21st Century vs. Daily Sun


Thu, Mar 9, 2017

Ruling by the Press Ombud

9 March 2017

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Mr Manqoba Mkhabela, COO of the funeral parlour 21st Century, and those of Johan Vos, deputy editor of the Daily Sun newspaper, as well as on an informal meeting that was held on 7 March 2017 in Johannesburg. Present at the meeting were Mkhabela, Ms Thinabantu Mkhabela and Mr Sipho Maphanga, representing 21st Century, as well as Vos.

Mkhabela is complaining about a story in Daily Sun of 10 January 2017, headlined Body falls out of coffin.

Complaint                                            

In general, Mkhabela complains that the story was misleading, damaging and defamatory of him and of his company.

In particular, he complains it is untrue that:

·        the bottom of the coffin fell out, and that the body fell to the ground;

·        family and mourners watched in horror;

·        some mourners ran away in terror, thinking that the deceased had awoken from the dead and was charging from his coffin; and

·        the family was furious and wanted 21st Century to explain why it gave them poor service.

Mkhabela adds that the journalist:

·        did not corroborate the story;

·        gave him too little time to respond; and

·        ignored the results of the investigation and the will of the family.

The text

The article, written by Ntebatse Masipa, said that after a hearse arrived at the family’s home in Ekurhuleni and the mourners were preparing to carry the coffin into the house, its bottom fell out, with family and mourners watching in horror as Mr Sibusiso Dlamini’s corpse dropped to the ground.

“Some mourners ran away in terror, thinking that Sibusiso had awoken from the dead and was charging from his coffin,” the story continued.

His family then reportedly covered the body with a blanket as the mortuary workers (from 21st Century) had to fetch another coffin.

The family was reportedly furious and demanded an explanation from the company.

Masipa quoted the deceased’s brother, Isaac Dlamini, as saying the incident had been an insult to him and to their ancestors. “The funeral parlour made a joke out of our brother,” he reportedly said.

The manager of 21st Century, Mr Sipho Maphanga, said he did not know about the incident, adding that the company would investigate the matter.

The arguments

Mkhabela explains that only a few screws came loose and that the bottom corner of the coffin slightly protruded – the bottom did not fall out, neither did the body inside. He says that no parts of the body were seen until it was transferred into another casket. The coffin was wrapped in blankets and replaced “very soon” afterwards.

He also says that 21st Century company consulted with the family throughout this incident and they indicated that they were satisfied with the service provided and the speedy resolution of the problem.

Mkhabela adds that the journalist gave him less than a day to respond to questions, which was not adequate.

Vos replies that the newspaper’s main source was one of the bereaved family members, who witnessed the events as described in the article. He says there were three other witnesses, and invited me to contact them on condition of anonymity.

The deputy editor adds that Daily Sun is a daily publication with strict deadlines, and asserts that the company was given a right of reply before going to print.

He concludes, “[W]e believed the article to be reasonably true at the time of going to print.”

Analysis

I have written the following messages to Mkhabela and Vos, asking for clarification:

To Mkhabela: You complain that the journalist ignored the results of the investigation and the will of the family. But surely, the investigation came only after the story was published? Are you therefore complaining that there was no follow-up story?

You are also not clear … and the “will of the family”. I need to know what you mean by that.

To Vos: You want to keep the identity of your sources confidential. I respect that, but still want to know why they do not want to be identified – I suspect that they are not employees of 21st Century, so what harm could come to them if they are identified?

Conversely, if I hold a hearing on this matter, would they be willing to testify?

Also: The first few sentences of the story seem to suggest that the incident took place outside the house, at the hearse, when people attempted to take the coffin into the house. However, Mr Masoja Hlengetwa recalls that the problem was encountered inside the house. So, which is which?

Mkhabela replied

Masipa called the parlour around 12:25 the day before publication. The call was taken by operations manager Sipho Maphanga. “The journalist mentioned that the family is complaining that we did a poor service because the box opened up and the deceased fell. She was informed that we were currently not aware of the incident we would investigate the matter and phone contact her with the results of said investigation.”

Maphanga then phoned Ms Labilinah Dlamini (the mother of the deceased and the person who claimed on the policy that she had with 21st Century). The latter mentioned that there had been a problem with the box, but said it was corrected (as the company brought a new box). She added that the family wanted to put the matter behind them and did not want it to be discussed in the media.

Both the funeral manager (who was responsible for conducting the funeral) and the driver involved in carrying the coffin said there was a problem with the coffin (in that a few screws came loose on the coffin). However, this problem was identified early and was communicated to Ms Dlamini. The matter was remedied immediately (by bringing a new coffin). The client, the funeral manager and the driver confirmed that the body did not fall out of a coffin.  

Maphanga then phoned Masipa back (at 14:24), informing her of the results of the investigation (including that the body did not fall out), that the family was happy with the service, and that they would not like the issue to be discussed in the media.

The pictures the journalist sent him rather support this version of the story, as they did not show the body outside of a coffin – only the coffin covered in a blanket.

Vos replied

He said:

·        From experience he knows that the newspaper’s sources are less willing to provide information if their identities are not protected. Moreover, the story did identify two sources (Dlamini and Ms Thandi Dladla, a cousin). He also asks what the relevance of identification is to my finding;

·        He would have to confirm with the witnesses whether or not they would be willing to testify at a meeting; and

·        One journalist said that the bottom of the coffin dropped out and the body fell out outside the house. He points me to the picture published in the newspaper, in which the corpse was on top of the coffin, covered in blankets. “It is therefore clear that the corpse fell out of the coffin,” he concluded.

At the meeting

Bottom fell out; body fell to ground

I have listened to tape recordings of eye-witnesses from both sides.

The mother of the deceased said that the body was not visible (according to her, the bottom of the coffin “threatened” to fall out); a friend of the deceased testified that a part of the body dropped out and touched the ground.

It is impossible for me to decide which party to believe, even after the hearing. The testimony of the mother has to weigh heavily, but I cannot simply discard what four sources told the journalist.

There seems to be consensus, though, that the entire body did not fall to the ground, as suggested in the story as well as in the headline.  This was not fair to 21st Century as the claim could have done unnecessary damage to its reputation.

The family’s reaction

At the meeting we have reached consensus that it was reasonable for the family to become angry and react irrationally – irrespective of whether the body actually fell to the ground or  not.

No corroboration; too little time to respond

The newspaper spoke to four sources, and it did get comment from 21st Century in time to meet the deadline. I therefore have no reason to find for the complainant in this regard.

Ignoring the results of 21st Century’s investigation, the will of the family

I have listened to a tape-recording of the conversation between Maphanga and the deceased’s mother, as well as to a recording of his report-back call to the journalist.

The mother denied that the body fell to the ground – a statement that Maphanga communicated to the reporter in time for publication. For some reason, though, the journalist did not report that; she merely said Maphanga would investigate the matter – which he already did, and which was the reason for his call to the journalist in the first place. 

Even if the journalist did not believe what Maphanga told her, it was her duty to report his side of the story.

While I fully respect the will of the family to keep the incident out of the media, it remained the newspaper’s decision. Publishing the story was justified as the incident happened in public (outside the house), and the matter was in the public interest.

Finding

Bottom fell out; body fell to ground

Even though I cannot say with any degree of certainty whether the body partly fell out of the coffin, or whether the bottom of the box merely “threatened” to open, the consensus that the entire body did not fall out is enough to find that the impression presented (both in the story and in the headline) was misleading and could possibly have caused 21st Century unnecessary harm.

The impression was in breach of Section 1.1 of the SA Code of Ethics and Conduct which says, “The media shall take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly.”

The family’s reaction

These parts of the complaint are dismissed.             

No corroboration; too little time to respond

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Ignoring the results of 21st Century’s investigation

The journalist omitted to report the results of Maphanga’s investigation, particularly the mother’s denial that the body fell to the ground. This was in breach of the following sections of the Code:

·        1.2: “News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by … material omission…”; and

·        1.8: “The media shall seek the views of the subject of critical reportage in advance of publication…”

The complaint about the newspaper having ignored the will of the family is dismissed.

Reputation

The misleading suggestion that the entire body fell out of the coffin and the journalist neglecting to report material information convince me that the newspaper was in breach of Section 3.3 of the Code, which reads, “The media shall exercise care and consideration in matters involving … reputation.”

Seriousness of breaches

Under the headline Hierarchy of sanctions, Section 8 of the Complaints Procedures distinguishes between minor breaches (Tier 1), serious breaches (Tier 2) and serious misconduct (Tier 3).                                                                                      

The breaches of the Code of Ethics and Conduct as indicated above are all Tier 2 offences.

Sanction

Daily Sun is directed to apologise to 21st Century for creating the misleading impression that the deceased’s entire body fell to the ground, and for omitting to state that the deceased’s mother denied that this had happened, and for the harm that this might have done to 21st Century’s reputation.

The text should:

·        be published:

o   on the same page as that used for the offending article;

o   online as well, if the offending article was carried on its website;

  • start with the apology;
  • refer to the complaint that was lodged with this office;
  • end with the sentence, “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding”; and
  • be approved by me.

The headlines should contain the words “apology” or “apologises”, and 21st Century.

Appeal

Our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven working days of receipt of this decision, either party may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Appeals Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombud