Linco Sono vs Madibeng Times

Complainant: Linco Sono

Lodges by: Linco Sono

Article: Damning Allegations Against Letlhabile Community Radio

Date: 15 May 2014

Respondent: Madibeng Times

COMPLAINT

Sono is complaining about a story published in Madibeng Times on 10 April 2014, headlined Damning Allegations Against Letlhabile Community Radio.

She complains that the:

  • reporter based the story on the allegations of one (anonymous) source, which in turn has led to an inaccurate and unsubstantiated article;
  • journalist did not listen to the radio station’s side of the story; and
  • newspaper used the station’s letterhead without permission (it was an outdated one at that).

THE TEXT

The story was about some serious allegations that a “presented” had levelled at the management of the radio station, including the bullying of personnel. This source had reportedly said that some eight staff members, among them two senior personnel, had been laid off in the space of a year. The allegation was made that station manager Linco Sono “was running the place like a personal fiefdom, switching around presenters at the snap of a finger, resulting in confusion on the part of regular listeners”.

The article also alleged, amongst other things, that a stipend of R1 000 often only reached a lucky few, and that it would sometimes be reduced to R500 for no apparent reason.

ANALYSIS

One source only

Sono complains that the reporter based the story on the allegations of one (anonymous) source only, which in turn has led to an inaccurate and unsubstantiated article. She is also unhappy with the fact that the reporter went unnamed.

The editor says it was not the first time that the station had been criticised by its personnel. “There have been public protests in front of the radio station that we placed in the Madibeng Times.” He adds that Sono makes no effort to prove her point – she merely states her case and expects people to believe her.

On May 13, I reminded the editor that he had mentioned previous stories (plural) about some unhappiness about the radio station’s management, and asked him to send me a copy of those articles. I added: “Apart from the testimony of your unnamed source, do you have any other evidence or proof that there may be truth in the allegations against Sono and her style of management? If so, please pass them on to me.”

The editor replied that the presenters had requested him not to mention their names. “What I can say is it is not only one person.” He also sent me a story headlined A station manager must go (published at the end of 2011) that had indeed been about unhappiness at the station with Sono’s management style.

My considerations

The information contained in the article was clearly derived from and based upon the testimony of one person only. This goes against the letter and the spirit of the Press Code. When reporting is critical of a person, a publication is obliged to verify its information – or at least to state that it was not able to verify it. This is even more important when such a source is unnamed.

None of this materialized in the article.

The reason such a journalistic practice is so dangerous is that any anonymous source can say whatever he or she likes, without having to take responsibility for it. What makes this even more precarious, is that such a source may have ulterior motives and hidden agendas, and a journalist may easily be misled/misused in that process.

The newspaper’s reply to my enquiry (as stated above) is unsatisfactory. This is why:

  • The editor now claims to have more than one source – but that has not been reflected in the story;
  • The article he provided is approximately two and a half years old – this is much too long ago for me to expect that the ordinary reader would have read the new story in that context;
  • He did not provide me with any other proof whatsoever (as requested), which makes me believe that such proof was either non-existent or too hard to come by; and
  • The onus of “proof” is not on Sono, but on the publication.

This means that I am dealing with an isolated story (as far as the information provided to me is concerned), with a single, anonymous source who was critical of Sono, with nobody who verified the allegations, and with a story that neglected to say that the information had not been verified.

In later correspondence, Sono asks if anyone could approach the newspaper with unsubstantiated allegations and expect these to be published. The answer to this is an unqualified “no”.

This leaves me with no option with regards to my finding below concerning the use of the source without proper verification.

However, I am not in a position to make a decision about whether Sono was guilty or not, or whether there was indeed any widespread unhappiness with her style of management. Given the lack of proof (it may or may not be true); I simply have no way of making a responsible decision in that regard. This will also be reflected in the sanction.

Let me amplify this issue. Section 2.4 of the Press Code states: “Where there is reason to doubt the accuracy of a report and it is practicable to verify the accuracy thereof, it shall be verified…” (emphasis added)

I submit that, given all of my considerations above, especially seeing that no proof from the newspaper was forthcoming, the editor should have realized that he had “reason to doubt the accuracy” of the information and should have adhered to the Code in this regard.

Lastly: A newspaper is also under no obligation to publish the name of the person who authored a story.

Not listening to the radio’s side

Sono complains that the story was published before she had a chance to respond to the journalist’s questions.

She explains that reporter Johnny Masilela set up a meeting with her for April 9. The journalist later postponed this encounter to the next day (when the story was published).

According to documentation in my possession, Masilela asked her about eight staff members who allegedly left the station in 2013, if she had been interfering with the running of programming at the station, if there was nepotism at this workplace, about the allegedly inconsistent presenting of stipends, about two short-listed news-readers who did not get a chance to go on air, and about three other presenters who had become redundant.

Sono says that she learnt a few minutes after this interview that the story had already been published. Masilela allegedly replied that he had been unaware of that fact.

De Beer replies that the newspaper did contact Sono in time, but that she was incapacitated and that the meeting had to be postponed to beyond the deadline. “As in all such circumstances, we went ahead and published the article, and made it clear that Ms Sono was not immediately available for comment, and that she proposed an appointment later in the week. Indeed we honoured the appointment and shall be publishing the full interview/response in our next edition (based on a previous interview).”

In her response to the editor’s reply, Sono:

  • says that Masilela never informed her that they would be meeting after deadline; and
  • refuses to be interviewed with a view to a follow-up story “as the damage had already been done”.

My considerations

Again, I have some problems with the newspaper’s side of the story.

Firstly, the article itself referred to the publication having contacted Sono for comment on Monday 7 March (the story was only published in April 10).

I accept that this was probably a bona fide mistake, but it did make for some confusion.

More importantly, though, I cannot help but wonder why the newspaper rushed into print – knowing full well that the interview would take place only after deadline. What was the harm in waiting (for its next edition)? Especially given the serious nature of the allegations as well as the fact that the information was gleaned from one, anonymous source only?

I appreciate the fact that the reporter did try to get Sono’s views, and that the newspaper intended to publish her side of the story at a later stage.

Given the circumstances, though, I submit that the newspaper was obliged to reflect her views in the story in dispute.

Letterhead

Sono complains that the newspaper used the station’s letterhead without permission, and adds that it was an outdated one.

De Beer replies that they got the logo from the radio station only a week before publication.

As long as a publication does not pretend to communicate on behalf of an institution (meaning, trying to mislead the public), it is under no obligation to ask permission as the logo is in the public domain.

The fact that the letterhead was out of date is unfortunate, but certainly not a breach of the Press Code.

FINDING

One source only

The newspaper used a single, anonymous source for some seriously critical reportage about the station manager – without any attempt to verify this information or to state in the story that that was the case. This is in breach of Sect. 2.4 of the Press Code that states: “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 stated in such report.”

There is no finding as to the alleged inaccuracy of the allegations.

The complaint that the author of the story was not mentioned is dismissed.

Not listening to the radio’s side

Given the fact that critical information was obtained from one anonymous source without proper verification, the newspaper was in breach of Sect. 2.5 of the Press Code for not obtaining Sono’s comments prior to publication. This section reads: “A publication shall seek the views of the subject of critical reportage in advance of publication…”

Letterhead

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

SANCTION

Because I cannot responsibly decide about the accuracy of the allegations against Sono, an apology by the newspaper would be inappropriate.

Madibeng Times is severely reprimanded for:

  • using a single, anonymous source for some seriously critical reportage about Sono – without any attempt to verify this information or to state in the story that that was the case; and
  • not including Sono’s views on the allegations in the story she disputes.

The newspaper is directed to publish:

  • a summary of this finding and sanction, starting with what it got wrong; and
  • on the same page as the original story.

The newspaper should furnish our office with the text prior to publication. Please add to the text: “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding.”

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 Adjudication Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombudsman

 

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