The article “Teen impregnated by father’s best friend”, by Surentha Govender, which appeared in the Sunday Times (p.6) on 16 September 2007, provides a number of reasons to be glad. The main reasons that this article is one that we should be glad about are that, it provides a context to the story; it provides very useful information regarding the issue of statutory rape; it dispels one of the common myths around sexual assault; and it introduces a debate around punishment of this type of crime.
There has been a significant coverage of sexual abuse in the media in the recent past. Recent high profile cases are those of the sexual assault and murders of Steven Siebert (six) and Michaela Garoenisha Jones (six), amongst others. Joan van Niekerk, National Coordinator of Childline, cautioned that despite the coverage around sexual abuse, there is still a need to interrogate the statistics generated by different agencies (whether by government or non-governmental organisations) on the extent of the abuse.
The article is good firstly because the reporter provides a context for the story. The context is necessary and useful because it gives the reader a greater understanding of the details of the story and enables them to develop an informed opinion about it. Articles without sufficient context often do not provide the reader with complete and sufficient information to make an informed opinion regarding the article’s core arguments. In stories concerning sexual abuse, it is not uncommon to present the child merely as a victim and unfortunately there has also been some coverage that presents the child as being responsible for the circumstances leading up to the abuse (for example through acceptance of gifts from the alleged perpetrator, not saying no to the abuse and not reporting the abuser). These examples have a tendency to ‘implicate the child and absolve the offending adult of any responsibility. Whether the intention of the journalist was to challenge this common portrayal or not, providing a context does fulfill a responsibility journalists have to give readers information about the wider context. This could include relevant legislation and clarification around key concepts and definitions such as, in this case, ‘sexual abuse’ and ‘statutory rape’. In this article, for example, it is made clear that the alleged perpetrator had clearly contravened South African law. The article specifies the legislation as saying that “any person who has intercourse with a child under the age of 16 – even if it is consensual – is guilty of ‘statutory rape.’” (16/09/2007, p.6).
One aspect that the article could have explored further is the way in which legislation meant that the onus was on the girl (by permitting her baby to undergo a paternity test) to prove that the intercourse did happen, and that the baby was indeed his.
The reporter did spend some time explaining the act of statutory rape to the reader. This makes this article educational and empowering. The reporter has clearly done the basic research necessary for covering this issue fairly and accurately, and the fact that she has accessed legal experts further strengthens the educational value of the article. This enables the reporter to meet the journalistic requirement to provide both balanced and informed reporting.
Secondly, the article challenges one of the myths that often comes up in sexual abuse reporting. The myth is one that says that perpetrators of sexual abuse are often strangers. This myth was clearly dispelled by Joan van Niekerk, National Coordinator of Childline, in a seminar she recently presented to a group of journalists, as part of the “Reporting on Children” course offered by Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) (28/08/2007). The article shows how the alleged perpetrator was a trusted and much loved friend of the family who initiated and had a sexual relationship with his friend’s daughter, which because of this relationship, and the age of the friend’s daughter, was inappropriate. . The reporter’s inclusion of the relationship within which the sexual abuse happened is important because it serves to educate the public that sexual abuse can and does occur in different types of relationships, including relationships with family friends, relatives and even teachers. This has been the message that has come through from abuse cases reported to organisations such as Childline. While this is an area not covered in depth in this article, it does provide an opportunity for related articles to be written, which focus on who the perpetrators are.
Thirdly, the article also introduces the debate around the extent to which the punishment for such crimes actually fits the crimes. The parents’ views, which were that the punishment for the crime was far too lenient, are included in the article. The only weakness is that the child affected was not accessed for her views on the matter. She might very well have held different views to those of the prosecutor and her parents. It is possible that the reporter felt that talking to the child would not have been in the best interest of the child concerned.
Finally, another aspect that makes this article a glad article is that the identities of the child and the parent have not been revealed. The reporter’s omission of their identities shows that the reporter understands the legal and ethical requirements when reporting such cases involving underage children, and that to identify the child would not be in her best interest.
What the reporter does that could have been avoided is to name the father’s friend. This could create the opportunity for the child concerned to be traced and identified, for backlash against the wife and/or children of the offender, as well as for stigmatization of the child by school mates. It does seem as if the possible consequences were not sufficiently considered by the reporter.