Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) gives a MAD[1] to DispatchLIVE for publishing an article in which the children involved are directly and indirectly identified thereby exposing them to potential harm.

Kids suffer months of agony after school meals cut off” (DispatchLIVE, 27/07/2020) reports on hunger that children and families are experiencing as a result of the halting of school feeding programs. These programs were stopped when schools closed during level five of the South African Lockdown brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic. The article profiles a number of families struggling to feed their children. These are families that reportedly relied on the school feeding scheme.

The article identifies the parents and caregivers and in some instances, the children through picture and name. This is concerning because while the article is great in that it reports on an issue facing children that needs the attention of policymakers, the fact that it reports on hunger and that some children come from “poor” families who need the “lifesaving” school meals, the children’s identities should have been withheld to protect them from potential discrimination.

What is of grave concern to MMA is the fact that one of the people featured in the article who talks about struggling to provide for her children and grandchildren, reveals that she is HIV positive. As she is identified through picture and name, this indirectly identifies her children and all the children under her care. This is problematic in that when the HIV positive status of a parent is revealed, it might indirectly, for some people, mean that their child is also HIV positive, at least this is the assumption that some people could arrive at. The HIV status of a child should not be revealed in media coverage as this exposes them to a great amount of stigma and discrimination and in instances where this is revealed, extreme caution should be taken to ensure that this does not subject the child to harm, including potential harm.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)’s Ethical Guidelines: Principles for ethical reporting on children state, “Do not further stigmatise any child, avoid categorisations or descriptions that expose a child to negative reprisals – including additional physical or psychological harm, or to lifelong abuse, discrimination or rejection by their local communities.” Furthermore, UNICEF advises, “Always change the name and obscure the visual identity of any child who is identified as … HIV positive, or living with AIDS, unless the child, a parent, or a guardian gives fully informed consent”.

Additionally, MMA’s Editorial Guidelines and Principles for reporting on Children in the Media[2] state, “To prevent harm and possible stigmatisation, a child’s HIV status will not be revealed directly or indirectly, unless there are exceptional circumstances, and informed consent (from both the child and caregiver) has been obtained. If in doubt, this information shall be left out.”

MMA acknowledges the fact that journalists should indeed report on critical issues facing children such as hunger, poverty, etc, however they should do so by adhering to ethical guidelines of reporting on children. Journalists must conduct their reporting in line with Section 28.2 of the South African Bill of Rights which asks that the best interests of children must be of paramount importance in all matters about the children. Further, journalists must consistently take into consideration ethics of reporting on children. Section 8.1 of the Press Code of Ethics and Conduct for South African Print and Online Media[3] states, “The press shall therefore exercise exceptional care and consideration when reporting about children under the age of 18. If there is any chance that coverage might cause harm of any kind to a child, he or she shall not be interviewed, photographed or identified without the consent of a legal guardian or of a similarly responsible adult and the child (taking into consideration the evolving capacity of the child); and a public interest is evident;.”

The article does not indicate whether fully-informed consent was obtained from the parents, guardians and children to identify the children either directly or otherwise. In instances where fully informed consent is obtained, we argue that the media has a duty to gauge whether revealing the children’s identity is in their best interest or not and, to always withhold the identities whenever revealing them exposes them to harm. MMA’s Guidelines advise journalists as follows, “Even if a child’s caregiver consents to disclosure of the identity of a child, a journalist must exercise a cautious discretion, as it may nevertheless be harmful to the child to publish the identity of the child.”

Regarding public interest, we argue that it was not in the public interest to know the identities of the children from these families that are struggling to feed them. Further, it was definitely not in the public interest to know the identity of the woman reported to be HIV positive especially that this stigma might spill over to her children. DispatchLIVE should have gauged the value of this information before publishing the story as we believe the story would have had the same impact had the identities of the children and the identity of the HIV positive woman been withheld.

As MMA, we will always encourage journalists to report on stories about children, especially when their wellbeing is threatened because of the stressful conditions under which they live. We just expect the journalists to make sure that their articles do not cause further harm to the children.

We kindly ask that DispatchLIVE removes the photograph with children, their names, as well as that of the HIV positive woman from the website. We ask that DispatchLIVE instead use pseudonyms even in places of the parents’ names. Further, we request that an explanation be written to readers as to why the decision to withdraw identities was taken.

We look forward to reading more DispatchLIVE articles in the future that report on children in a manner that acts in their best interests.

By Lister Namumba & Jacques Ndong

[1] A MAD is given when a journalist reports on children in an irresponsible manner