Best and worst practice in reporting on allegations of child abuse can be found in newspapers published on Wednesday the 22nd September 2010.

The manner in which the story of two children, who have been missing for two weeks and were found, was reported differed greatly between newspapers.

The Times (“Missing cousins found”, 22/09/2010, p.2) and The Citizen (“Two Missing Soweto girls are found unharmed” 22/09/2010 p.8) reported the story in a manner that minimised harm to the children.

However The Star ( “Missing cousins claim they fled from abuse”, 22/09/2010, p. 1) and Sowetan(“Missing girls reunited with their moms”, 22/09/2010, p.6) identified the children, both by name and by publishing a photograph of them, when it was clearly not in their best interests. Both The Starand Sowetan also published details that violated the children’s rights to dignity and privacy as enshrined in the South African Constitution and the United Nations Charter on the Rights of the Child.

While media often publish the names and images of missing children in order to help find them, journalists must be very careful about naming them when they are found.

Many newspapers played an active role in trying to help find these two children when they went missing.  The campaign to find them was high profile with celebrities lending their support. It is understandable that newspapers that were involved in this campaign would want to highlight the fact that the children have been found. However the circumstances of their recovery are contentious.

In this case it is being reported that the children have alleged that they ran away because they were being physically abused and neglected by a relative. Child abuse is a crime and all of the articles made clear that the circumstances of the children’s disappearance are being investigated by the authorities.

The Star has signed up to Media Monitoring Africa’s “Editorial Guidelines and Principles for Reporting on Children in the Media 2009” which state that:

“In all stories in which a child has been involved in a crime, either as a witness, victim or perpetrator, unless exceptional circumstances prevail and then only if there is informed consent from the child involved and the child’s caregiver, the child’s identity will not be revealed either directly or indirectly.”

Both The Times and Sowetan are bound by Avusa’s policy guide which states that:

“We will always protect the identities of children who have been victims or perpetrators of sexual abuse or exploitation; and those who have been charged or convicted of a crime or been a witness to a crime.”

The Criminal Procedure Act also makes clear that media must not identify child witnesses:

Section 154 (3): No person shall publish in any manner whatever information which reveals or may reveal the identity of… a witness at criminal proceedings who is under the age of 18 years.

Despite the protection offered to vulnerable children in law and in the newspapers own guidelines,The Star and Sowetan failed to protect the identities of these children.

It is strange that while both The Times and Sowetan are bound by the same guidelines, the two newspapers treated the story so differently. The Times (“Missing cousins found”, 22/09/2010, p.2) did not print the names of the children, and published an image which concealed the children’s identities.

In the image published by Sowetan (“Missing girls reunited with their moms”, 22/09/2010, p.6) the children are clearly identifiable, and their names are given in the caption accompanying the image.

It is worth noting that the decision to identify the children in Sowetan may have been made by an editor or sub-editor and not by the journalist who did not include their names in the body of the article. However any caution that may have been exercised by the journalist was undermined bySowetan’s choice of image and caption accompanying the article.

The Star (“Missing cousins claim they fled from abuse”, 22/09/2010, p.1) went a step further, by publishing an image of the children, giving the children’s names, and printing the names of one of the girl’s parents and that of her cousin.

The Star and Sowetan were also the only papers to publish a quote from a social worker saying the children were “physically… in a state of neglect. They haven’t bathed in days.” The guidelines for both newspapers say reporters will protect a child’s right to dignity and respect. By identifying these children, and by provided details that may result in their humiliation and stigmatisation, both The Star and Sowetan failed in their duty to uphold these children’s human rights.

In stark contrast, The Times (“Missing cousins found”, 22/09/2010, p.2) and The Citizen (“Two Missing Soweto girls are found unharmed” 22/09/2010 p.8 ) published articles that demonstrated that a story such as this can be told without violating a child’s rights.

Neither paper named the children or the relatives involved. The Times published an image that protected the identity of the child photographed, while The Citizen did not publish any picture. And both newspapers made efforts to minimise the harm that the article could cause to the children, by choosing to leave out certain information.

In one day two newspapers became examples of how, despite all the progress that has been made in improving standards of reporting on children’s rights in South Africa, the importance of protecting our most vulnerable citizens is still occasionally ignored by journalists and editors. While another two media outlets demonstrated that children’s rights do not have to be sacrificed in order to publish an important story.