By Pinky Khoabane
IN THESE days of extensive political agendas, photoshop and advanced technology, those who disseminate information are going to have to be vigilant in sifting through fact from fiction.
A string of Whatsapp messages sent to me on Saturday suggesting a journalist on a Sunday newspaper had dropped a story which he had been pursuing in return for a “juicier” story involving President Jacob Zuma reminded me of the tough times ahead when reporting in a politically charged climate that South Africa currently finds itself.
The Whatsapp messages included questions which the journalist had supposedly sent to a government ministry. It was alleged that once he had sent the questions, he was asked to meet top officials from the department who then asked him to drop the story and offered him something worth a front page.
The journalist concerned has refuted completely claims that he could and had ever dropped a story for another. He also denied he had sent any questions to the department even though among the Whatsapp messages sent to me included questions he supposedly sent to the department.
It was interesting that the journalist said he had sent the questions to the said department some months ago and yet my sources were suggesting the questions were sent just last week.
The dilemma for the messenger is determining whose side is true. The only way to treat such stories would be to invest the time in doing thorough research, getting the story from as many angles as possible and once a decision is made to publish it, ensuring that all parties are given an opportunity to comment.
In adjudicating complaints about newspaper reports, the press ombudsman constantly refers to the following sections of the Code of Ethics and Conduct:
· 1.1: “The media shall take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly”;
· 1.8: “The media shall seek the views of the subject of critical reportage in advance of publication …”; and
· 3.3: “The media shall exercise care and consideration in matters involving … reputation.”
Unfortunately the pressure placed on commercial journalists to deliver stories which “sell” or to advance the agenda of one party or another, sees a considerable number of complaints being placed before the press ombudsman. Some of the complaints are dismissed but there are a number which are found to have violated the Press Code.
Just two days ago, Independent Media reported that the ANC headquarters, Luthuli House, was to be auctioned for failure to pay a R25 million debt owed to Resurgent Risk Managers. Subsequent to the publication, both the ANC and Resurgent Risk Managers denied claims of a judgment or action by the sheriff to attach Luthuli House. Independent Media has had to apologise “unconditionally” to the ANC and Resurgent Risk Managers.
As it turns out, the journalist involved in the story had not corroborated the story and did not properly identify the legal documents. These are basic tenets of journalism which some journalists completely ignore. Three journalists involved in the story have now been suspended. This is itself doesn’t happen often. The ANC would have had to complain to the ombudsman, the outcome of which would have been made several weeks and months later. Meanwhile, its financial reputation would have been in complete tatters.
The speed with which Independent Media’s Executive Chairman Dr Iqbal Survé has addressed the matter should be commended.
“Independent Media safeguards its integrity and will not publish news that is not firmly corroborated by our journalists.
“Furthermore we expect our journalists, including freelance journalists, to have the highest ethical standards and to at all times ensure that the news reported is accurate and is able to withstand scrutiny, so that our readers have confidence in both our print and online publications.”
He said he hoped that the swift and immediate action they’d taken would “demonstrate to our readers, and all other parties, and that we will speedily investigate if our journalists do not perform according to our high standard of ethics.
“We won’t tolerate our platforms carrying fake news, or news that has not been corroborated. This is a serious breach of ethics, and is tantamount to Independent Media being used to further an agenda,” Dr Survé said.
There’s something to be learnt here which those who disseminate news should take from. Learn to quickly call out falsehoods and a return to the basics of journalism – to report truthfully and fairly and where lies have been published, to swiftly rectify and hold those responsible accountable.