The Sunday Times article “Fear and Loathing in Skierlik” (23/11/08, p. 17) and City Press’s articles “What if it happened to you?”, “Toddler is already scared of white people”, and “Psychological scars will take longer to heal” (23/11/08, p. 6) are ones to get mad about. While they bring attention to the vulnerability of children, and the impact the racist shooting spree in Skierlik had on one child they fail to consider the report’s potentially negative impact on the child.
The articles provide coverage of a racially motivated shooting spree that took place in Skierlik, a squatter camp near Swartruggens in South Africa’s North West province. In this incident, Johan Nel shot dead four people and wounded eleven. The Sunday Times article traces the events leading to the shooting through to the day Nel was sentenced. Both newspapers look at the impact on the child in the context of in-depth coverage of the incident, City Press devoting a whole page to the story.
Importantly both Sunday Times and City Press highlight the physical and psychological impact the shooting had on the child.
Both articles are accompanied by a photograph of the child who was hit by one of Nel’s bullets in his shoulder and spent four months in hospital. The names of the child and his family members are also provided throughout the article1.
It is commendable for journalists to look at how events like these affect children, rather than reporting the event in general. However, important ethical principles need to be adhered to when reporting on children, including the paramount importance of the child’s best interests in all matters concerning the child2.
Recognising children’s vulnerability, especially this child, sensitivity and care is needed when investigating and reporting the case. In particular, journalists and editors need to consider the possible repercussions for the child of any actions they take. This may include physical and psychological repercussions.
It is clear from the articles and the photograph that the child is fearful of strangers and white people, and that he is still traumatised.
Given his experience, it is doubtful that being interviewed and photographed by reporters, and being placed in the media spotlight, is in his best interest.
In addition, the newspaper staff should have considered whether the presence of a white journalist would remind the child of what had happened on the day he was shot or scare him even more.
Considering the child’s age and recent trauma, it is unlikely that he is in a position to comprehend the implications of being interviewed and photographed, and of the story’s publication. While the journalists could have got the permission from the mother, we hope that the mother was made to understand that the story could be disseminated locally and globally, and how the child could be affected through the process.
According to best practice, in order to minimise harm, reporters covering cases of child abuse or trauma should work with children who are already being supported, and only then through the advice of the supporting agency or individual.
This is because it is crucial that when covering stories they do not further traumatise the already traumatised victims, either by publication of their details, or through the investigation process itself.
It is indicated in the articles that the child was not receiving any counseling at the time of being interviewed, and it is not clear that any child welfare organisation is involved.
In the Sunday Times and City Press articles it is not mentioned that the journalists or newspapers sought counseling for the child. Given that there is a risk that the experience could have been re-lived, it is important that there are arrangements made to set this up following the interview.
Even had the investigation and publication of the story been carried out with the appropriate support and advice, it is not clear that the identification of the child, including the publication of his photograph, was in his best interests. Taking into account his experiences and fears, his right to privacy needs to be respected. He needs to be able to overcome his experience without continual reminders from those who have seen his story in the newspaper.
His privacy could have been protected by the use of a pseudonym and a less revealing photograph.
Sunday Times and City Press should have considered more carefully the impact the investigation and publication of the photograph and story would have on the child. Where these considerations were made, and the proper care taken, they should have protected the child’s identity by using an alternative photograph.
As Media Monitoring Africa (MMA), formerly Media Monitoring Project (MMP), we maintain that whatever the intention behind a story, whether it is to educate, illicit sympathy or raise funds, journalists should ensure that the best interests of the child are protected.
1. MMA has obscured the photograph and any identifying names to protect the privacy of the child.
2. This principle is enshrined in Section 28 of the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of South Africa(1996) which states that “the child’s best interests are of paramount importance in every matter concerning the child. For a summary of some of the key documents outlining ethical principles see UNICEF and Media Monitoring Project. 2003. All sides of the story. Reporting on children: A journalist’s handbook and MMP, CI, CSSR, Wits. 2005. Reporting on children in the context of HIV/AIDS: A journalist’s resource.