Tirisano-Mmogo Junior Secondary School vs Randburg Sun

Complainant: Tirisano-Mmogo Junior Secondary School

Lodged by: Mr Charles Phahlane

Article: A gangster’s paradise.

Date: 13 April 2012

Respondent: Randburg Sun

COMPLAINT
Head of Communications of the Gauteng Department of Education Charles Phahlane complains on behalf of the school and its principal, Mr Tumelo Tsotetsi, about a story in the Randburg Sun, published on 7 October 2011 and headlined A gangster’s paradise.

Phahlane complains that the:

·         journalist reported on the matter without having attended the meeting;

·         reporter used one anonymous source only;

·         principal was never interviewed; and

·         principal never said the things that the story attributes to him, and that the alleged wrong-doings by pupils at his school never took place.

To this, I am adding the:

·         use of the word “parents” (plural, the very first word of the story); and

·         headline and the caption.

ANALYSIS

After repeated but fruitless attempts to get Phahlane’s response to the newspaper’s reply I have eventually decided to make a ruling based on the documentation at my disposal.

The story, written by Zanele Bobolo, is about disturbing incidents involving learners at the Cosmo City Secondary School and concerns issues such as (gang) rape, the use of drugs, knife-wielding bullies and alcohol abuse. It is based largely on what the principal reportedly told parents at a school meeting in September 2011. The article also contains reaction by Phahlane.

I shall now look at the merits of the complaint:

Absent journalist

Phahlane complains that Bobolo reported on the school meeting without having been present.

I cannot entertain this part of the complaint, as it is common journalistic practice to do just that. The fact that a journalist did not attend a meeting does not imply that that reporter cannot glean information from sources who did attend the meeting – provided, of course, that the reporter ensures that s/he gets a balanced picture of what has happened.

However, the issue whether the story falsely creates the impression that she attended the meeting, is a different matter. I shall deal with that later.

One anonymous source only

Phahlane complains that Bobolo used one anonymous source only.

Indeed, the reporter did do exactly that, and based her information only on an email from a parent. The (former) Press Code (that was in operation until 14 October 2011) is clear about the need for verification – which clearly did not happen in this case.

The newspaper says that it has realised after publication that more could have been done to verify the facts, so it wrote to the Department of Education requesting their version of the story.

(The “more could have been done to verify” should rather have been “more should have been done to verify”.)

Although this was a noble initiative, I am not sure how to interpret it. Nearly half of the story consists of Phahlane’s comment – surely this represents the department’s version of events?

Let me try to make a clear distinction here: Once a journalist has received information from a single source, that reporter should normally do two things. S/he should:

·         verify the information with an independent second source; and

·         get comment from the person/institution that the information is about.

In this case, Bobolo did well to get comment from the “other side” (Phahlane) – but she neglected to verify her information with an independent second source.

The need for independent verification becomes especially important when a subject of reportage can be caused unnecessary harm – which in this case may indeed have happened.

Principal never interviewed

Phahlane complains that no journalist interviewed the principal prior to publication.

The newspaper responds that Bobolo visited the school on 26 September, but that she was told that the principal was in a meeting. She then briefly spoke with him telephonically. The principal asked her to come to the school the next morning, which she did. However, the principal was again in a meeting, and she left after waiting for 45 minutes.

I am satisfied that the journalist did enough to get the principal’s view.

I note, though, that Bobolo did not state it in the story that she tried, but was not able to get comment from Tsotetsi.

The new Press Code states that, should a journalist not be able to get comment, this must be stated in the story. This means that I would have found for the school, if this complaint fell under the new dispensation; it also means that I cannot do so now, because the former Code was valid at the time of the publication of the story and it did not make provision for this matter.

There is no doubt, however, that the story should have said that the journalist was not able to get comment from the principal.

Principal’s statements about wrong-doings at school

The story states it as a fact that Tsotetsi told the meeting that learners come to school drunk, that they smoke drugs and have sex in school toilets, that they are subdued by knife-wielding bullies who rob them of money and lunch, and that there are seven pregnant grade 7 pupils.

Phahlane complains that these statements are all false and that the principal never uttered those words.

This part of the complaint is indeed the main issue, namely whether the article was factual and also whether the principal had said the words that the story attributes to him.

The reporter wrote the article in a manner which clearly suggests that she had attended the meeting – in fact, the reporter was attributing to the principal the statements that were contained in an e-mail by a parent. (The reporter’s telephonic discussion with the principal does not appear to have yielded any substantiation for the statements attributed to the principal – if it did, Randburg Sun would have said so.)

This in itself is appalling. I find it horrifying and shocking that a journalist can take an email from a source (read: parent) and use those words in inverted commas, attributing it to someone else (read: principal). This represents the worst in journalism. If, for argument’s sake, the source’s information was incorrect, this kind of reportage could only have been hugely unfair to the principal and to his school and caused them severe unnecessary harm.

Also: If Bobolo attended the meeting and heard Tsotetsi say the words in dispute, I would have had enough ground to believe the story. However, she did not attend the meeting, and instead relied on one source only.

This means that I do not have enough ground to believe that the principal ever uttered the words in dispute. However, I also do not have enough ground to say that he did not say it – I am unfortunately not in a position to establish if those activities indeed took place at the school and to say for sure what has happened and what not.

I am therefore not in a position to make a responsible finding on these matters.

Plural

The story starts by saying: “Parents of pupils at a Cosmo City secondary school were horrified and frightened to hear what the staff had to contend with on a daily basis.” (emphasis added)

However, there is nothing in the story that supports the use of the plural in the intro. Bobolo uses only one source, so how does she now that there are more parents who are “horrified” and “frightened”?

The simple answer is that she did not know, and that she simply put too much spin on the ball. (It may be true that there are more parents who were concerned, but that is not the point. In that case, she should have sourced her information and mention it in the story.)

Headline, caption

The headline to the story reads: A gangsters’ paradise. The caption states: “The walls of the Tirisano-Mmogo Junior secondary school betray little of what goes on inside on a daily basis.”

Art. 5.1 of the Press Code states: “Headlines and captions to pictures shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report…in question.”

Even though the headline and caption admittedly do just that, it should also be kept in mind that, if the content of a story is false or debatable, so would the headline and caption be if they do reflect the contents of the story.

In this case, I have already stated that I do not have enough ground to believe that it is true that the alleged atrocities happened at the school (let alone on a daily basis). The fact of the matter is that, although the story attributes the information to the principal (stated as a fact) the information really came from one source (only). This should have been reflected in the headline, as well as in the caption – it was the opinion of one person, and not an established fact, as the headline and the caption present it.

FINDING

Absent journalist

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

One anonymous source only

The newspaper did not verify its information that it has gleaned from one (anonymous) source. This is in breach of Art. 1.4 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 mentioned in such report.”

Principal never interviewed

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Principal’s statements about wrong-doings at school

There is no finding on the veracity of the statements in question.

However, the reporter put words into the principal’s mouth that came from a parent. This in turn created the false impression that she attended the meeting.

This breaches the following articles of the Press Code:

·         1.1: “The press shall be obliged to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly”;

·         1.2: “News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by distortion…misrepresentation…(and) material omissions…”

Plural

The reference to “parents” who were “horrified” and “frightened” is not substantiated by the rest of the story. Within this context, it boils down to exaggeration and is therefore in breach of Art. 1.2 of the Code which reads: “News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by…exaggeration…”

Headline, caption

Both the headline and the caption portray opinion as fact.

This is in breach of the following articles of the Press Code:

·         1.1: “The press shall be obliged to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly”; and

·         1.2: “News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by distortion…or misrepresentation…or summarisation.”

SANCTION
 
Randburg Sun is reprimanded for:

·         not verifying its information that it gleaned from one source only;

·         putting words into the principal’s mouth (thereby creating the impression that its journalist attended the meeting);

·         exaggerating the story by using the plural (“parents” who were supposedly horrified and frightened); and

·         portraying opinion as fact in both its headline and its caption.

The newspaper is also directed to apologise to the school in general and to the principal in particular for the above-mentioned breaches of the Code.

The newspaper is directed to publish the following text:
BEGINNING OF TEXT

Randburg Sun apologises to Tirisano-Mmogo Senior Secondary School and to its principal, Mr Tumelo Tsotetsi, for not verifying our information, for putting words into the principal’s mouth and for exaggerating the story.

This apology comes after the school lodged a complaint with the Press Ombudsman about a story that we published on 7 October 2011 that was headlined A gangster’s paradise.

The story, written by Zanele Bobolo, was about disturbing incidents involving learners at the school and concerned issues such as (gang) rape, the use of drugs, knife-wielding bullies and alcohol misuse. It was based largely on what the principal reportedly told parents at a school meeting in September 2011.

The principal denied that he ever said those things and that they ever happened at his school.

Deputy Press Ombudsman Johan Retief reprimanded us for breaching the Press Code by:

·         using one (anonymous) source only, thereby not verifying our information;

·         attributing words from a parent to the principal;

·         creating the false impression that Bobolo attended the meeting;

·         for exaggerating by stating that “parents” (plural) were horrified and afraid – without any support from the story itself; and

·         portraying opinion as fact in both the headline and the caption.

In his finding, he said that he did not have enough ground to believe that Tsotetsi ever uttered those words. He also said that he found it “horrifying and shocking that a journalist can take an email from a source (a parent) and use those words in inverted commas, ascribing it to someone else (the principal)”.

On the veracity of the allegations that wrong-doings were taking place at the school, he said that he had no basis to come to a finding.

Retief dismissed the complaint that the journalist reported on a meeting that she did not attend, and that the newspaper did not interview the principal prior to publication (because we tried several times to get information from him).

Visit www.presscouncil.org.za (rulings 2012) for the full finding.

END OF TEXT

If there is no appeal, the newspaper is directed to publish this text in its first or second edition after 23 April this year.

APPEAL

The Complaints Procedure permits a party to apply for leave to appeal against a decision of the Press Ombudsman. An application for leave to appeal, fully setting out the grounds, may be made to the Chairperson of the South African Press Appeals Panel, Judge Ralph Zulman. He may be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

 
 
Johan Retief
Deputy Press Ombudsman

 

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