Item 7 of etv’s 7pm news bulletin on 23 March 2008, by Jody Jacobs, about a thirteen year old Cape Town girl who under went two major heart transplants in one week is one to be glad about. It is to be glad about because the child was portrayed as a survivor and not a victim, her dignity was preserved, and she was accessed for her story.
The story which celebrates the life of 13 year old Maricelle Smith, who defied the odds and survived two heart operations, is one to be glad about. According to the news bulletin, she was fitted with an artificial heart making her the youngest person in Africa to have undergone such operation. One week later a suitable donor was found forcing doctors to operate on her again. She survived both operations despite doctors having given her only 48 hours to live and weighing an unhealthy 25kgs.
Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) has highlighted, in “Children: The Face of Disaster” and ”Children: Dying to Make the News” how children are often portrayed in the media as the faces and victims of disaster and tragedy, in a way that fails to respect their rights to dignity and privacy.
In etv’s news bulletin, although the girl is still recovering from the operations the report did not dwell on how sick she is but focused instead on her determination to live. Instead of being shown with tubes and supporting equipment, looking at her most weak and vulnerable, she is shown sitting upright.
Though the child was in hospital the background was not dull and gloomy, and there were fresh flowers in the background which could be taken to symbolize her zest for life. Visuals which stereotype the sick such as hospital equipment were avoided. Moreover, the camera focused at the child’s level, instead from a high angle focusing down, thereby avoiding portraying an unequal power relationship, and the child as vulnerable .
The girl’s story was told without portraying her as a victim, but instead as a survivor, challenging stereotypes of children that can too often be seen in the media, and preserving her dignity. The news bulletin’s portrayal of the child survivor is in adherence to the Bill of Rights of the South African Constitution which specifies children’s rights to be protected from degradation.
The reporter accessed the girl, as well as her doctor and her family. Accessing children, where stories are about them, is good practice as it gives them a voice and an opportunity to tell their stories in their own words. It also re-affirms that children’s views are important and must be listened to. It is, however, important to note that children should only be assessed if it’s in their best interest.
The interview was done in the presence of the girl’s mother, who acted as a support person for the girl thus making her feel comfortable. Having a “support person” when a child is interviewed is good practice, but should only be done if the child supports the idea .
This kind of reporting which celebrates child survivors is praiseworthy, even more so as good journalist practice was followed. Other television stations are encouraged to follow the example set by etv.
1. Daya, B., Vreenegoor, B., Bird, W., Harries, G. 2004. “The representation of ]children reinforces certain stereotypes” in “Children dying to make the news: An analysis of children’s coverage in the South African news media”.Media Monitoring Project: Johannesburg.
2. Ed G.Harries,2005, p.6, “A Resource Kit for Journalists”: Children’s Media Monitoring Project: Johannesburg.
3. UNICEF and MMP, 2005. “All Sides of the Story, Reporting on Children: A Journalist’s handbook”.