Few would condone lying a four-month old child in sand to pose for a news photograph.  Yet, this is what Daily Sun seemingly did for a front cover picture recently.  The article accompanying the picture, “Baby boy dumped in veld!” (04/10/2011, p. 1, 3) and the follow-up story “Sunpower shames bad mum!” (05/10/2011, p. 2), further abuses an abandoned baby boy and stigmatises a seemingly desperate mother. The stories have both been identified by Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) as violating the dignity and failing to protect the best interests of the child.  The media watchdog is MAD1 about this story for the violating the child’s rights and vilifying the child’s mother.

The photograph, captioned “Left to die…among the rocks,” and two accompanying articles, have given Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) cause for concern over the portrayal of the child and his mother who was reported to have allegedly abandoned the boy. The article, “Baby boy dumped in veld!” (04/10/2011, p. 1, 3) and the follow-up story “Sunpower shames bad mum!” (05/10/2011, p. 2)

Both the identification of the child in the image, and the way the photograph was taken is concerning.  The photograph of the boy showed his face, therefore identifying him, in violation of the Press Code.  The image itself is also strange, as it seems to indicate that either the boy moved back into the position he was initially found in, or left lying on the ground while the Daily Sun was called to the scene. In either case, the child’s safety and dignity (and potentially health) were jeopardised.

It cannot be seen as being in the best interests of the child to be laid on the ground to stage the photo. Alternatively, if the child was left unattended while the Daily Sun made its way to the scene, then all involved were complicit in the negligence of the child and abuse of his safety2. Furthermore, identifying the location where the boy was found could indicate the approximate area where he and his mother live, possibly leading to further the community stigmatising or victimising the child and mother.

In addition to the violation of the child’s rights, the boy’s mother, in both articles, was vilified through the language used to describe her. Without adequate evidence to prove the alleged crime she was being accused of, the newspaper should not have referred to her as “guilty” or infer her guilt by saying she “handed herself over to police.” Similarly, to suggest that the “police didn’t buy her story” after she claimed to have left the baby in someone else’s care, suggests that she lied, which is further stigmatising. The mother also was not accessed directly by the journalist to give her a voice and an opportunity to give the readers her side of the story.

Children’s rights and best interests should be upheld and protected by journalists and news photographers at all times, in all media reporting. Not doing so puts children in danger of further stigmatisation and victimisation by the public and especially their communities. Likewise, the vilification of vulnerable mothers by the media should be avoided as it compounds the vulnerability of women and further contributes to the perception that women are less valuable and undeserving of respect.  Within the context of South Africa with epidemic rates of violence against women, this increases the risk for mothers, while implicitly excusing the fathers.

1As part of their efforts to support human rights in the media, MMA identifies items which violate or uphold the rights of children on a weekly basis.
2It should clear whether it was staged or not from the caption, which should have noted if the scene have been recreated.