Over the month of March 2009, newspapers reported on suspected and confirmed cases of meningitis, and the subsequent “panic” among parents to get their children vaccinated, amongst fears of an “outbreak”. While many newspapers covered the story, The Times’ use of headlines and confusing reference to unconfirmed reports of children dying of meningitis, arguably did nothing to alleviate this fear, and may even have added to them. By identifying children and linking them with meningitis, The Times (09/03/09 p .5) also failed to protect the children from stigmatisation by peers.
In The Times’ reporting, it was unclear how many cases had actually been confirmed as meningitis, given inconsistent reporting of children that died following signs of meningitis, and confusion over whether they were confirmed cases or not1.
Confirmed reports of children dying from meningitis were few in comparison to what readers may have been led to believe. For example in “Meningitis Scare” (The Times, 06/03/09, p.1), it is stated, “In three weeks, three children in the south of Johannesburg have died from meningitis…” However, it is unclear from reading the story, and following articles, whether the deaths are confirmed cases or not.
The newspaper reported how doctors, clinics and hospitals were inundated with parents and their children wanting vaccinations, with children missing school to attend clinic, causing disruption to their education. Headlines and sub headings such as “Meningitis Scare: The disease claims the life of another child – the third in three weeks” (The Times, 06/03/09, p.1) and “Parents Panic: But government says no meningitis crisis” (The Times, 10/03/09, p.1), which focused on the reactions of panic, rather than reassurances from health experts, may add to the fears already experienced by parents.
In “We are all panicking – parent”, The Times (09/03/09, p. 52) unnecessarily named two children who showed symptoms of meningitis but whose diagnosis was not confirmed. This could be detrimental towards the children, as when they do return to school, they could be ostracised by their peers, for supposedly having meningitis.
The Guidelines of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) state: “Consider carefully the consequences of publication of any material concerning children and minimise harm to children” (IFJ, 19983).
In reporting on health risks, especially where vulnerable groups are concerned, the media needs to be careful that the information provided is clear, so that they do not add to fears unnecessarily. They also need to take special care to protect the welfare and interests of children, and ensure they do not suffer stigmatisation or harm as a result of being identified in the media.
1 See “Meningitis scare: The disease claims the life of another child – in three weeks” (The Times , 06/03/09, p. 1), “We are all panicking – parent: Fears grow as another child is believed to have meningitis” (The Times, 09/03/09, p. 5), “Parents panic: But government says no meningitis crisis” (The Times, 10/03/09, p. 1), “Parents swamp doctors with meningitis fears”, The Times, 11/03/09, p. 5), “Meningitis kills another child: Four new cases of deadly disease reported in Gauteng” (The Times, 12/03/09, p.5) and “Search for sick children” (The Times, 13/03/09, p. 5).
2 Media Monitoring Africa has concealed names to protect the children’s identity.
3 International Federation of Journalists. 1998. Children’s Rights and Media: Guidelines and Principles for Reporting on Issues Involving Children. Adopted in Recife, Brazil, May 2nd 1998, p. 67.