Reporting on children in a manner that protect their rights to privacy and many other related rights is important. Even when reporting about the challenges that children face, it is crucial that journalists balance the reporting of these issues with children’s rights and the ethical principle of minimising harm. Sowetan,Sunday World and The Times fell short of ensuring that they strike this delicate balance. Hence, Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) classified the below stories as MADs1.
Sowetan published the story entitled “Parents tug-of war lands talented TV teen in care” (30/04/2015, p.2). The story is about a child who was admitted to a psychiatric ward for evaluation because of fights between his parents. In the article, the child and both of his parents are identified and details of the parents’ fight for his custody revealed. The story is an injustice to the child’s emotional and psychological wellbeing. As it is, the child is going through too much already and his family affairs and his ill-health becoming public knowledge might compound his problems further. Not only did the story ignore the child’s best interests, it failed to adhere to Section 8.1of the South African Press Code which stipulates that “Exceptional care and consideration must be exercised when reporting on matters where children under the age of 18 are involved.” Children from Parkhurst Primary School2 were asked what they thought about the article. They said that the article violated the child’s rights to privacy and dignity through identifying him and his parents. And that although the child is famous, people do not need to know that his parents are fighting over him or that he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital.
Sowetan also published the article titled “How my mom was set alight” (06/10/2015 p.5). The story is about a teenage boy who testified in court on how he witnessed the burning of his mother who was alleged to be a witch. While the journalist recognised the importance of not revealing the name of the child, his efforts where undone by naming the boy’s late mother. Naming the mother is equivalent to identifying the child witness indirectly. The story therefore breached Section 154 (3) of the Criminal Procedure Act which stipulates that “children involved in court proceedings should not be identified either directly or indirectly.”
Third on our list of stories that concerned us is Sunday World’s “Baby mama drama hot on Melusi’s trail” (10/05/2015, p.6) in which they identified parents entangled in a maintenance dispute. The story is one of the many stories written about the actor in question who failed to pay maintenance for his child and how the mother of the child has since pressed charges against him. Yet again, a child who has not asked for this glare of publicity has his life open to public scrutiny. While journalists’ duty is to report stories and inform the public, it is important that when reporting on children they observe the highest ethical standards and consider the potential harms to the child’s development and well-being. Not only did the journalist act unethically in the manner in which they reported this story, but they also breached Section 36 of the Maintenance Act3 which stipulates that “no one should publish information likely to reveal the identity of the child”.
Lastly, the article “Cops arrest boy, 13, for beach footage” (12/05/2015, p.6) by The Times is ethically questionable. The story is about a boy who was arrested by the police for recording the clash between the police and the beachgoers on his cell phone. The story indirectly identifies the child by naming his mother. There is a particular danger when children who have been ill-treated or intimidated are identified in the media, as there is then a permanent record that may serve as a constant reminder to the child of the traumatic event they might have witnessed or experienced. It was therefore important that the journalist exercised exceptional care and consideration to the well being of the child by not identifying him as stipulated under section 8.1 of South African Press Code.
Children make for interesting and appealing subjects of news reporting but coverage on children comes with a lot of responsibility. In all the stories highlighted above, the stories where irresponsible in their reporting as they all failed to protect vulnerable children by directly and in some cases indirectly identifying them. MMA would like to urge the media to ensure that while reporting on children and their issues to make sure that they do not affect their wellbeing and expose them to further harm.
By Musa Rikhotso
1. MADs- Refers to stories where the rights and welfare of children have been compromised through irresponsible media coverage↩
2. As part of its Empowering Children and the Media Strategy, Parkhurst Primary school participates in MMA’s Make Abuse Disappear Online Accountability Tool (MAD OAT) where learners aged between 12 and 14 are taught media literacy and media monitoring skills↩
3. Section 36 of the Maintenance Act 99 of 98 states:
“No person shall publish in any manner whatsoever the name or address of any person under the age of 18 years who is or was involved in any proceedings at a maintenance enquiry or the name of his or her school or any other information likely to reveal the identity of that person.”↩
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