With South Africa under lockdown, the impact of this and indeed of the Covid-19 pandemic features a great deal in the media including the impact on the economy. Many of these stories have been about how the lockdown has been impacting households and of course as this is discussed, hunger forms a large factor in these discussions. There is no doubt that it is newsworthy and in the public interest to report on issues of hunger particularly child hunger as a devastating consequence of the COVID-19 lockdown. Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) fully supports this coverage when it is done ethically, in the best interests of the child/children in question and with utmost consideration for the privacy and dignity of the children involved. MMA is however, concerned when the best interests of the particular child/children are not upheld.

It is for this reason that MMA gives the Sunday Times a MAD[1] for a photograph with the heading, “Hunger stalks SA” (19/04/2020, P.1). In the photograph, three children are featured with one hiding her face, another eating from a bowl and the last one praying with a make-do food container in front of her. The caption reads in part, “Hungry children offer up a little prayer for food. They are among millions going hungry as a result of the national lockdown…”

What is also of grave concern is the fact that the photograph is on the front page!

MMA is very concerned about these images as whilst they do clearly reveal the huge challenges around hunger caused by COVID-19 lockdown in particular, they do not uphold the best interest of the child principle – in that they “sacrifice these children on the altar of the greater good”. In other words, it is clear that when weighing up the ethical considerations of printing or not printing the photo, that the photographer, journalist and/or relevant editor did not recognise that the best interests of these three individual children outweigh the public interest defence. Section 28(2) states that “in all matters concerning the child, the interests of the [that] child are of paramount importance.”

The photograph in question is a violation of these children’s rights to privacy and dignity. While we acknowledge that the issue of hunger among children deserves the utmost attention from the media and consequently intended audiences, we are of the view that the photograph should not have been used in that manner. Sunday Times should have made great efforts to blur the faces of the children in the photograph or take it from a different angle that doesn’t show their faces to uphold their rights.

As images have the power to impact people, MMA’s Editorial Guidelines and Principles for Reporting on Children in the Media advise journalists to “try to avoid images that stereotype children”. The Guidelines go on to urge journalists to “strive to find alternative angles and images”.

While indeed many children are being impacted negatively by pandemic, the media in their reporting should avoid furthering the hurt by identifying the children they wish to feature in coverage. The photograph would have still had great impact on readers of the publication and the privacy and dignity of the children involved would have been protected if taken slightly differently to protect identity.  

The Press Code of Ethics and Conduct South African Print and Online Media, which the Sunday Times subscribe to, as mentioned on the group’s website, was violated. Section 8.1 of the Code states, (The media shall) exercise exceptional care and consideration when reporting about children. If there is any chance that coverage might cause harm of any kind to a child, he or she shall not be … photographed without the consent of a legal guardian or of a similarly responsible adult and the child… and a public interest is evident.”

MMA argues that even where consent is given (there is no evidence as to whether informed consent was obtained), the journalists should always act in the best interest of the children in question and not publish the story or photograph where harm or potential harm can be caused. Additionally, identifying the children in the photo is merely interesting to the public and not in the public interest and it would have still had the same impact had the children not been identified in the photograph.

As it is the media’s duty to act in the best interests of children as outlined by the South African Bill of Rights in Section 28.2,[2] greater effort should have been made to protect the children who might not only face discrimination and stigma about their social background (that they come from a family that cannot afford to buy food), but also be embarrassed about the photograph when they are older.

While MMA urges Sunday Times and other media to continue reporting on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown on children, we would encourage you to find other powerful images to use that also protect the identity of any involved children and continue to include children in the news in a manner that allows them to be active citizens and share the challenges that they are facing as a result of the pandemic.

By Lister Namumba

[1] A MAD is given to media for irresponsibly reporting or portraying children in coverage

[2] “A child’s best interests are of paramount importance in every matter concerning the child.”