This week Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) gives a MAD[1] to Sowetan and The Times for publishing articles in which the identity of a teenager was revealed, despite her being a victim and witness to a crime.

Teenager traumatised after ‘police’ shootings”, (The Times, 02/05/2017, p.2) and “‘My girl can’t sleep after cops shot at her’”, (Sowetan, 02/05/2017, p.4) report on the same incident in which a teenager, her father and grandfather were driving in Soshanguve when an unmarked police vehicle allegedly tried to push them off the road. The vehicle then gave chase when the family drove away. The family was allegedly shot at multiple times by police inside the vehicle leaving the teenager with a bullet wound to her shoulder and her grandfather with four bullet graze wounds to his right arm. According to an interview with her mother, the child has been suffering from nightmares and has become withdrawn since the incident. The articles report that police are investigating a case of attempted murder against the two police officers involved.

While we acknowledge that this is an important story that should certainly be published widely in order to hold those involved accountable, we would like to draw attention to ethical concerns raised in the reporting. Critically, both articles identify the teenager directly by naming her. She is also indirectly identified through the naming of her mother, father, grandfather and sister. Both Sowetan and The Times failed to take any steps to protect her identity and this is incredibly problematic as the child is both a victim and a potential witness in criminal proceedings regarding the shootings that took place. Furthermore, identifying the teenager not only opens up the potential for further psychological trauma, which may occur from her story being further publicised in the media, but it may also lead to intimidation or further harm by the perpetrators. Both articles suggest that no arrests have been made therefore revealing the identity of the child directly or otherwise potentially compromises her safety.

In addition, this contravenes Times Media Group’s own Editorial Code of Conduct which undertakes to minimise harm and consider the consequences of reporting on children and further “…protect the identities of children…who have been charged or convicted of a crime or been a witness to a crime”.[2]

Equally, these articles go against Section 8.1.1. of the Code of ethics and conduct for South African print and online media, to which the Times Media Group subscribes, which states that “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..”[3] In these stories, there was no indication that fully informed consent was obtained from both the parents and the child herself to have her identity revealed. Importantly, though, even if permission was granted from both parties, the journalist needed to critically consider whether it was in the teenager’s best interests to have her identity published.

These codes of practice are in place to ensure that the best interests of the children are always central to all stories concerning them and that they are not exposed to any further harm or distress.

We would therefore urge both Sowetan and The Times to protect the identities of children when it is not in their best interests to be identified, particularly when it comes to sensitive and potentially traumatic circumstances such as criminal events.

By Sarah Findlay

[1] MADs refer to stories where the rights and welfare of children have been compromised through irresponsible media coverage