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GroundUp response to complaint about publishing photo and name of child

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We believe we have acted ethically

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By

GroundUp has received a complaint from an organisation we respect about an article we published on Monday 12 September. The article included the name and face of a child. The organisation requested that we blur the face of the child and remove his name and other identifying information in the article.

While we acknowledge that the issue is ethically and perhaps even legally complex, our current position is that we will not redact the identifying information nor blur the photo. We have decided to publish our response because it is likely that more of our readers have pondered whether we did the right thing.

Before publishing the article we discussed the ethics of publishing the child’s name and the photo. We delayed publication in order to be sure we acted ethically. Here are our reasons why we believe it is not unethical to have published the child’s name and photo:

1. We obtained consent from the mother to publish the photo and name of the child. This is important: we believe that, in general, adults should be given the autonomy to decide what is in their interests or the interests of their children. (It is just as arguable that withholding some of the child’s details undermines his mother’s efforts to get the story known and justice done.)

We have previously been criticised by readers for publishing the name and photo of a car guard who helped get car thieves arrested, apparently because it put the man in danger. Our view was that the man had sufficient agency to make that decision for himself. In fact he got a job offer as a consequence of our report. The point is that when people make a decision to be identified in the media, it actually denies their agency to override that decision, and it might not be in their best interests by keeping their information out of the public domain.

2. Our understanding of the provisions in the Criminal Procedure Act with regard to publishing the details of children is that it is intended to protect children as witnesses from being victimised. But in this case the child has already been victimised, and clearly the police, who are the accused here, already know who the child is. In interpreting whether we are on the right side of the Criminal Procedure Act, we believe it is important to understand the intention of this act.

3. There is a legitimate public interest in the accusation of police brutality or negligence. Readers will identify more closely with the seriousness of this event with the identifying details and unblurred photo provided.

4. By the time we published, the photo of the child had been circulated on social media. Such publication on social media without consent of the mother was indeed unethical. But we delayed publication specifically to get permission to publish. By publishing the photo we were not providing any information that wasn’t effectively in the public domain already. 

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Write a letter in response to this article

Letters

Dear Editor

Thank you for your feedback. While compelling, we still believe that some ethical considerations have been overlooked from your response to our concerns regarding the article “Mother of injured 10-year-old boy lays complaint against police” (12/09/2016).

GroundUp argues that identifying the child in this article was in the public interest. As we all know, public interest is hard to define.

Franz Kruger for instance claims, “It remains an imprecise tool” and that a distinction must be made between public interest and that “which merely interests the public.” While police brutality is without doubt in the public interest, we believe that little was done in the article to highlight it as such and that rather, in this instance, GroundUp relied heavily on the trauma of an individual child to communicate this. By doing this, GroundUp moved away from reporting on this story in a manner that was clearly in the public interest. It has become more widely accepted in the public domain that provided that reasons are given for the protection of identity, the public at large will accept that such protection is both necessary and in fact vital for protection of the most vulnerable in our society. The examples of this are too numerous to list here but we would be very happy to engage with you on this.

We believe that GroundUp, as a reputable online publication, should have used this opportunity to fulfill its mandate which is not only to inform but also to educate its readers.

In any event, and given that you have now advised both us and your readership that you took deeper editorial oversight over the article before deciding to publish the identifying details of the child, you should have taken the opportunity in your initial article to explain, to your readers, the need for identifying the child under the given circumstances as opposed to only providing an explanation after the article had been published. Doing this would have prevented readers from thinking that this is common practice, and would have further put your editorial decisions into context and highlighted the extreme lengths undertaken to bring awareness to the severity of this issue. Therefore, a brief explanation should have been provided along with a warning for the graphic image that followed.

Furthermore, GroundUp missed an opportunity to adequately highlight the issue of police brutality by going beyond a single news report (which is not in this case sufficient to highlight an issue of public interest) and going further to provide greater context which would provide the reader with much more understanding of how pervasive police brutality is in our society for instance and/or how often or not authorities are held to account for their actions etc.

GroundUp also claims, “Readers will identify more closely with the seriousness of this event with the identifying details and unblurred photo provided.” We would invite you to consider best practice on reporting on children and remind you that you are bound by the provisions of the Code of Ethics and Conduct signed into effect in January 2016 – which includes a reliance on Section 28(2) of the Constitution and which clearly states that in all matters concerning the child, the interests of the child
are of paramount importance.

The “Best Interests of the Child” is a subjective test and it begs the question – what is in the best interests of the actual child in question. Your reliance on a “public interest defence” sacrifices the best interests of the child in the article on the altar of all children who may have been victims of police brutality. Furthermore, you have erred in your understanding of the concept of “in the public interest” and sadly, you have also erred in placing disproportionate importance on the identification of the child
rather than dealing with the issue at hand. We would refer you to MMA’s Guidelines and Principles on Reporting on Children in the Media which ask journalists in these circumstances to deeply reflect: “How does naming the child allow the journalist to take the story into a deeper, more contextual level of reporting?” Furthermore, “what would identifying the child allow the journalist to tell the audience that they could not understand otherwise?” In other words, what is the value of the information shared and why, by protecting the identity of a clearly vulnerable and injured child who faces potential further harm at the very hands of the police who practice brutality, would sharing identity add to the value to the story? Rather, this makes you complicit in future instances of the very harm that you wish to highlight and prevent.

Despite the fact that you may allege that the child’s identity is already widely known through social media sites, this does not reduce your responsibility to protect the child’s identity. News media have a greater responsibility and cannot hide behind a defence “that everyone is doing it, so why can’t we?” The underlying principle is the same as the one for those who are found guilty of insider trading – it is no defence that you are the third or fourth outlet to distribute the information or share the child’s identity or that it has also been shared on social media – you are held just as liable as if you were the first.

We invite you to consider a very well-grounded and respected Ethical Principle in Journalism – that a journalist, photographer, and editor are all individually responsible for the ethical decisions that they make and each journalist must evaluate the decision to name a child. It is no defence to rely on the fact that just because a child’s identity has been published before, the details of that child should be published again in the future.

In your response, you also claimed that you obtained consent from the mother to publish the photo and name the child. You also expressed that, “adults should be given the autonomy to decide what is in their interests or the interests of their children.” There are a few things we would like to stress: Firstly, the fact that the mother gave consent is no indication that such consent was in fact informed consent: - that you advised her of the potential reasonable risks of her son’s picture and identity being directly and indirectly revealed and that in fact that this could expose her to more of the very same thing that she is trying to prevent – police brutality. But this time the policy brutality could be aimed directly at her and at her son in an attempt to intimidate and silence them. This is why the greater responsibility lies on journalists to exercise discretion in this regard and consider, the wishes of their subjects and ultimately what is in the best interests of the child involved. You are the gatekeepers and guardians in this instance - this is clearly supported in the Code of Ethics Section 8.

Furthermore, children have a fundamental right to express their opinion, particularly on matters that affect them. This is enshrined in our Bill of Rights and other binding instruments such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the child, which South Africa has ratified. Therefore, journalists and various stakeholders that affect children’s lives have a responsibility towards children to take their opinions into account and to give their perspective due recognition in accordance with their age and maturity. In this instance, the journalist should have taken enough care to ensure that when obtaining consent, the child along with the mother were both consulted. We would be interested in finding out more about the engagement that took place between the child’s mother and the journalist and whether written consent was obtained.

To round off, Yes, the Criminal Procedure Act Section 154 (3) is intended to protect children as witnesses from being victimised but this is not just about harm but also about privacy and confidentiality to prevent the dispersing of private information that child witnesses or victims may not want shared in public. Again, this can only be verified by obtaining informed consent from children.

We would also like you to consider how problematic the portrayal of children tends to be in South African media and the negative roles they tend to occupy in news reporting. We would therefore challenge GroundUp to evaluate whether depicting a traumatised child, covered in blood, along with his identity was truly a justifiable means to bringing attention to the issue of police brutality and how more generally, this contributes to how children are treated in news media. In fact, contrary to what you have stated in your response, this does nothing to give the child in question any kind of agency, is not in the public interest and is merely interesting to the public. This story was a great opportunity to tell an excellent and ethically very challenging story on police brutality and how it affects children. It was an opportunity to tell this boy’s story without prejudicing him, breaching the ethical code and Criminal Procedure Act. Unfortunately you missed that opportunity and instead assisted in creating an environment that is conducive to more police brutality. What a pity.

We hope that this helps you to more clearly understand that whilst you may have considered this matter with more editorial scrutiny than usual – it is impossible to reach the right ethical and legal conclusions whilst still fulfilling your mandate, if you don’t have the correct tools from which to draw.

We would strongly urge you to still withdraw the child’s identity and provide an explanation that supports this decision that would be in both the public interest and the best interests of the very child you wish to support against policy brutality. Reporting on children in the most ethically challenging and yet rewarding thing you can do - if you get it right. We would encourage you to reconsider your position.

We would be more than happy to engage with you on receiving training from our expert on Reporting on Children, a trained and practicing attorney with more than 10 years of experience in the field.