Danelda Dicke, Natalie Kriel vs. Daily Dispatch


Fri, Feb 8, 2019

Ruling by the Press Ombud

8 February 2019

Particulars

Date of article: 26 January 2019

Headline: Blood on Selborne grounds – 15 white boys beat me up, says school pupil

Page: 1

Online: Yes

Authors of article: Aretha Linden and John Harvey

Respondent: Kariem Hassan, internal ombud

Complaint                                            

The complainants are both parents of children at Selborne College.

Dicke complains the:

  • story was:
    • inaccurate and sensationalistic, it incited racism, and it was based on hearsay – despite the use of the word “allegedly”; and
    • one-sided and not respecting of the rights of the school or of the Education Department to conduct a fair investigation;
  • headline was over-dramatic; and
  • words in the sub-headline were not communicated to a journalist.

Kriel complains that the article contained fake news in that:

  • it is not true that fifteen white boys were involved in the incident (in which a black child was attacked);
  • the reportage was one-sided and incited racism; and
  • the boys were suspended not because they were thought to be guilty, but for safety reasons.

She concludes that her family has been traumatised through this ordeal, despite the fact that the article has not named the children.

The text

The article said that a 15-year old black Selborne College learner had allegedly been beaten up by fifteen white boys on the school’s grounds. The school’s spokesperson reportedly said he had heard of the incidenPt at the end of the school day (Friday), and added that Grade 10 tutors had already taken statements from the boys involved.

Buffalo City Metro spokesperson Samkelo Ngwenya, who was said to be related to the boy, reportedly posted a picture of the child with a broken lower lip on social media. He also expressed his anger at the manner in which the school’s management had handled the matter

The story said the Department of Education (DoE) would visit the school the Monday after the incident.

The newspaper’s response

Hassan says all the relevant persons were contacted for comment to verify the alleged attack by “15 white boys”, including the Department of Education.

He says the journalists reported that:

  • school’s spokesperson Jeff Fetting said he heard  about the incident “at the end of the school day” – he stated the school headmaster was not available and the matter would be dealt with the following Monday. He also pointed out that the Grade 10 tutors had taken statements from the boys involved; and
  • the DoE would visit the school on the Monday, and made it clear that the department does not condone violence in schools.

The internal ombud says in a subsequent article, published on January 28, the newspaper reported that Education MEC Mlungisi Mvoko had placed all the Selborne pupils who were allegedly involved under “precautionary suspension”.

He concludes: “The Dispatch reporters did all that was required of them to get to the truth of the incident. There was no bias or hearsay in the reportage and any inference that the matter was sensationalised is not fair.”

He adds that there are too many incidents of bullying happening on school grounds, which rendered the story in the public interest, and says the newspaper always ensures that it reports racial incidents such as this one “with great circumspect mindful not to inflame any emotions among the community”.

Analysis

The common denominator in the two complaints is that the reportage was inaccurate, sensationalistic and one-sided, that it incited racism, and that it was based on hearsay.

Firstly: It is not in dispute, or at the very least it seems to be reasonably true, that there had been some kind of (a violent) incident at Selborne College, as:

  • the college’s spokesperson reportedly confirmed that he had heard about the matter;
  • statements were already taken from some learners;
  • the school would deal with the matter at the first opportunity (after a weekend); and
  • a black child sustained injuries to at least his mouth.

Moreover, the article did not state the reason for the boy’s injuries as fact (i.e. that fifteen white boys attacked him), but consistently reported this as an allegation.

The first question is if the newspaper was justified to do so, or if the reportage merely amounted to hearsay.

I have asked Hassan clarity on the following issues:

  1. Did a journalist speak to the boy himself? I ask this because the story attributed the words that the child was beaten up to the boy, and not to some other source. If such a meeting took place, I need the details of where and when it happened, and also if the journalist took some notes.
  2. If not, who said that 15 white children were involved? The article uses the word “allegedly” here – so I need to know who made that allegation.

The public interest in the story is not in doubt. What I am concerned about, is that all the “evidence” seems to come from Ngwenya (who most probably was not present when the incident happened). If I am wrong, I need to know about it.

From the internal ombud’s response to these questions, or perhaps rather from the lack of it, I gather that the journalists did not speak to the boy at all. This means that, despite all the journalists’ efforts to get comment from various officials – which should be commended, no doubt – the fact remains that the story was based on an allegation made by a secondary source. This amounted to: “A source said that someone said that…”

That is called “hearsay”.

In effect, this means that the newspaper had no way of knowing that the boy in fact did allege that fifteen white boys had attacked him (while the sub-headline even quoted the boy as saying that fifteen white learners had attacked him). But how did the journalists know that the boy had made that allegation?

Yes, of course the learner could have said it, but the newspaper did not verify that fact. It merely took information from a secondary source as gospel.

I need to emphasise that such reportage is extremely dangerous – as can be seen from the results of the principal’s report to the DoE. I have often said in related findings that a newspaper is not justified to publish an allegation just because someone has made it – there has to be some possibility that the allegation is reasonably true. Unfortunately, this was not the case here.

Firstly, that report emphasised there were four boys involved in the fight – and not fifteen. If it were fifteen, the skirmish would have boiled down to some sort of barbaric kangaroo court and, I am sure, the victim would have been much worse off.

The allegation of “fifteen” boys, all white, was:

  • potentially extremely inflammatory in that it could have led (and still can) to some kind of racial violence in retaliation – this time black against white. The newspaper should have been cognisant of this possibility, and should have been much more cautious in its reportage; and
  • not accurate, fair and balanced, and neither was it reasonably true (fifteen attackers? really?) or verified with a primary source.

Secondly, the report found that the attack on the black boy was in retaliation for the latter allegedly having bullied other learners. Of course, I am not condoning any kind of violence on the child, even if it is true that he was a bully – but this information does put the matter in a different context.

Also, I am not convinced that the incident had racial overtones. Yes, the boy who was beaten was black and his attackers were white (as far as my information goes) – but I have no evidence of any kind that the attack was motivated by a notion of white supremacy, or by racial hatred, or by racism of any kind. On the contrary, the evidence rather points to an act in defence of another child who had been bullied.

But there is more – much more, I am afraid. As I have accepted that the journalists did not speak to the black boy, it follows that they could not have had his permission to publish his picture (as required by the Press Code).

The picture showed the boy, clothed in a school uniform, from the bottom of his nose down to his chest. I have no doubt that everyone in Selborne College, as well as his family and friends, would have been able to identify the child.

Section 8 of the Press Code states:

“In the spirit of Section 28.2 of the Bill of Rights the media shall:

“8.1 exercise exceptional care and consideration when reporting about children. If there is any chance that coverage might cause harm of any kind to a child, he or she shall not be … photographed or identified without the consent of a legal guardian or of a similarly responsible adult and the child (taking into consideration the evolving capacity of the child)…;

“8.2 … and …

“8.3 not identify children who have been victims of abuse or exploitation … without the consent of their legal guardians (or a similarly responsible adult) and the child (taking into consideration the evolving capacity of the child)…”

The newspaper could not have had the child’s permission to publish his picture (he was old enough to make a decision in this regard), and neither do I have any evidence that the journalists obtained permission from his parents or from a legal guardian. The fact that the picture was published on social media certainly does not justify the media to follow suit.

I have already stated my reservations about the words used in the sub-headline, as the journalists did not verify that the victim really uttered those words. There is nothing wrong, though, with the main headline as that was true – and in the public interest – even though the wording might have been somewhat dramatic.

In conclusion: The matter was in the public interest, irrespective of whether it was a racial incident or not. In years gone by, many fights have occurred on school grounds. But “times they are a’ changin” (with reference to Bob Dylan’s song of 1964), as has the practice of corporal punishment in schools. Violence on school grounds has no place in a modern, civil society, and the media are justified to report if such incidents occur.

This issue is not if the media should report on school violence, but rather how they should do so.

In the end, the reportage once again shows just how dangerous it is to publish an allegation, made by a secondary source, without verifying the information.

Finding

Both complaints are upheld.

Daily Dispatch are in breach of the following sections of the Press Code:

  • 1.1: “The media shall take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly”;
  • 1.2: “The media shall present news in context and in a balanced manner…”;
  • 1.7: “The media shall verify the accuracy of doubtful information, if practicable; if not, this shall be stated”;
  • 8.1:In the spirit of Section 28.2 of the Bill of Rights the media shall exercise exceptional care and consideration when reporting about children. If there is any chance that coverage might cause harm of any kind to a child, he or she shall not be photographed or identified without the consent of a legal guardian or of a similarly responsible adult and the child (taking into consideration the evolving capacity of the child)…”; and
  • 8.3: “In the spirit of Section 28.2 of the Bill of Rights the media shall not identify children who have been victims of abuse or exploitation … without the consent of their legal guardians (or a similarly responsible adult) and the child (taking into consideration the evolving capacity of the child)…”

Seriousness of breaches                                              

Under the headline Hierarchy of sanctions, Section 8 of the Complaints Procedures distinguishes between minor breaches (Tier 1 – minor errors which do not change the thrust of the story), serious breaches (Tier 2), and serious misconduct (Tier 3).                                              

The breaches of the Press Code as indicated above, when viewed individually, are all Tier 2 offences.

However, the cumulative effect of the reportage, which might have caused (and still can…) racial friction and even violence is of such a nature that I need to identify the article as a whole as a Tier 3 offence. The tenure of the article goes against the very spirit of the Press Code, in which journalists commit themselves “to the highest standards, to maintain credibility and keep the trust of the public”. This means, inter alia, to strive for truth, to avoid unnecessary harm, and to show a special concern for children.

Sanction

Daily Dispatch is directed to apologise to all those involved, as well as to the general public, for:

  • inaccurately, unfairly and one-sidedly reporting the allegation that fifteen white pupils allegedly had assaulted a black learner, without any verification of this information;
  • publishing a picture of the child without his consent; and
  • for not adequately taking into account the devastating effect, including the possibility of racial violence or retaliation, its reportage could have had (and still can have) on racial relations in the community.

Because of the seriousness of the breaches of the Press Code, the newspaper is directed to publish the apology:

  • on page 1, immediately underneath the masthead, with a headline containing the words “apology” or “apologises”, and “Selborne”; and
  • online, at the top of that page, where the article appears.

The text should:

  • be published at the earliest opportunity after the time for an application for leave to appeal has lapsed or, in the event of such an application, after that ruling;
  • refer to the complaint that was lodged with this office;
  • end with the sentence, “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding”;
  • be published with the logo of the Press Council (attached); and
  • be prepared by the publication and be approved by me.

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