When in Mamelodi East’s Mahube area a few weeks ago, I bought a Daily Sun newspaper that carried the picture of a burned body on its frontpage on 6 Nov 2013. Could this have been done differently?
I am no fan of Daily Sun or tabloid newspapers but on that day I specifically bought it because I found the frontpage very interesting especially in as far as the South African Press Codes are concerned which all subscribing publications have to comply with. My interest was on the reactions the frontpage would to generate. This after almost similar pictures had been previously published in other publications. What would have further even been more interesting was how the Daily Sun picture would be compared to the pictures of Andries Tatane, Hector Peterson picture, The Burning Man (real name Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave) that shocked the world and made news the world over and here in South Africa, among others that had also been published in newspaper frontpages.
Back in 2008, former Times and Sunday times editor, Ray Hartley, sought to justify publication of “The Burning Man” picture on the former, saying he was “hoping that this picture will send out a very powerful message: Wake up, South Africa, your country is burning.” It is not clear, however, whether there has been any ruling by the Press Ombudsman office regarding the picture against the Times – even a search on its site did not show any such.
Seeing Daily Sun’s 6 Nov frontpage picture at the time, I, too, wondered what the Press Ombudsman would say should a complaint be bought forward following publication thereof. As noted in his finding about the newspaper this week on its 29 October and 6 November editions, Press Ombudsman Johan Retief said the newspaper should not have identified the bodies and instead should have avoided causing unnecessary harm to deceased’s loved-ones.
He said the newspaper should not have showed the pictures of the deceased; should not have published gross details of wounds and should have instead used photographs in black and white, small, and not on the front page and that sensitive readers should have been warned on the front page about the picture(s) inside. The findings come after the department of Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) and Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, among others, complained that the pictures were insensitive; inconsiderate and caused discomfort to society; dehumanising and lacked
compassion; exposed society, including children, to an extreme form of violence and that they desentisised people to violent crimes.
Looking at the time 6 Nov picture, I think the newspaper, just maybe, could have gotten away in publishing the picture provided it had not published them on the frontpage. Additionally, what it could have done was to do what I have seen Sunday newspapers like City Press and Sunday Times: sort of have a doubled frontpages but with a warning to sensitive viewers of what they are to find inside. City Press recently had a cover like that. And that, I think, in my view, would have been better than the way Daily Sun chose to run its two editions referred to in the Press Ombuds findings.
As also noted in his findings, Retief said he received an email from Ms Nahima Ahmed, saying the parents of the deceased person in the first photograph identified their son from the picture in the Daily Sun. “This really is atrocious,” said the Press Ombudsman. He said he could not “find any justification for the publication of either picture so prominently, in colour, on the front page and identifying the corpses by either using a name or by showing a face. The picture of the sangoma was particularly horrific and offensive”.
Retief said care should be taken to “guard against the radical shifting of ethical goalposts such as in these cases, and it is doing so now in no uncertain terms. The pictures were both unacceptable, caused people unnecessary harm, and shifted the borders of ethical journalism beyond appropriate standards. I also take into account that these pictures were in full view of children”.
Taking all matters into account, the Press Ombudsman directed Daily Sun to unconditionally apologise to the public for the publication of the pictures. He further ordered Daily Sun’s 50% of editorial space on the front page to state the following:
- We published explicit pictures of dead people on our front pages of October 29 and November 6 this year;
- These stories were about lawlessness in townships;
- Several complaints were lodged with Press Ombudsman Johan Retief about these pictures;
- He said that the issues were in the public interest, but that we should not have identified the bodies either by showing a face or by mentioning a name;
- Retief said: “The pictures were both unacceptable, caused people unnecessary harm, and shifted the borders of ethical journalism beyond appropriate standards. I also take into account that these pictures were in full view of children.”
- The Ombudsman directed us to unconditionally apologise for this, which we hereby do;
- We breached Section 9 of the Press Code that states: “Due care and responsibility shall be exercised by the press with regard to the presentation of brutality, violence and suffering”; and
- Visit http://www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding.
The findings should now be a wake up call to editors like Hartley – and many others like him in the media industry in “guard(ing) against the radical shifting of ethical goalposts” like Daily Sun’s.