Ethical journalism requires editors and journalists to constantly evaluate the decisions they make in news reports including how best to act in the well-being of their sources whilst informing their audiences of a particular issue or event. This is a difficult balancing act but a necessary one that ensures that media promote the rights of those people they report on. In this light, Daily Sun’s “Better chained up than dead!” (06/10/2017, p.5) receives a MAD[1] from Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) for the questionable decisions made in its reporting.

The article tells the story of a “desperate” mother from Marikana in Cape Town who chained up her 15-year-old son “to stop him getting drugs on the streets of the kasi.” According to the article, the teenager is addicted to drugs, has caused trouble in his community and could not be admitted to a rehabilitation centre as he was “too young.”

A picture accompanying the article shows the child chained up to a gas cylinder next to his mother. Both of their identities are concealed in the image as well as the article which states that the mother “cannot be named as her son is a minor…”

Daily Sun also quotes the child who talks about his addiction: “I was playing with my friends and we saw older guys smoking. We asked to join them and we haven’t stopped,” he is quoted saying.

While Daily Sun should be commended for protecting the identities of the mother and her son given the sensitive and difficult nature of this story, MMA is concerned about the publication’s decision to photograph the mother and the child as this seemingly fails to minimise harm.

In Black, White & Grey Ethics in SA Journalism,[2] the author advises journalists to minimise harm in their reporting, in other words to, “Treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect, not merely as means to [their] journalistic ends.” In addition, that journalists should, “Recognise that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort, but [that they] should balance those negatives by choosing alternatives that maximise [their] goal of truth-telling.”

A story of this nature is nuanced and presents the journalist and audience with a complex scenario, however Daily Sun fails to give due weight to this predicament and handle it with the caution it deserves. In this story, a mother’s desperate attempts to prevent her son from accessing drugs are in conflict with upholding her child’s own rights to dignity and free movement and therefore potentially constitute child abuse. Unfortunately, the reader would have to search hard to make these links as the journalist did not consult with child experts who would be able to offer alternatives for parents dealing with these kind of issues for instance.

Daily Sun leaves the reader no wiser by glazing over the fact that the child could not be admitted into a rehabilitation centre again neglecting to enlighten the reader on the options that are available to prevent such extreme measures and further harm to children affected by drug abuse. Instead, the journalist heavily relies on a deficient response received from a spokesperson from Social Development who is quoted saying social workers will look into the matter and that, “There are options for young people who are suffering from drug addiction and social workers will explore these.”

One also cannot help but wonder about the steps taken by Daily Sun in obtaining the image of the mother and her son and whether this was given due consideration. For instance, did the journalist ask the mother and child to pose for the picture? Did the journalist seek informed consent from both parties to have their picture taken and to what end? And finally, does the image ultimately help to the tell story better and was therefore warranted? The obvious answer seems to be that by capturing an image of the teenager chained up by his mother, Daily Sun gave little thought to how these actions potentially exacerbate the situation lending the paper to sensationalist reporting and potentially subjecting the child to further trauma. That the journalist interviewed the child is also a concern in this regard.

MMA’s Editorial Guidelines and Principles for Reporting on Children in the Media[3] advise journalists to, “Try and avoid images that stereotype children. Strive to find alternative angles and images.” The guidelines also state that journalists must always respect the best interests of the individual child, including in instances where they are informing the public about harm to children and that this is paramount, “over any other consideration including advocacy for children’s issues in general…”

A lesson can be drawn from this story and one which not only applies to the Daily Sun but to news media in general. Journalists and editors need to more critically consider how their work affects their subjects, especially when dealing with vulnerable groups or sensitive matters.

Moreover, the complicated issues that face us as a society as reported by our media need to be sufficiently interrogated by journalists in order to provide information that adds value to the audience particularly those in similar positions so that those in authority who have the power to change their circumstances are held accountable and audiences in turn are empowered to seek out alternative systems or options rather than rely on extreme measures, particularly those that cause further harm to children.

By Ayabulela Poro.

[1] A MAD refers to an article where the rights and welfare of children have been compromised through irresponsible reporting.

[2] Kruger J. (2004) Black, White & Grey Ethics in SA Journalism.

[3] See MMA’s Editorial Guidelines and Principles for Reporting on Children in the Media developed with the input of journalism and child experts: