This article, by Swazi student and journalist Ian Lwazi Dlamini, forms part of a series on media and children. Ian wrote this article for MISA-Swaziland after attending a recent MISA and Save the Children training session on ethical media reporting of children.
“The press has great power to affect the lives of millions of people. Like any other powerful institution, it must be prepared to listen to complaints, to explain its decisions to readers and viewers, and to acknowledge and correct mistakes.” (Media Law, U.S. Department of State).
The press provides its readers, viewers and listeners with diverse information, presented as news stories and news analysis. In gathering and presenting news stories involving a child, the press should have more than an interest in protecting the child’s rights, but should have a responsibility. The primary role of the press is not to publish child abuse stories; the primary role of the media is to protect children’s rights.
The first job of a news reporter is not producing a front-page story that reflects the interests of his media house, but it is producing a story that reflects the interests of the public. Amongst other media responsibilities, the press should adhere to the following three media ethics, two of which are outlined in the Swaziland National Association of Journalists (SNAJ) Code of Ethics.
1. Social Responsibility
a) Approach – when reporting news, it is the responsibility of the press to use an approach that protects the child’s rights rather than making sensational headlines. The press should collect and disseminate information that answers the who cares? and the what now? questions. As case studies let us consider one child abuse story published by the local press which does not pass this test and one South African story which does.
On December 10 2012, the Times of Swaziland published a child abuse story about a nine-year old who was raped. The story’s lead reads, “Two elderly men allegedly had sexual intercourse with a nine-year old girl on different occasions and paid her E1 afterwards”. The approach used in story showed that the news in the story wasn’t the ‘rape’ but the E1 paid afterwards.
On November 16 2012, the Mail & Guardian published a story about sexual abuse at school as ‘a pandemic’. The story’s lead reads, “War must be waged against the pandemic of sexual violence and the sexualisation of South Africa’s pupils, civil society said this week”. Although the story is about a workshop, the approach used in the story answers the who cares? and what now? questions.
Instead of sensationalizing how pupils sell sex videos and how they offer sex for taxi rides, the story deliberates on how the conference resulted in possible solutions. The approach used was ‘solving the problem’ instead of ‘sensationalizing the problem’. It is the responsibility of the press to use an approach that benefits and meets the public’s interests.
b) Pictures – Article 15 (1) of the SNAJ Code of Ethics, stipulates that “journalists should avoid identifying survivors of sexual assault or any information that may lead to the identification of the survivor”. This is a crucial way of protecting, not only children rights, but every survivor’s rights, regardless of the age. Using the two mentioned publications, correct application of Article 15 (1) will be put to the test. The picture used by Times of Swaziland is a full photo of the survivor who only has part of her face hidden. The photo’s caption reads, “The nine-year-old girl (L) who has been sexually abused by two men who paid her E1, sitting with her grandmother and aunt”.
On the other hand, Mail & Guardian uses a photo of a child tightly holding onto a doll as if her life depends on it. Her face is not just ‘hidden’ but is not shown in the photo. The photo doesn’t look like the one of the victim but like a picture of some child. The photo caption reads, “Rights group Section27 is working on six cases in schools in three provinces involving rape and coercive sex”.
2. Accurate Reporting
a) Truth – Jane Kirtley, writer of the earlier quoted book, Media Law, believes that “the press must seek truth and report it. It must be tireless in seeking and achieving accuracy. The press must never knowingly publish a falsehood”.
A story about a toddler who survived her father’s murder attempt was published by the Swazi Observer and Times of Swaziland (June 4 2013). On June 20 2013, the Swazi Observer reported that a South African Gospel artist had ‘awarded’ a bursary to the toddler.
Two days later, the same publication, in the entertainment section, reported that groceries worth E3, 000 ($US300) had been given to the three-year old toddler’s family by the Gospel artist. In addition, the artist had offered to audition the mother of the toddler the following weekend during upcoming auditions because “she said she could sing”.
The mother of the survivor (and me) were shocked to read this news. As a person I knew and visited regularly those days, I verified that more than half of what had been published was falsehood (as Kirtley puts it). No bursary was awarded to the toddler, groceries bought amounted to less than E200 (I’m a witness) and the mother was never invited to auditions (who would leave her injured child in hospital and go to music auditions anyways?).
The South African Gospel artist might have given the journalist the information published by Swazi Observer but the journalist didn’t adhere to Article 1 (2) of the SNAJ Code of Ethics which stipulates that “A journalist should make adequate inquiries, do cross-checking of facts in order to provide the public with unbiased, accurate, balanced and comprehensive information”.
b) Secondary trauma – According to Article 18 (3) of the SNAJ Code of Ethics, journalists should endeavour to avoid reporting on information that will result in secondary trauma. Because of published falsehood, the mother of the toddler suffered great trauma. It is the responsibility of the press to protect survivors from secondary trauma by not publishing inaccurate stories and/or doing irrelevant follow-up stories.
3. People’s Right to Information
a) Educating and Persuading function of the press – The press has a responsibility to educate the public about children’s rights as well as persuade the government and the public at large to protect these rights. This can be achieved, amongst other ways, by answering the who cares? and what now? questions in the news stories and analyses published.
Apart from reporting on sexual abuse at school as ‘a pandemic’, the Mail & Guardian educated the public about a “wonderful policy on how schools should deal with this”. Through its headline, it also persuaded the public “to do something” which answers the who cares? and what now? questions.
b) The mirror function of the press – The press has a responsibility to be a true reflection of its society. MISA Swaziland, in partnership with Save the Children (International) ran a media project on ‘children and the media’ in June 2013 which involved research on the media, training of journalists and discussions with youth people.
Preliminary results from the research shows that while newspapers in Swaziland often write stories about children and young people, these stories rarely capture the actual voice of young people or children. Mostly, it is politicians, civil servants, NGO leaders and police who are talking about, or on behalf of children in the media, rather than the children themselves.
MISA Swaziland’s research presents the ‘facts-gap’ that the Swazi press should close through providing a space or time for children to talk about abuse, their rights and protection. The facts-gap can also be closed by surveys conducted by the press as well as detailed analysis of data available with Swazi courts and/or NGOs dealing with child abuse. The surveys and research will also enable the press to know the interests of the people: what they want to listen to or read about.
c) The Watch Dog function of the press – “As an American judge once wrote, the default position for the press is to publish. Government should bear the burden of justifying any restraints. This formula preserves the watchdog role of the press and facilitates government’s accountability” (Media Law, U.S. Department of State). The big question is, Who watches the watch dog? This question is answered differently by different countries but the most reasonable answer says the press should watch (or regulate) itself, with help, of course, from readers and viewers.
Article 29 (1-7) of the Constitution of Swaziland stipulates rights of the child. As a watchdog of society, it is the duty of the press to ensure that these rights are respected by both the public and the government. The government uses the constitution as a tool for governance. The press must use it as a tool for accountability.
If the government has deprived children any of their rights, it is the responsibility of the press to challenge assumptions, to question authority, and to seek the truth. The press has the crucial function to monitor and protect the rights of children as well as to persuade parliament to enact laws that provide a good support system. It is the responsibility of the press to monitor and report on the making, implementation, launching and evaluation of the laws. And, of course, the press should always strive for honesty and accuracy in its reporting.
With the power to influence the lives of so many people, the press must work to protect children — while also informing, educating and persuading the public to do the same.
Click on the headlines below to read more about the MISA-Swaziland and Save the Children media project
Students meet the media in Swaziland, by Zwelihle Sukati
Learning from the children, by Patrick Myeni
MISA listens to students, trains journalists, by MISA-Swaziland