Doreen Thys vs Highway Mail

Complainant: Doreen Thys

Lodged by: Doreen Thys

Article: Crime digs in – claim Rockdale Avenue residents

Author of article:  Deshni Ramkissoon

Date: 21 December 2010

Respondent: Highway Mail

Complaint
Ms Doreen Theys, a member of the Rockdale Neighbourhood Watch, complains about a story in the Highway Mail, published on August 6, 2010 and headlined Crime digs in – claim Rockdale Avenue residents. (She complains in her personal capacity.)
Theys says the following statements in the story are inaccurate, misleading and inflammatory:
  • that crime in Rockdale Avenue has increased; and
  • that telephone lines in the area were dug up by APK Construction workers.
Analysis
The story, written by Deshni Ramkissoon, says residents in Rockdale Avenue (in Westville) believed that pipeline workers were responsible for the increase in house robberies in that area. These workers were allegedly digging up Telkom lines to prolong their stay. One resident reportedly believed that it was APK Construction workers who were responsible for the damage to Telkom lines (she said that a Telkom employee told her so). The story then says that another resident “confirmed” that two construction workers in APK uniform broke into her home earlier this year. These construction workers were said to be former prisoners.
We shall now consider the merits of the complaint:
Crime on the increase/decrease
This part of the complaint is about the word “increase” regarding house robberies in Westville.
Theys says crime in the area has in fact been reduced during June to August through their ADT patrol – this, she says, was indicated by the Westville police at a Community Policing Forum (CPF) meeting. She later (in her reply to the newspaper’s response to her complaint) admits that crime in the Westville area may be up, but says that that was not the case in Rockdale Avenue. She says: “I believe the journalist seriously belittled the good name of our road for the sake of creating a sensationalised story and should NOT have mentioned Rockdale Avenue if she was taking crime stats for the whole of Westville in general.”
The Highway Mail says it got its information from crime statistics released by the Government. It says that, according to these statistics, residential break-ins in Westville have increased during the last year from 508 to 657; house robberies went up from 61 to 68; aggravated robbery decreased from 229 to 203; and sexual crimes rose from 32 to 33.
The newspaper adds that Police stations are, by law, not allowed to supply crime statistics.
The Highway Mail also says that, in addition to the above-mentioned statistics, it relied on two sources as well as on e-mails from other residents. The newspaper concludes: “…the latest crime figures vindicate the concerns of these residents.”
The newspaper furnished our office with (some of) these e-mails.
Let’s now take a closer look at what the story says regarding this matter. The relevant part of the intro (the only place where this issue is mentioned) states: “Residents in Rockdale Avenue believe pipeline workers are involved in the increase in house robberies in Westville…”
This sentence does not say that the residents believed crime was on the increase in their street, but in their neighbourhood.
So, for all intents and purposes Theys could be correct – crime may indeed have decreased in her street; simultaneously, the newspaper may also be correct – crime may indeed have increased in the neighbourhood. Which is exactly what the reporter wrote.
Assuming that crime did decrease in Rockdale Avenue, the use of the name of that street may be described as unfortunate.
However, the following factors are decisive:
  • nobody disputes the fact that residents of that street did voice their concern to the newspaper (which is what the newspaper wrote);
  • nowhere does the story say that crime in Rockdale Avenue increased; and
  • the newspaper’s sources (especially the official crime statistics) are credible.
Taking all of these considerations into consideration, there is not enough reason to find that this part of the complaint constitutes a breach of the Press Code.
APK Construction workers
Theys says that employees at Telkom offices in Westville informed her that APK workers were not responsible for the theft of telephone cables, as alleged in the story. In her reply to the newspaper’s response to her complaint, she says that APK workers were in fact digging up water pipes.
The Highway Mail argues that telephone lines and water pipes have been laid in all areas of greater eThekwini at the time, with the result that almost every street had trenches dug along verges and that labourers were therefore constantly working in these roads. The newspaper does not elaborate on this, but presumably it suggests that the people who damaged the lines may have been from APK Construction.
Let’s now take a closer look at how the story makes mention of APK Construction workers:
  • A source (Ms Tracey Phillips) says the pipeline workers who were alleged to be involved in the increase in house robberies and damage to Telkom lines were in fact APK Construction workers (because a Telkom employee allegedly told her so);
  • Another source (Sharlene Bhagirath) “confirmed” that people with APK Construction uniforms broke into her home;
  • These workers were said to be former prisoners;
  • Councillor Fawzia Peer is going to contact APK and to conduct an investigation; and
  • Ms Chantal Klopper, the PRO of the construction company (WBHO) that was contracted to do the work, is quoted quite extensively. (According to the reporter WBHO sub-contracted APK Construction, and Klopper spoke on behalf of both companies.) Klopper denies that APK Construction workers were digging in Rockdale Avenue at the time, adding that they have not done so since before the soccer World Cup tournament. She says: “The Telkom cables are on the opposite side of the road to where the new water pipes were laid. APK is currently only busy with tarring and clean-up of the verges and roads in Westville. Therefore it would have been impossible for any type of cable to have been damaged.”
There are several problems with the way in which the journalist reports on APK Construction:
Firstly, a source (Phillips) tells the reporter that someone else (an unnamed Telkom employee) told her that APK Construction workers were responsible for the damage. This is poor journalism – “A” says “B” (anonymous) said… This is way too far down the communications channel and should never have qualified for publication. This anonymous, hearsay source may even have had ulterior motives, for all we know. Or there may not even be such a source at all…
It is no good for a journalist to publish an untested, unverified allegation by an anonymous (and hearsay) source and then try to be balance out your story by giving the injured party (in this case represented by Klopper) a chance to deny it. That is not fair, to say the least.
Secondly, the story says: “When Phillips called Telkom, an employee said…” However, there was no way at all that the reporter could have known what the employee had said – or, for that matter, if Phillips made such a phone call in the first place. It should therefore have read: “Phillips said she had called Telkom. According to her, an employee said…”
This may sound frivolous, but it is not – it concerns the sentence where the digging up of Telkom lines is linked to APK workers. It is upon this sentence that the whole story is built. The reporter should therefore have been much more careful when she worded this sentence.
Again, the reporter dishes up an untested, unverified allegation as the truth. This practice is dangerous to all concerned and should be avoided at all costs.
Thirdly, there is no indication in the story that the reporter tried to verify the allegation from this source or from anybody else at Telkom. This should have been done. Telkom’s name was mentioned and therefore it should also have been asked for comment. Art. 1.4 of the Press Code is quite clear about that.
By the way, from the story it was not clear to me who this “WBHO” is who was asked for comment. Hopefully the readers would have understood that it was actually APK’s official response (assuming that the reporter told me the truth – and I have no reason to disbelieve her).
Fourthly, the mere mentioning of APK workers (or at least of people who wore APK uniforms) who were “confirmed” to have been breaking into a resident’s home is highly questionable within the context of the story (even though the incident may well have occurred). The context is clear – the word is used directly after the sentence where it is stated that a Telkom employee said that telephone lines were dug up by APK workers. The “confirmed” therefore relates to this sentence, and should not be understood in a “neutral” way (e.g. “I heard that there was a break-in – can you confirm this?”) The “confirmed” clearly is an attempt to verify the allegation that APK workers were responsible for the increase in crime in the neighbourhood.
Well done to the reporter for trying to find the much-needed verification. However, the verification that she rightly sought did not amount to verification at all. The break-in had nothing to do with the damage to Telkom lines – the allegation that APK workers were digging up Telkom lines therefore remained untested and unverified.
Fifthly, the statement that these APK workers were former convicts (which may be true) should be seen in the same light as the above. The reporter again piles up information to justify an untested allegation. The more she does so, the guiltier APK looks – but in the meantime, there still is not a shred of evidence that it is true that APK really is or probably is or may be responsible for the damage.
In summary, this is what the reporter did: She published an untested, unverified statement by an anonymous, hearsay source which she then tried to beef up by piling up “evidence” after “evidence”. Yet, in the meantime, she may all the time have been building on sand.
Also, the “allegation” by a “Telkom employee” may indeed have caused APK unnecessary harm – which is a far cry from the journalistic ideal of minimizing harm, whilst maximizing truth.
Lastly, the reporter should have asked the local Police and especially the local Community Policing Form (CPF) and even ADT (or any other relevant local organization for that matter) for comment. There is no evidence that the reporter tried to do that. Surely, the journalist should not have relied on one or two sources without the input from organizations that could have spoken with more authority on matters relating to crime in the area.
However, as this office cannot determine whether or not the neglect to ask the CPF and other relevant organizations for their comment caused APK unnecessary harm, it can also not find that this specific neglect constitutes a breach of the Press Code.
Finding
Crime on the increase/decrease
The story is about the increase of crime in the neighbourhood and not in a specific street; and the newspaper’s sources are credible. The use of the name of Rockdale Avenue may be unfortunate, but it does not constitute a breach of the Press Code. This part of the complaint is dismissed.
APK Construction workers
The use of a secondary, hearsay, anonymous source to state that APK’s workers were responsible for the increase in crime in the Westville area was not fair to APK Construction. This is in breach of Art. 1.1 of the Press Code that states: “The press shall be obliged to report news…fairly.”
The statement “When Phillips called Telkom, an employee said…” may or may not be accurate, but it certainly was not verified. This sentence is the heart of the story and should have been verified. As it was not, it is in breach of Art. 1.4: “Where there is reason to doubt the accuracy of a report and it is practicable to verify the accuracy thereof, it shall be verified. Where it has not been practicable to verify the accuracy of a report, this shall be mentioned in such report.”
The fact that Telkom was not asked for comment is also in breach of Art. 1.4 of the Press Code.
The mentioning of the APK house break-in as a “confirmation” and the statement that the WPK workers were ex-convicts only serve to strengthen the already created (untested, unverified) impression that APK workers were responsible for the damage to Telkom lines. This is in breach of Art. 1.2 of the Press Code that says: “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…”
Sanction
The Highway Mail is reprimanded for the above-mentioned breaches of the Press Code and directed to publish a summary of this finding (not the whole ruling) and the sanction prominently. (If APK lodged this complaint, the newspaper would have been ordered to publish an apology – this must also be stated in the text).
Please add the following sentence at the end of the text: “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za (rulings, 2010) for the full finding.
Appeal
Please note that our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven days of receipt of this decision, anyone of the parties may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Appeals Panel, Judge Ralph Zulman, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be reached at khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.
Johan Retief
Deputy Press Ombudsman