The article “Evil steals our boys” (Daily Sun, 11/04/2008, p. 5) about thirty boys from a school in the Northern Cape, which Daily Sun claims are possessed by the devil, is an article to get mad about. This is because Daily Sun broke the Code of Ethics for journalists by failing to seek the truth or inform readers properly. Instead of questioning what was happening at the school, they simply attribute the apparently strange behaviour of the boys to their possession by evil.
According to the article, allegedly thirty boys, ranging from 11 to 15 years old, in the Northern Cape, are reputed to have all sorts of powers. These include the ability to make themselves invisible, turn a chicken into a person and turn paper into money. People are reported as saying that the boys drink a mixture of water and a “magic white powder”, go into a trance, and have cuts on their wrists, hands and backs. One boy was reported as saying that the boys are recruited by a man called White.
The article states that a lot of people are worried about these boys, and that a thousand people had gathered, including teachers, parents, school kids and policemen, to pray for them. Clearly this is a very serious situation.
It is difficult to judge what constitutes a good tabloid story, an issue raised in recent debates around the lack of an award presented in the tabloid category of Mondi Shanduka media awards. It is, perhaps, a decision best made by tabloids themselves.
The role of media is to inform, educate and entertain. The article should provide a good and balanced view of the situation, and possibly explore the circumstances surrounding the allegations. Currently, the story serves to confuse readers and perpetuate stereotypes about boys as “out of control”.
A key determinant of a good story is accessing a number of different sources. The journalist of the Daily Sun did access a variety of sources. However, the credibility of sources who are not named is very low. In the story “people say” a number of things, yet who these “people” are nobody can glean.
The children are also accessed, which would normally be a good thing. However, they are not sourced as to why the bizarre events are happening, which they would be in the best position to answer. It is laudable, at least, that their identities were protected..
The quote from a spokesman for the MEC of Education in the Northern Cape just serves to confuse issues further. He is quoted as saying “The Department is aware of the effect this has on school school-kids. More than three schools are affected.” But it is unclear what he is talking about and what he means by “this”.
All the sources together do not contribute to telling a clear story which gives the basic facts and investigates what has been going on with these boys. The reporter failed to explore reasons why “people” say that the boys are “possessed and that they are worshiping the devil!”
It is unclear whether the allegations made by other people about the special powers and characteristics of the boys are based solely on the claims of the boys themselves, or have been substantiated by other evidence. The article does not look at possible reasons for the alleged behaviour, beyond the view that they are possessed and worship the devil. For example, the article missed the opportunity to discuss the issue of possible drug addiction and/or child abuse. This is despite the inclusion of a picture that shows the hands of someone with powder that could be drugs, and the reports that the boys drink white powder mixed with water and “are cut on their hands and backs”.
The way in which the story is reported seriously violates the South African Press Code for journalists, which states that a journalist should always report on the news truthfully and accurately. This is all the more serious given the situation is about the safety of thirty schoolchildren. The journalist should have tried harder to seek the truth and report on it, because the lives of these children could be at stake.
By failing to investigate the merits of the claims made and possible reasons for the alleged behaviour, the Daily Sun supports stereotypes of boys as “out of control”. However, most significantly, in investigating no other explanations for the events described, it could be covering up child abuse. In doing so, it has taken an irresponsible position in reporting on children.