Peter Cohen vs Cape Times

Complainant: Peter Cohen

Lodged by: Peter Cohen

Article: Motorists urged to be on alert of car jamming

Author of article: “Own Correspondent”

Date: 22 May 2015

Respondent: Ms Abigail Oliver, on behalf of the Cape Times

Complaint

Cohen is complaining about an article in the Cape Times of 23 April 2015, headlined Motorists urged to be on alert of car jamming.

He complains about plagiarism and about the author not having been properly identified.

The text

The story, written by “Own Correspondent”, warned about the dangers of car-jamming (which happens when someone interferes with a remote control’s automatic locking button to block a remote sensor from reaching and locking the car), and how it could be avoided.

Further arguments

Cohen says the article was essentially the same as one published on the FA News website authored by Vickey Swanevelder, an employee of Momentum Short-Term Insurance. He argues that “Own Correspondent” is in fact Swanevelder herself, and that she should have been credited as such.

He adds, “The article reads much like an advertorial including statements such as ‘Momentum Short-term Insurance, however, works to treat all clients fairly’.” Cohen concludes there was no public interest or safety reasons not to identify Swanevelder as the author of the article (See Section 1.3 of the Press Code, as cited below).

Oliver replies that there is an apparent misunderstanding regarding the term “Own Correspondent”. She says that “correspondent” in the journalistic sense has two meanings depending on the region (United Kingdom or United States), namely denoting:

·         some form of expertise or specialization (e.g. UN correspondent); or

·         a person who works out of office, but has regular business relations with the publication.

“In each of these [instances]there is an aspect of remoteness… [H]owever the news editor’s understanding of the term ‘Own Correspondent’ denotes that the article comes from outside the newsroom.”

She says the article was run as a warning to readers, but unfortunately the term Own Correspondent “meant something different to the news editor”. She adds that he has instructed the newspaper not to use the term “Own Correspondent”, and rather name the entity where a story originated “as a safety measure regarding misinterpretation of words”.

Cohen reiterates that his complaint is about the possible breaching of the following sections of the Press Code:

·         1.3: “Press representatives shall identify themselves as such, unless public interest or their safety dictates otherwise”; and

·         2.8: “Journalists shall not plagiarise.”

He concludes, “In this case the author cites herself in the article, however you would not know that if you didn’t know that Vickey Swanevelder was the actual author… However, the term ‘Own Correspondent’ does not, on any fair reading, suggest that the meaning objectively conveyed was one of such remoteness to the extent of coming from ‘outside the newsroom’.”

My considerations

Oliver does not deny that Swanevelder authored the article – because she could not (for obvious reasons, after comparing the Swanevelder article in a Momentum publication with the story published in the newspaper).

This is not plagiarism, as one can hardly plagiarise yourself (Section 2.8 of the Press Code).

However, the newspaper’s argument about the different interpretations of “own correspondent” is a red herring. It does not matter which way you turn this coin, the term denotes somebody who works for the newspaper (albeit remotely or not). That is the way most people would understand it. Certainly one would not expect the author to fulfill a public relations / marketing role – which is exactly what happened.

The term “own correspondent” is therefore misleading (Section 1.3 of the Code).

But more needs to be said. Section 3.4 of the Code states, “Editorial material shall be kept clearly distinct from advertising.” Swanevelder has authored the article, and she was quoted (or rather, she quoted herself) as saying that Momentum Short-Term Insurance “works to treat all clients fairly”. This has blurred the border between news and advertising – which cuts to the heart of ethical journalism.

Finding

Cape Times is in breach of Sections 1.3 and 3.4 of the Press Code, as cited above.

The complaint about plagiarism is dismissed.

Seriousness of breaches

Under the headline Hierarchy of sanctions, Section 8 of our Complaints Procedures distinguishes between minor breaches (Tier 1), serious breaches (Tier 2) and serious misconduct (Tier 3).

The breaches, as pointed out above, are Tier 2 offences.

Sanction

Cape Times is directed to apologise, unreservedly, for blurring the border between news and advertising, and for misleadingly calling Swanevelder an “Own Correspondent” (rather than a public relations officer from Momentum). The apology should be published on either page 2 or 3, above the fold.

The text should be presented to me for approval, and should end with the words, “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding.”

The headline should reflect the content of the text. A heading such as Matter of Fact, or something similar, is not acceptable.

This apology should also be carried on its website, if the offending article appeared there.

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 Appeals 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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