It’s encouraging and disheartening at the same time, to come across a story that was spread out and told over three different pages about the appalling school conditions children have been enduring in the Eastern Cape, but where not a single child affected was interviewed. For this reason, Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) has selected City Press’ coverage of this topic for both a MAD and a GLAD.

In reporting on the conditions in which children are forced to go to school in parts of Eastern Cape,City Press published a photograph on the front page (City Press, 19/09/2010, p.1), and dedicated a full page with the banner headline “Schools of shame” which featured three articles on the conditions of the schools. City Press also published an opinion piece on the issue.

Its coverage gets a GLAD for several reasons. It caught readers’ attention, with a prominent and powerful photograph on the newspaper’s front page and devoted more print space than is often afforded to children’s stories. It also highlighted some shocking facts that demanded exposure as well as public and government attention.

On a page dedicated to “Schools of Shame” City Press published three articles: “Lack of resources puts education in crisis” “The School that doesn’t exists” and “Studying here is no carnival” (City Press, 19/09/2010, p.8). These told the story of several schools in the Eastern Cape, and the intolerable conditions in which they are working. Sidanda Senior Primary School and Thembeni Senior Primary School both operate out of huts without adequate access to water or toilets, meaning staff and pupils use nearby bushes. Rwantsana Junior Secondary School essentially doesn’t exist since it was destroyed by a tornado late last year. Following media attention the Department of Basic Education provided the school with tents and portable toilets but according to the report these were taken away shortly after the World Cup, because the department hadn’t in fact paid for them. Nomkolokoto Junior Secondary School is another school made up of a few tents and whose pupils have suffered from health problems due to inadequate facilities.

These are just 4 out of a group of 7 schools that are “suing the Eastern Cape Department of Education, the national government and the OR Tambo district municipality to provide them with proper resources.” The schools’ attorney is quoted in the story saying this is the first time that “the right to education in terms of infrastructure” will be presented in court, meaning they don’t know “whether the right to education includes a desk, chair, safe building and potable water.”

In her commentary “We have left out children in the cold” (City Press, 19/09/2010, p.27) the journalist who visited and wrote about these schools described her reaction to what she saw in the Eastern Cape as “heartbreak, overwhelming shame, helplessness, blinding anger” and likens it to her personal experiences as a pupil in a school with poor facilities. Finally she calls on officials of all ranks to “take full responsibility for this disgrace” and reminds them that they too probably came from “similar circumstances,” making it inexcusable for them to continue turning a blind eye.

City Press also published eight photographs of children attending theses schools. While these images clearly illustrated the conditions at these schools, the children portrayed in them were not shown as simply passive victims. The images were taken at the same level as the children, and showed how they are attempting to overcome the difficulties posed by their learning environment, for example by helping to set up their classrooms and busy writing exams on their laps.

City Press is to be commended for the prominence and extent of its coverage of this issue.

However the newspaper also deserves a MAD because it didn’t interview a single child involved. Why weren’t these children accessed and asked how they feel and what changes they want to see happen? The story was after all about them.

The journalist refers to children and describes their reactions to what’s happening around them such as a “small girl who reels back in horror as the heavy blackboard her teacher is writing on falls onto her desk,” or another girl who “bursts into tears” and a group of pupils who “hold onto each other [and] laugh nervously” as they are “corralled in by their desks.” In contrast to the photographs these descriptions portray the children as passive victims. They were not accessed for these articles and as a result the reader does not know how they feel about their situation, are children angry or sad, determined or frustrated? The journalist missed the opportunity to access them and give them a voice.

MMA strongly encourages journalists to access children and give them a voice when writing about them and where it is in their best interests. This article would have benefitted greatly had it done so.

City Press Managing Editor and Journalist Melanie-Ann Ferris responded by saying:

“You are absolutely right, I missed a valuable opportunity to talk to the children involved. I will not make the same mistake in my follow-up.”