When rape is reported on by the media in South Africa, more often than not, the story describes who the victim is, the way in which they were abused, where the crime happened and whether or not the perpetrator has been arrested. While this speaks to the basics of news reporting, for an issue as complex as rape and other types of abuses, this type of storytelling misses the opportunity to expose its media consumers to in-depth information on some of the reasons behind the violence, that is, why those who commit such crimes, do so.

In 2013, Media Monitoring Africa (MMA)’s “Children in the News: Seen but still not heard” report findings revealed that, consistent with previous years’ results, the most frequent reporting format for children’s stories was “news” with “feature stories” used in barely three percent of cases. It is the more in-depth style of journalism found in feature stories, that allows journalists to explore complex issues that affect children, such as abuse.

It is because the article, “The darkest family secret” (The Citizen, 25/02/2014, p. 7) is a feature story and delves into addressing some of these questions that it was recognised by MMA as a story worthy of being awarded a GLAD. Likewise, the photograph accompanying the article protects the identities of the children. The article goes beyond reporting on rape as simply a gruesome and inconceivable crime committed by “monsters” and explains what drives fathers, and sometimes both parents, to abuse their children.

MMA’s research on the coverage of children in the media also found that among a vast number of topics relevant to children, ‘child abuse’ is one of the least reported on issues, making the publication of this article all the more important. Crucially, the story’s main sources are a psychologist and trauma specialists equipped with the knowledge to examine and discuss the nuanced reality of abuse, beyond its criminality and violation of justice which is often a one-sided and too simple a way to report on rape.

Psychologist Anne-Marie Wenzel is quoted explaining that “rape is not always motivated by sex, but also by a desire to dominate and control […] perceived by the perpetrator to be an act of affirmation of masculinity.”This kind of insight is rare and more often than not missing from media coverage of rape and cases of abuse.

A study currently being conducted by MMA on masculinity in the media, has indicated that media stories of gender-based violence and rape frame masculinity predominantly as vicious and monstrous, with little to no exploration of the impact society has on the construction of such a masculinity and its link to crime, which in turn may be affecting the way in which men perceive themselves generally.

The article quoted another specialist who said that “displaced anger and rage as a result of unmet emotional needs or unresolved issues lead parents to sexually assault their children” along with other reasons such as “substance abuse, a personal history of victimization and gross underlying pathology.” Where the article left room for further exploration is at the end where it suggested that “education” and “other forms of intervention” are essential to dealing with child abuse. In future stories, it would be beneficial to the public to be told what some of these interventions could be, so they themselves could feel part of the solution.

While it is important for the media to continue to report on rape and all other forms of abuse, and to highlight the symptoms of abuse which survivors face, it is also imperative that journalists devote as much attention to exploring the flip side of abuse – its causes and perpetrators. Such a holistic approach could also provide an opportunity for a holistic solution to a problem that plagues South Africa on a daily basis.

The Citizen should thus be applauded in this regard for their in-depth coverage of a sensitive issue that affects children and more importantly for demonstrating responsible journalism by ensuring that the identities of those involved are sufficiently protected.

In response to the commentary, The Citizen’s journalist, Jevanne Gibbs said:

“Thanks so much for referencing my story on your website, that’s so cool. My editor Trevor Stevens was very happy as well.