While Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) applauds GroundUp for reporting two stories about discrimination and lack of services at a school, we would also like to raise a few concerns that we hope will be taken into consideration in future reporting. MMA feels GroundUp missed an opportunity to advocate for children’s rights in the stories, among other concerns.
“Shop in the dock for disabled ban” (03/08/2019, p.9) and “School’s lack of loos brushed off” (16/08/2019, p.8) are the two stories under analysis that were reported by GroundUp and published by Saturday Citizen and The Citizen respectively.
“Shop in the dock for disabled ban” is about a five-year-old boy in Mitchells Plain who was allegedly discriminated against by a shop owner because he is in a wheelchair. According to the story, the child “has Down syndrome and some developmental delays associated with West syndrome”. The shop owner reportedly asked the boy’s mother to leave him outside when she went to the shop “with her three children including [the child]” because the shop no longer allowed people on wheelchairs in the shop. The reason given to the mother when the shop owner visited her at her home regarding the incident was that “people with prams and wheelchairs steal goods”. The story reports that the mother and lawyers intend to lay a complaint in the Equality Court against the shop owner who has been engaged and asked to apologise to the child, sponsor his next wheelchair and donate to the Red Cross Children’s Hospital.
MMA applauds GroundUp for exposing such discrimination but because the story indirectly identifies the child, Section 8.1.1 of the Code of Ethics and Conduct for South African Print and Online Media is violated. The Section stipulates, “Media must exercise care and consideration when reporting about children and if there is any chance that coverage might cause harm of any kind to a child, he/she shall not be identified without the consent of a legal guardian or of a similarly responsible adult and the child (taking into consideration the evolving capacity of the child); and a public interest is evident.”
The story does not indicate whether fully informed consent was obtained from the child and his mother to identify him through his parent. MMA believes though that even where consent is given, the media, who must always adhere to Section 28.2 of the Bill of Rights, must be cautious and gauge whether identifying the child is in his best interest. Additionally, identifying the child indirectly is not in the public interest as the story, MMA strongly believes, would still have had the same impact even without the child’s mother’s identity.
The failure to sufficiently protect the child’s identity may lead to victimisation, further humiliation and ridicule from his peers based on his condition and reported experience of discrimination. Therefore, when reporting such a sensitive story, media must ensure no further harm, even potential harm comes to the child by making sure their identity is sufficiently protected.
The story, “School’s lack of loos brushed off” is about the lack of proper toilets at Mangelengele Primary school in Eastern Cape where grade R, one and two learners are reportedly forced to use the field to relieve themselves because the toilets are in bad unsafe conditions. The article reports that only two toilets at the school are in use and have been reserved for the teachers and grade three to seven learners.
MMA commends GroundUp for caution to not expose and harm and, professionalism exhibited in the picture accompanying the story. The picture shows a learner using the field to relieve him or herself while respecting their privacy and dignity. The child’s identity is not revealed. Of commendable note is the fact that the picture was deliberately taken from a distance not only to ensure this privacy and dignity of the child but also to seemingly show the field in an effort to highlight the lack of privacy and potential danger children face when using the field. In the photograph, between the child and the open field is a short wire fence.
Sadly, in the same story, GroundUp fails to give a voice to the children affected by the lack of proper toilets in the school to share their story and experience. It must be noted that failure to access children for their views is unfortunately, very common in news media. According to MMA’s media monitoring report, children’s voices are few in the news at 8.2 percent according to the recent findings.
The failure to access children directly violates the rights to speak as supported by Article 13 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) which South Africa ratified in 1995 and, Article 7 of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of Children (ACRWC) which South Africa ratified in 2000.
MMA is of the view that children should speak in stories about them as this enriches the stories with their perspectives and affords them an opportunity to participate in and, have a say on issues affecting them.
Furthermore, GroundUp missed an opportunity to fully promote and advocate for children’s rights in these stories. A focus should not only have been on the individual child in the first story but the problem at large which is the discrimination that children with special needs face. Advocacy for a lack of proper school toilets and its impact on children in South Africa should have been explored in the second story. GroundUp should have moved from merely reporting what happened to taking an advocacy angle in the reporting so as to help promote the children’s rights enshrined in Section 28 (c) and (d) of the Bill of Rights of the Constitution. These Sections state in part that “every child has the right to basic nutrition, shelter, health care, social services, and as well as the right to be protected from maltreatment, neglect, abuse or degradation”.
MMA encourages GroundUp and other media to continue covering a diversity of issues affecting children. While doing so, the media must access children when it will not cause them any harm and help promote the children’s rights enshrined in the South African Constitution.
By Musa Rikhotso
 Section 28.2 of the Bill of Rights stipulates, “A child’s best interests are of paramount importance in every matter concerning the child.”
The following engagement took place between Ground Up and MMA
Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) criticised the ethics of two GroundUp articles:
We appreciate criticism of our articles; it helps us to improve. But MMA’s criticisms are wrong.
In writing this response, which we hope you will consider publishing on the same page as your article, we once more sought and received the permission of [name withheld]*** to name her and her son [name withheld].
The first story is about a mother who is taking legal action against a shopkeeper for denying her son, who uses a wheelchair, access to his shop. GroundUp names both the mother and son in the story: [name withheld] and [name withheld]. The story states that five-year-old [name withheld] has Down syndrome and some developmental delays associated with West syndrome.
MMA says we should not have identified the child in story 1
The choice to identify the child was the parent’s. [name withheld] is proud of her child and does not wish to hide the fact that the child lives with a disability.
In the 2000s Gail Johnson’s young son, Nkosi, lived openly with HIV. His name was frequently mentioned in the media and Nkosi spoke on public platforms. Sibongile Mazeka was a young child with HIV whose story was told in the Cape Times in 2001. Her carers gave the newspaper permission to use her name and tell her story. (Sibongile died of AIDS on 11 September 2001, at about the same time that an aeroplane hit the World Trade Centre.)
The stories of these children told openly, using photographs and their real names, helped combat the stigma of HIV and compel the state to provide antiretroviral treatment for people with HIV.
Likewise, the openness of [name withheld] about [name withheld] helps destigmatize and normalise [name withheld]’s life.
MMA writes, “Identifying the child indirectly is not in the public interest as the story, MMA strongly believes, would still have had the same impact even without the child’s mother’s identity.”
On the contrary, failing to print [name withheld]’s and [name withheld]’s names would have been unethical and denied [name withheld] the agency to make decisions for her son. (Incidentally, there is nothing “indirect” about the identification of [name withheld]: he is named and photographed – rightly so.)
MMA writes: “The failure to sufficiently protect the child’s identity may lead to victimisation, further humiliation and ridicule from his peers based on his condition and reported experience of discrimination.”
That is possible. But it may also lead to greater acceptance and an easier, more open, life for [name withheld]. That calculation is not for MMA or GroundUp to make: it’s for [name withheld]’s mother to make, and for us to respect.
MMA writes: “GroundUp missed an opportunity to advocate for children’s rights in the stories”
This is a misunderstanding of what GroundUp does. In our news articles we do not “advocate”. The stories we choose to report are determined by our commitment to covering human rights news. But once journalists are assigned to stories, they have to do their very best, despite their preconceptions and prejudices, to report the story fairly, not advocate for any position. The only time GroundUp explicitly advocates a position is in editorial columns.
This story is about Grade R, one and two children — i.e. children aged five to seven years old — who defecate in a field because their school doesn’t have safe toilets. The story quotes the principal but no children.
MMA says the story violates Article 13 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and Article 7 of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of Children. Why? Because GroundUp “fails to give a voice to the children affected by the lack of proper toilets in the school to share their story and experience”.
The children in question were no older than seven. In ethical newsrooms journalists don’t interview children this young without the consent of their parents or guardians, especially on a sensitive topic such as this in which the children almost certainly are not old enough to understand the issues.
This is why the press code several times includes the clause “taking into consideration the evolving capacity of the child”.
MMA writes: “Furthermore, GroundUp missed an opportunity to fully promote and advocate for children’s rights in these stories. A focus should not only have been on the individual child in the first story but the problem at large which is the discrimination that children with special needs face. Advocacy for a lack of proper school toilets and its impact on children in South Africa should have been explored in the second story. GroundUp should have moved from merely reporting what happened to taking an advocacy angle in the reporting so as to help promote the children’s rights enshrined in Section 28 (c) and (d) of the Bill of Rights of the Constitution.”
We have already dealt with the misguided notion that GroundUp should do advocacy in news reports. But we agree that the quality of the articles may have been improved by going into further detail, e.g. by providing statistics. The quality of articles is dependent on many factors, including how time-bound the story is, how busy the reporter is, the reporter’s experience, and how much editing time can be devoted to them. But quality is separate to ethics; both articles are ethically reported and do not violate the press code.
***MMA edited the response to remove the names of the mother and her child in an effort to protect the child
Thank you for responding to our commentary.
1. Before we delve into the issues raised in your response, let us explain, as requested by Barbara Maregele, the steps taken to select your article for analysis. As you might be aware, Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) runs a project called Make Abuse Disappear Online Accountability Tool (MADOAT), an online media advocacy tool that highlights the best and worst examples of media reporting on children. It helps to push for increased accountability among editors and journalists when it comes to reporting on children’s issues. At the same time, it creates an online opportunity for children to rate the articles and comment on them, thereby also interacting with media. MMA does this through writing commentaries about stories that violate ethical and legal frameworks on coverage of children in the media. On a weekly basis, staff members nominate stories about children from newspaper, television or online media that represent good practice and otherwise with the aim of commending great coverage and raising concerns in an effort to help improve coverage.
At least two stories are selected and commentaries written from the list of nominated
stories. Before a commentary is uploaded online, it is sent to the journalist and editor to not only solicit their feedback and sometimes action but to also open up engagement. The feedback is uploaded alongside the commentary online. The analysis for the stories, “Mom heads to Equality Court after son in wheelchair denied access to superette” By Barbara Maregele and “Grade R learners told to avoid the school toilets and use the field” By Yamela Ntshongwana was uploaded after a phone call to Nathan Geffen on 6th September, 2019 to bring his attention to the emailed analysis. During this phone call, Nathan thanked MMA for raising the concerns as it helped Ground Up better its coverage and that the analysis would be presented during the following week’s meeting with journalists. Had it been known for certain that Ground Up would be providing a response, other than the one given during the phone call, uploading would have been held off up until the engagement was concluded.
2. It seems from both responses we have received from Barbara (12th September, 2019) and Nathan (13th and 14th September, 2019) that the main issue is our concern for the indirect and direct identification of the child in the story, Mom heads to Equality Court after son in wheelchair denied access to superette By Barbara Maregele. The other issue is our concern for the lack of voices in the second story, Grade R learners told to avoid the school toilets and use the field By Yamela Ntshongwana.
3. In the first story, we still believe the child should not have been identified despite, as you have stated, the mother giving permission for her child to be identified. That the parent gave consent to have the identities revealed does not excuse Ground Up from gauging whether doing so would pose any harm, even potential harm to the child involved. We routinely assist media houses and journalists to understand that when you are reporting on children, you need to apply a higher ethical standard and that includes protecting children from their parents who may not fully understand the ramifications of identification on the everyday lives of their children and themselves. You are the gate keeper and given that Section 28(2) of the Constitution requires us to act in the best interests of children in all matters that involve children, it is clear that as the gate keepers, this includes protecting children from consent where parents do not fully understand the ramifications and are just so excited and relieved to have their matter published in the hope that finally something will be done, they
are willing to sacrifice their children on the alter of the perceived greater outcome (good).
4. MMA believes identifying the child was unethical and doing so flouted the Press Code of Ethics and Conduct for South African Print and Online Media.1 Section 8.1 of the Code urges the media to exercise exceptional care and consideration when reporting on children saying that “if there is any chance that coverage might cause harm of any kind to a child, he or she shall not be interviewed, photographed or identified….”
5. We strongly believe that media should gauge whether identifying a child, despite consent having been obtained from the parents/guardians and/or the child, will subject that child to harm, even potential harm. This stems from the fact that the media has the responsibility to report while minimising harm such as ridicule, victimisation etc in this case.
6. We understand the need to tell stories to help combat certain stigmas such as the ones you have mentioned (Nkosi Johnson and Sibongile Mazeka) but we do not believe one child has to be sacrificed for the greater good.
7. We disagree with your statement that “failing to print Liezel’s and Connor’s names would have been unethical and denied Liezel the agency to make decisions for her son”. On the contrary, withholding the identity would have been ethical as this would have showed that Ground Up values protecting children from potential harm even where the mother insists on the identity to be revealed. It would also have shown that Ground Up believes in promoting the child’s best interests as supported by Section 28.2 of the Bill of Rights. MMA believes the child’s best interests in a story should override any other interests including public interest. And again, this story would still have had the same impact, including helping to potentially “destigmatise” disability, even without the identities being revealed.
8. Please take note that our position is NOT that the story should not have been told because we believe such stories about children living with disabilities should be told to not only make the public aware of the stigma and discrimination such children face, but also to help combat this. We firmly believe the more the public knows about an issue, the higher the chances of opening up their minds. Our only concern with this story is that the child might face harm and we cannot stress the importance of media minimising harm in their coverage especially on children.
9. The story, Grade R learners told to avoid the school toilets and use the field By Yamela Ntshongwana got a GLAD2 save for missing children’s voices. While we do not advocate for children to be identified or interviewed without their consent and that of their parents, we believe this consent (to be interviewed) would have easily been obtained from a parent as the issue, no matter how sensitive, does not pose any harm to any child. This would have been a different case if a child had fallen in the latrine, had been identified as having had suffered ridicule for using the field to relieve themselves etc. A seven year old, depending on their evolving capacity and of course with the consent of their parent, would have adequately added their voice to the issue expressing their thoughts and feelings on their school lacking proper toilets. We share this because we have seen the impact adding children’s voices to such stories as long it does not subject them to harm, has had.
10. We appreciate the work of Ground Up and especially appreciate the fact that you highlight issues facing South Africans and people living in South Africa, including children. We only implore you to report on children with the highest ethical standards so as to minimise harm, including potential harm. We also thank you for engaging with us on this matter and hope that from this, we can see how we can work together to safeguard children’s interests in future reporting.
2 A GLAD is given when the media report responsibly on children and promote their rights and welfare.