as,
In the same edition, another article“Feeding scheme nourishes hopes”(29/05/2012, p. 6) communicates in a positive manner an issue affecting children – hunger. Not only does the photograph challenge clichéd portrayals of lifeless, hunger-stricken children by showing the five-year-old Lefa Maleka thoroughly enjoying his food, but the article also accesses him and gives him a voice.
Accessing children gives them a voice and agency, allowing them to become active contributors to media discourse and debate through expressing their thoughts and opinions. Children are often perceived to lack the mental and emotional maturity to provide journalists with articulate quotes, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, children often see and communicate issues with an uncorrupted element of innocence and straightforwardness. Furthermore, MMA’s guidelines for journalists also state that “by providing children with opportunities to speak for themselves – about their hopes and fears, their achievements, and the impact of adult behaviour on their lives – media professionals can remind the public of children’s rights.”3
In another front page feature, The Times drew much needed attention to teenage pregnancies with the spotlight on a report released earlier this month, detailing a “litany of negative circumstances under which children are expected to complete their schooling.” The article, “Pregnant in Grade 3” (31/05/2012, front page, continued on p. 4) aside from pointing out the persistent inequality in the distribution of resources among schools in different South African provinces, also lists the rising numbers of teenage pregnancies. Challenging stereotypes frequently evident in reporting on teenage pregnancies which attribute the girls’ “condition” to promiscuity, the article explicitly points out that “a large number of these children become pregnant because of rape and abuse.” Logically, the article goes on to question “how many rapists are brought to book” and how many are “walking around free” underscoring the larger problem South Africa’s justice system faces in light of the country’s high rate of gender-based violence.
A contentious point however, and one that should have received further interrogation is the assertion that pupils “often got pregnant to qualify for social grants” – a claim that has been previously disputed. At a Ruth First lecture in 2010, journalist Crystal Orderson presented her findings and experiences investigating the reality of social grant recipients in the Mitchell’s Plain township in the Western Cape. An excerpt from her lecture reveals that grant-receiving mothers were in fact initially hesitant to access the grant because of the perceived, associated stigma:
Although the article demonstrates figures which show that children receiving grants has increased, the question remains: Are girls indeed getting pregnant in order to access grants, or are the girls who become pregnant, perhaps against their will, accessing the grant because it is their right to, in order to support their children? Such a question would have better ascertained the veracity of this claim in light of the earlier statement that many pregnancies are in fact a product of rape. Comments made in the article are contradictory in that they simultaneously suggest that teenage pregnancy is often a result of a rape, and that girls fall pregnant in order to gain access to the social grant. To suggest that the social grant is the driving factor behind the girls’ choice to become pregnant, insinuates that rape is also a choice. Needless to say, no one chooses rape. Rape is a violation.
Closely linked to the subject explored in the above article is that of sexual practices of South African youth, featured in an article titled “Youth sex survey bares all” (01/06/2012, p. 2) which highlighted findings of the YoungAfricaLive Youth Sex Survey, shedding light on subjects such as “sex, HIV, love, relationships and culture.” Survey respondents expressed their beliefs on the contemporary relevance of the reed dance, paying lobola and the traditional practice of ‘ukuthwala’ which essentially promotes the kidnapping and forced marriage of young girls.5 Likewise, they were encouraged to speak candidly about their consumption of pornography and interpretations of what love means to them.
On the same day, The Times devoted another front page to an issue affecting children – education.“600 pupils forced to share two pit latrines” (01/06/2012, front page, continued on p. 4) points to a case in Limpopo where pupils of a primary school have to “contend with a block of pit latrines that collapsed last year.” Left with no choice but to use ablution blocks with holes that haven’t been fixed since the collapse, the safety of the children is constantly at risk. In giving a voice to pupils attending the primary school in question, the article reveals that “12-year-old Grade 4 pupil Sedzani and his classmates have had to share the remaining three pit latrines, using pages of their exercise books as toilet tissue.” Calls for the education authorities to fix the block have “fallen on deaf ears” perpetuating what the article cites are “vast inequalities in school infrastructure in the nine provinces” according to a report by the Basic Education Department.
Continued on page 4, under a banner reading Nelson Mandela’s words “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children” the story becomes part of a two-page spread featuring articles on the recently launched legal actions against the Basic Education Department over their failure to improve the state of education in South Africa. Articles“Legal challenge to education bungles” (01/06/2012, p. 4) and “Government stalls on shoddy schools” (01/06/2012, p. 4) bring to our attention two civil rights groups’ application for:
The contents of page five takes our attention back to the inequality in the distribution of resources among schools across different South African provinces, calling the country’s education system a “national disgrace”. A colour-coded and engaging graphics feature “The good, the bad & the ugly”(01/06/2012, p. 5), breaks down the statistical disparity in the infrastructure and equipment available to schools across the nine provinces, including accessibility to computer centres, libraries, running water, electricity, telephones, fax and internet and laboratories.
Challenges around the dismal state of education and provincial inequalities raised in this issue of The Times are given additional attention in the editorial published on the same day, “The government is failing generations of our children” (01/06/2012, p. 14), which goes on to further criticise the government’s failure to deliver and ensure an education for South Africa’s children.
MMA through its Make Abuse Disappear Online Accountability Tool (MADOAT) continually engages with media professionals on a practical level to bring attention to instances of reporting where children’s rights were violated, or alternatively where they were respected or promoted. It is through this process and training of journalists that MMA, on an ongoing basis, ensures that reporting on children improves.
It is therefore encouraging when these efforts are reflected in media’s reporting on children. Even more important is that such quality reporting continues to exist on an ongoing basis outside of Child Protection Week, especially in light of MMA’s findings that children still continue to feature in approximately only 12 per cent of overall media coverage.6
In response to the commentary, The Times’ editor, Felicia Oppelt said:
“I appreciate the really great GLAD we got.”
1.South African Law Commission. 1998. The Review of the Child Care Act. Retrieved from:http://www.saflii.org/za/other/zalc/ip/13/13-4_.html#Heading396↩
2. Refer to previous article and image that featured a dead foetus, published in The Times (21/07/2010) as well as MMA’s Press Release in response to the picture:https://www.mediamonitoringafrica.org/index.php/news/entry/times_too_hasty_in_picture_publication/↩
3. Media Monitoring Africa. 2011. Editorial Guidelines and Principles on Reporting on Children in the Media. Johannesburg: Media Monitoring Africa. Media Monitoring Project: Johannesburg. Retrieved from:https://www.mediamonitoringafrica.org/images/uploads/mma_editorial_guideline.pdf↩
4Orderson, C. 2010. Ruth First Lecture. Retrieved on August 2, 2012 from:http://www.journalism.co.za/index.php/projects44/ruth-first-fellowship41/past-lectures/3405-2010-ruth-first-lecture-crystal-orderson.html?showall=&limitstart=p. 2↩
5. Hamman. M. 2011. Ukuthwala, Human Trafficking & The Media See. Retrieved from:https://www.mediamonitoringafrica.org/images/uploads/Ukuthwala_HumanTrafficking_Media.pdf↩
6.Media Monitoring Africa. 2012. “Reporting on children: Is it getting any better?” Media Monitoring Project: Johannesburg. Retrieved from: https://www.mediamonitoringafrica.org/images/uploads/OSF_Children_2012.pdf↩