De Villiers Neethling vs. The Citizen (Online)


Thu, Jan 24, 2019

Ruling by the Press Ombud

24 January 2019

Particulars

Date of article: 3 December 2018

Headline: UPDATE: OUTA distances itself from ‘white supremacist’ cartoonist

Author of article: Kaunda Selisho (referred to in the article as “Citizen reporter”)

Respondent: Daniel Friedman, digital news editor of The Citizen

Complaint                                            

Neethling complains that the article:

  • did not identify the journalist;
  • portrayed the cartoonist as a white supremacist without any evidence; and
  • amounted to a smear campaign and an exercise in fake news.

The text

The story said that the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa) came under fire for the use of an alleged right-wing cartoonist’s image as the feature image for one of its latest media releases.

The journalist quoted a Twitter user who had called the cartoonist (Jeremy “Jerm” Nell) a “white supremacist”.

Outa reportedly distanced itself from the cartoonist, saying it was not aware of his affiliation/links to racist individuals or platforms.

The journalist wrote: “His views appear to have moved considerably to the right since he started and his work is currently rarely found in mainstream publications. Jerm (the cartoonist) appears to have lobbied to crowd-fund cartoons on race and IQ theory on message boards and seems to be proud of producing work that ‘no editor or cartoonist wants to go near’.”

The cartoon in question depicted three men at a bar counter. A white man asked: “Why is it taboo to ask if there’s a link between race and I.Q.?” A black man responded: “Because it might suggest that some groups of people can achieve more than other groups.” An Asian man then asked: “…and why’s that taboo?”

The arguments

Anonymous ‘source’

Neethling complains that the journalist did not identify her- or himself, but instead used the anonymous by-line “Citizen reporter” – this, he says, was in contravention of Section 11 of the Press Code. He submits there is no conceivable reason why a bona fide reporter would need to be anonymous, and argues that it weakens the credibility of the publication “when it relies on anonymous sources for its usual reports”.

Friedman replies that journalists often use the by-line “Citizen reporter”, adding that he was under the impression that this was fair journalistic practice. He also submits that Neethling is confusing “sources” with “journalists” – an anonymous journalist is not the same as an anonymous source, he says.

Analysis

It is indeed common practice for journalists not to have their names attached to a story. And they may have various reasons for not wanting their names published. When I was a reporter, I have once or twice asked the editor not to identify me as the author of a story – for reasons that were valid.

In fact, some time ago it was rather the exception when a journalist was identified as the writer of a story. In fact, editors in those days told reporters they have to “earn” a by-line.

Such a practice certainly is not unethical, which is why the Press Code does not prohibit it.

This has nothing to do with anonymous “sources” (Section 11 of the Code), as Friedman correctly points out. Section 1.6 of the Code is also not applicable in this instance, as that section requires journalists to identify themselves while gathering their news.

I do not believe for one moment that the credibility of a story is diminished if an author of a story is not identified.

‘White supremacist’

Neethling says there is no evidence that the cartoonist was a white supremacist or had any ties with far right elements in society. In fact, he says, he seems to remember that the cartoonist was unprofessionally and unethically linked to right wing elements in a previous story from The Citizen whereby the story had to be withdrawn based on lack of credibility of the part of the author.

Friedman replies that the article was based on a social media outcry to Outa’s use of Jerm as a cartoonist. He submits: “One of the people who tweeted called Jerm a ‘white supremacist’, which is why the term is used in the headline in quotation marks. This makes it clear that it was a quote, and that the person who said those words is calling Nell a white supremacist, not The Citizen.”

In line with the above, Friedman says the article referred to the person as an “alleged right-wing” cartoonist, “so once again it’s clear that we are only reflecting the opinions of those on Twitter who started the outcry”.

He denies that the story was withdrawn – he says an initial reference to Jerm in an earlier story was removed after he complained to the ombudsman that the newspaper had linked him to the far right.

He emphasises that the newspaper did not initiate the outcry, but merely reported on it.

 

Analysis

Friedman’s argument is rock solid. The article indeed did not pronounce the cartoonist to be a “white supremacist” – it merely told the story of the furore that followed after Outa had used the cartoonist. That, I believe, was newsworthy and in the public interest.

Moreover, both the story and the headline consistently attributed the statement in question to people who had made the assertion.

Smear campaign, fake news

Neethling says the reportage amounted to a smear campaign and an exercise in fake news.

Friedman calls these assertions “absurd”, and ascribes it to a lack of understanding of both those terms.

Analysis

From my argumentation above, it follows that I cannot – by any stretch of the imagination – uphold this part of the complaint.

Finding

The complaint is dismissed.

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