Children’s Institute et al vs. The Times


Tue, Mar 14, 2017

Ruling by the Press Ombud

14 March 2017

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Dr Stefanie Röhrs, senior researcher of the Children’s Institute at the University of Cape Town, with Mr Wessel van den Berg (Children’s Rights and Positive Parenting Manager, Sonke Gender Justice) and those of Jillian Green of The Times newspaper.

Röhrs and Van den Berg are complaining about a front-page article in The Times of 11 January 2017, headlined Pupils prefer the pain – Corporal punishment ‘understood and accepted’. The same article was carried online under the strapline, Some pupils would rather get a smack at school than have their parents called in. The statement, A study last year in KwaZulu-Natal found that pupils see corporal punishment as part of a teacher’s role, is also in question.

Complaint                                            

The main complaint centers on the headline, sub-heading and straplines (as cited above), saying they were incorrect and baseless, and that they might have encouraged teachers to continue to violate the SA Schools Act (which prohibits corporal punishment at school).

In addition, Röhrs and Van den Berg complain that the article:

·         attributed statements made by teachers to learners, blaming in that process the latter for teachers’ use of violent discipline;

·         intentionally omitted the views of learners;

·         misrepresented the view of a learner; and

·         neglected to report the scale of the study, thereby misleadingly suggesting that the statements were representative of attitudes at national level.

The text

The story, written by Hayley Grammer and Tanya Steenkamp, was based on the results of a new study which reportedly showed that some pupils would rather be beaten by a teacher than have their parents called in. The study was conducted by Sekitia Makhasane and Vitallis Chikoko from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and was titled Corporal punishment contestations, paradoxes and implications for school leadership. A case study of two South African schools (published in 2016 in the South African Journal of Education).

The complaint in more detail

Röhrs and Van den Berg complain that the statements in the headlines and straplines, as cited above, were incorrect and baseless in that the study in question did not find that pupils made those statements – instead, it referred to what teachers told the researchers (some of these teachers claimed that some learners preferred corporal punishment as part of teachers’ role).

“Nowhere in the study do learners themselves make the statement that they prefer pain or that they see corporal punishment as part of a teacher’s role. On the contrary, the study authors highlighted that learners ‘reported that corporal punishment affected them negatively’ and that they would avoid class if they had not done their homework to avoid being beaten’,” they write.

They also refer to the statement that a pupil at one of the schools said violence was part of “his culture” – while, in fact, the study reported that the learners told the researchers that corporal punishment constituted part of the school’s culture.

The complainants also argue that journalists neglected to mention the small scale of the study – only two school principals, eight teachers and eight learners were interviewed. They attest, “The study is … not representative (and does not claim to be). The article, however, makes a sweeping statement about what learners (in fact: teachers) think about corporal punishment without clarifying in the headline or [in] the body copy that this claim is based on a very small sample of eight teachers.”

The Times

Green replies that the story was published on the first day of a new academic year for millions of children and focused on the troubling reality that corporal punishment was still widely used in schools. The article did not rely solely or even largely on the study, she adds – it was used as a platform from which to examine the continuing use of corporal punishment in schools. When read as a whole, she argues, the story was contextualized and balanced, and in the public interest.

She argues that the quotes in the story were attributed to teachers, even though some of those views were about what pupils had expressed to teachers (“hearsay”). She also says the headline accurately reflected the content of the story, as required by the Code of Ethics and Conduct.

Green denies that the views of pupils were intentionally omitted. It is part of a journalist’s work to sift through material, she argues. The study itself, which consisted of approximately 5 700 words, contained five direct quotes from learners, of which the article quoted one. She adds that the story did not suggest that corporal punishment was in any way positive for learners.

She says the reported statement by one learner (that violence was part of his culture) was an error which was introduced in editing, and apologizes for this mistake.

The article did not refer to the relatively small scale of the study, Green continues, because it was merely used as a platform to introduce the issue. She admits it would have improved the quality of the story if details about the study were published, but argues that this did not represent a breach of the Code.

She denies the story suggested that the statements in the article were portrayed as representative of the whole country, as the article made it clear that the study was done in KwaZulu-Natal.

Green also says the article apportioned no blame for the fact that corporal punishment still takes place in some schools. The matter was in the public interest, and she “strenuously” denies that the newspaper was guilty of imperiling the safety of children.

The complainants again

Röhrs and Van den Berg express their appreciation for some sentiments in Green’s arguments, but they still stand by their request for a retraction of the article and for an apology to the readership of the newspaper.

They maintain that the headline was incorrect and in fact violated children’s right to dignity. They emphasize that children experience extremely high levels of violence both at home and at school. “In this context,” they argue, “it is irresponsible that a national newspaper publishes a front-page headline which suggests that children prefer pain. This headline can reasonably be assumed to be able to influence an undecided parent or teacher towards the use of physical punishment. We therefore regard it as inflammatory language that incites violence against children.”

And again: “The headline … is clearly not in the best interest of children because it appears to support teachers in using corporal punishment.”

Analysis

Headlines, straplines

The question is whether the headlines and straplines reasonably reflected the content of the story, as required by Section 10.1 of the Code of Ethics and Conduct.

It is important to refer to Judge Phillip Levinsohn’s statement in a Supreme Court case in Swaziland (in 2013) in this regard: “Many readers of newspapers simply glance at the bold headings only and then move on. The impression implanted in the mind of the reader by such blaring headlines is likely to be both deep and lasting. Most readers do not read the whole story…”

This means it is fair to say that headlines should stand on their own and be interpreted as such. (I have asked Judge Levinsohn personally if this interpretation is correct, to which he replied in the affirmative.)

I also refer to at least two of my rulings (Helen Zille vs. The New Age, 30 June 2014 and April vs. Die Hoorn, 10 July 2014), where I have applied the same principle.

This is important, as Levinsohn’s argument represents the reason behind Section 10.1 of the SA Code of Ethics and Conduct, which reads, “Headlines … shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report … in question” – for if they don’t, and people do not read further than the headline, the impression about the story would inevitably be misleading.

I note that the main headline, presented as fact, was not attributed to anybody – neither to teachers, nor to learners; the sub-heading, though, used quotation marks, which suggested that this was someone’s view or comment.

But again, it is not clear who that “someone” was.

I do believe that the headline and sub-heading should have been clearer – but because they did not state or necessarily imply that their content was derived from learners rather than from teachers, it would not be reasonable to find against the newspaper on this issue.

In other words, because the headline and the sub-heading were vague about the origin of the statement and opinion expressed in them, it would be problematic to find that they were misleading on the basis that they have misrepresented the content of the story – or, for that matter, if they were read in isolation from the story.

A relatively weak headline does not by default constitute a breach of the Code.

The same goes for the straplines, as cited above.

Encouraging violence against children?

Here is a theoretical question: If a study did find that some pupils preferred corporal punishment to their parents’ involvement in disciplinary proceedings at school, could a report on such a study be considered as incitement to violence against children? And should it therefore not be published?

I do not think so, as the matter would have been of sufficient public interest (to explicitly state that some pupils prefer “the pain”) – even if such reportage might have resulted in persuading undecided individuals that corporal punishment was after all not all that bad. In other words, there would have been two conflicting principles (freedom of speech vs. children’s rights) – and in this particular situation the former would have come out as the stronger of the two.

So therefore, why would the matter be any different to the headline in question? There is no material difference between the two scenarios – it does not matter whether the statement was derived from learners or from teachers (or from a study, for that matter), as it remained in the public interest.

The article

Attributing teachers’ statements to learners; putting the blame on learners

The study referred to the views of teachers as well as learners, but the former were dominant. I have counted fifteen references to what teachers and principals had to say, against the five times pupils were quoted.

But even more significant than the “quantity” is the “quality” of what learners had to say: The study did not include a single positive statement from any learner towards corporal punishment (while by far the majority of teachers clearly felt the need for it).

For example learners said, “It is painful and embarrassing because when you are beaten other learners will be looking at you and some of them laugh at you.” One relevant remark by the researchers was, “To the learners, corporal punishment was both painful, and a stigma before other learners, and therefore not beneficial to them.”

The third sentence of the story, setting the tone for the rest of the article, therefore presented a problem. This read, “A study last year in KwaZulu-Natal found that pupils see corporal punishment as part of a teacher’s role.”

This was not true – not according to the study, that is. There is one reference in the whole of the study to such a sentiment, and it came from a teacher who claimed that this was the view of some pupils.

That context, which was important, went missing in the story.

In fact, as Röhrs and Van den Berg correctly say, the study reported what teachers told the researchers, rather than what learners told them about corporal punishment. In other words, the sentence in question should have read, “A study last year in KwaZulu-Natal found teachers saying that pupils see corporal punishment as part of a teacher’s role.”

The difference between the two sentences are not cosmetic.

It follows that the story, at least partly, did blame pupils for teachers’ use of violent discipline.

Intentionally omitting views of learners

This part of the complaint has no legs to stand on – the study itself gave much more prominence to the views of teachers than to those of learners. Sunday Times should not be blamed if it followed suit. Besides, there is only so much space available to the newspaper to fit in everything it needs to fit in. This they did, selecting what they wanted to report – which is normal journalistic practice.

Misrepresenting the view of a learner

I accept Green’s admission that it was an editorial error to delete the words “at school” with reference to a culture which is acquainted with violence.

Neglecting to report the scale of the study

I do not believe the article’s message was that this study was representative of the situation on a national level; however, I also believe a case could be made that the findings of the study was representative of KwaZulu-Natal (as only that province was mentioned) – which it was not.

Therefore, to avoid any confusion, I submit that Sunday Times was at fault for not giving the proper context to the scope of the study.

Finding

Headlines, straplines

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Encouraging violence against children?

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

The article

Attributing teachers’ statements to learners; putting the blame on learners

The statement in the story, and all other possible insinuations to the effect that the study found that pupils saw corporal punishment as part of a teacher’s role – in the process at least partly putting the blame for teachers’ use of violent discipline on pupils – was inaccurate, unfair and exaggerated, and in breach of the following sections of the SA Code of Ethics and Conduct:

·         1.1: “The media shall take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly”; and

·         1.2: “News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by distortion, exaggeration or misrepresentation, material omissions, or summarization”.

Intentionally omitting views of learners

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Misrepresenting the view of a learner

The editorial error, deleting the words “at school” by a pupil with reference to a culture which is acquainted with violence, was in breach of Section 1.1 of the Code.

Neglecting to report the scale of the study

The newspaper was in breach of Section 1.2 of the Code for not providing the necessary context with regards to the scope of the study.

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

The Times is:

·         directed to apologise to its readership for wrongly, unfairly and misleadingly stating and insinuating that the study found that pupils saw corporal punishment as part of a teacher’s role – in the process at least partly putting the blame for teachers’ use of violent discipline on pupils;

·         reprimanded for:

o   not providing the necessary context with regards to the scope of the story; and

o   deleting the words “at school” by a pupil with reference to a culture which is acquainted with violence.

The text should:

·         be published on the front page and online;

  • 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 headline should refer to the issue and contain the word “apology” or “apologizes”.

Appeal

The 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