31 August 2023


MMA urges the media and the public to be compassionate in dealing with the Marshalltown tragedy.

Johannesburg, 31 August – Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) urges journalists and the media to exercise due compassion and humanity in their coverage of a fire that broke out in a building in the Johannesburg CBD, where over 70 people have reportedly lost their lives, and countless others have sustained various injuries. 

The coverage of the crisis raises three critical areas for concern. Firstly, the critical need for media to report and adhere to highest ethical standards, in reporting on an unfolding tragedy, secondly, the need to avoid harmful xenophobic and inciteful content on social media platforms and finally for public officials themselves to adhere to their oath of office and to ensure their responses are in line with their constitutional obligations. 

Call for practicing the highest standard of ethical reporting.

MMA is deeply concerned about the coverage of some news reports by media on this unfolding catastrophe. In some cases, journalists have interviewed those who have lost loved ones. While it is important to include the views and perspectives of witnesses and those directly impacted, it is essential that journalists maintain the highest ethical standards in the face of this crisis. MMA also notes the use of certain images and calls on journalists to balance ethics and news values against shock value.

In a time of crisis, those directly affected, victims and survivors, are already extremely vulnerable and are understandably deeply traumatized. It is therefore, precisely in a time of crisis, that journalists covering this tragedy, treat those in a current state of trauma with the utmost compassion, respecting their rights to dignity and equality. 

The value of graphic intrusion into the grief and distress of the people directly affected is difficult to justify. The question journalists need to ask, is what value does amplifying grief and trauma add to what is an already an overwhelmingly traumatic event. This kind of trauma coverage uses precious resources and doesn’t add to greater understanding of the causes, responses, and who needs to be held accountable. 

While the importance of eyewitness, victim, and survivors’ own experience in giving a full picture of what went on inside the building, is essential to telling the story, MMA calls on journalists and media practitioners to be circumspect and think carefully to avoid further traumatizing people with probing, intrusive questions. Those being interviewed are themselves survivors who have lost personal belongings inside or are relatives of those who lost their lives or are injured due to the fire. 

The most pressing issues at this juncture include the causes of the fire inside the building, and whether the building was hijacked, when and by whom? Are City officials aware of this building and if so, how many are there around the city, who occupies them currently, and what are the plans by the city to prevent a similar occurrence in these other buildings? 

Our public broadcaster, the SABC’s Editorial Policies and Guidelines state that when reporting on suffering and distress, “providing content recklessly and asking intrusive questions in a manner that may cause unnecessary and excessive distress or anxiety to those in grief must be avoided at all times.” MMA calls on all  journalists reporting on the Marshalltown tragedy, to respect this principle.

Social media division, disinformation, and false narratives

MMA notes the tragedy is already being diverted to pursue false, nefarious, and xenophobic agendas, especially on social media platforms. Already, non-South African nationals and human rights organisations are being accused as being the cause of the fire. Given that our country is already faced with so much trauma, what is needed  in this tragic instance, as members of the public, is greater compassion and humanity. 

Given the potential for xenophobic fuelled violence, media need to be cautious about furthering such narratives. The nationality of those who lost their lives doesn’t help understand the scale, the cause or the solutions to the fire. MMA  thus encourages journalists to seek official information and responses to the Marshalltown tragedy and to condemn  the xenophobia that has accompanied it, which is being perpetuated to further stoke intolerance, incite violence and hatred. 

All of us have a role to play by not liking, sharing, quoting or reposting false, misleading and graphic content of the Marshalltown fire on any of our social media platforms. Ask yourself before sharing, if I was in the fire would I want this to be shared? In the instance where we come across such content, we should report it to the www.real411.orgwebsite immediately. 

Public officials response to be critically assessed

MMA commends media for seeking to include the views of the MMC for Public Safety, Mgcini Tshwaku. It is not the media’s fault, that instead of opting for a level of compassion and culpability, the MMC seeks to scapegoat NGO’s by saying“There’s fires, there’s no electricity… [these buildings] need to be closed, but what happens? SERI and their lawyers are litigating us…. we are always in court”. It is essential that media follow up such comments with a demand for response from the MMC’s seniors, at both party and government levels. We encourage the media to act in a responsible, careful and compassionate manner, exercising high levels of humanity in covering this unfortunate and tragic occurrence, and further encourage the public to show compassion by not engaging in false, misleading and xenophobic narratives about the Marshalltown tragedy. 


For media inquiries or further information, please contact:

William Bird (Director): williamb@mma.org.za / +278828871370            

Thandi Smith (Head of Programmes): thandis@mma.org.za / +27734707306

Azola Dayile (Programme Manager): azolad@mmaorg.za / +27658917220