Unicef has developed a number of guidelines and principles on how to report on children ethically. One of those principles states;

“In interviewing and reporting on children, special attention is to be paid to each child’s right to privacy and confidentiality, to have their opinions heard, to participate in decisions affecting them and to be protected from harm and retribution, including the potential of harm and retribution.”

In this analysis Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) will draw attention to two articles published by theDaily Sun  that relate to this principle. One of the articles, “Little girl leads cops to suspect” (Daily Sun  18/10/2010 p.5), adhered to this principle while the other, “They got no help” (Daily Sun  21/10/2010, p.2), violated it.

In the story about the little girl who witnessed the murder of her aunts, Daily Sun  protected the identity of the child. She was not named and no pictures were used, and Daily Sun  made it clear that it had made a deliberate decision not to identify the relatives who were murdered in order to protect the identity of the child witness: “The names of the two dead women are being kept secret to protect the three-year-old crime-buster”. Further the story portrays the little girl as a hero who assisted the police in the arrest of the murderers.

However in the second story, about boys who were attacked, Daily Sun  did not apply the same level of caution. Instead, one of the children, a 15 year old boy, was both named and pictured, despite the fact that he was a child witness and a victim of a crime.

Daily Sun  also reported that the boy and his older [adult] brother received no assistance from the police in terms of opening a case. By identifying the boy in this case Daily Sun  has left him vulnerable and potentially placed him in further danger. Those who carried out the attack may seek retribution or seek to intimidate him further, especially if they read that he has attempted to report the crime. He may also potentially be in a vulnerable position with respect to the police, who may not appreciate negative publicity as a result of the story. While one would hope that this would not be the case, it is important to weigh up the possibility of potential victimisation. Identifying the child was not in his best interests.

Where children have been victims, witnesses or perpetrators of crime it is important that the media protect their identity for three good, though not exhaustive reasons.. The first is to prevent the child suffering from any sort of stigma that might develop as a result of being identified as a victim.  Second, it is to protect a child from potential dangers of retribution. Third, it is a matter of obeying the law.

Section 154 (3) of the Criminal Procedure Act states that : “No person shall publish in any manner whatever information which reveals or may reveal the identity of the accused under the age of 18 years or of a witness at criminal proceedings who is under the age of 18 years.”

In these two stories prosecutors might require the children to testify for the state and it will be in the best interest of both the children and the justice system if the identities of the children were kept secret.

The reality is that, on the one hand, bad things happen to children everyday and this is difficult to control. On the other hand, media has the ability, choice and opportunity to either further cause harm or minimise harm, depending on the manner in which they report these stories of violence and abuse.

“Little girl leads cops to suspect” (Daily Sun  18/10/2010 p.5) demonstrates that it is possible to get the balance right, and report a story, while protecting and respecting the best interests of a child.

“They got no help” (Daily Sun  21/10/2010, p.2) showed that failing to protect a child adequately may make them more vulnerable, even when that is clearly not a journalists’ or editors’ intention.