Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) gives a MAD[1] to both Daily Sun and Sowetan for stories in which children were interviewed about their traumatic experiences thereby neglecting to prioritise the best interests of the children involved.

In the first case, Daily Sun published a story entitled “Girl says relative beat her!” (10/08/2016, p.4) which reports on a 17 year old who was assaulted by three of her relatives. The story describes how the three accused pulled the minor’s hair, threw her on the floor and set a dog on her before pouring beer over her. According to the article, the child’s relatives have been ‘harassing’ her and her mother since the death of the child’s father in 2002. While we commend the measures taken by the journalist to avoid revealing the identity of the child both in the story and in the associated photograph, we argue that the child’s traumatic ordeal meant that interviewing her was not in her best interests. Here, talking with the young girl may have subjected her to further trauma, anguish and stress as she recounted the episode of assault.

The second article, “Boy’s drowning ‘a curse’” published by Sowetan (12/08/2016, p.8) relays the story of a seven year old boy who drowned in the Vlakfontein dam. According to the article, the boy and his friend were trying to recover a soccer ball from the water using a makeshift raft when the rope broke sending the child in the water. Despite attempts by his eight year old friend to rescue him and call for help, the child drowned. While the journalist should be commended for exposing some of the everyday experiences and dangers facing children and communities, the fact that the deceased boy’s friend was interviewed shortly after the incident cannot be ignored. Although the interview took place in the presence of a guardian and therefore indicates consent, the child should not have had to recount the traumatic ordeal in which he witnessed his best friend’s death. By making the child recount the traumatic ordeal, Sowetan contravened its own editorial policy which states in part, “We will also avoid questions or comments that could expose children to humiliation, embarrassment, grief or danger, or cause them to relive any trauma they may have experienced.”

We understand that in both stories the children were primary witnesses in the events and their insights therefore add legitimacy and accuracy to the stories covered. However, the grim nature of the stories and the fact that they both involve children requires a particular sensitivity on the part of both the journalist and the publication. Following MMA’s Editorial Guidelines and Principles for Reporting on Children in the Media[2], one of the foundational principles is to minimise harm to those included and interviewed in stories. In the cases presented above, asking the children to recount the incident may result in their reliving the painful experience and may catalyse a state of secondary trauma. In these instances, the telling of the story seemed to take precedence over the interests of the child.

While we appreciate the value of these stories as issues facing children need to be reported on, we caution the publications against interviewing children under similar circumstances in the future.

By Sarah Findlay

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