The media’s role in reporting crime

The tragic reality is that each day just over 64 children are sexually assaulted (SAPS 2017/18 figures) and these are the ones that make it to the SAPS. In the majority of cases (approximately 60%) the perpetrators are known to the children and are within their social circle.
The case of the child being raped by a stranger in a restaurant is unusual and the brazenness in which it occurred, together with it being in a middle class area and the immediacy of social media and witnesses releasing the information make it ripe for extensive news coverage.
While race is clearly always a factor in South Africa, had the child in this case been black it is likely the case would still have caused as much outrage. But had it involved a poor black child in a shebeen in an informal settlement it is unlikely we would have even heard about it – or it might have only been covered in the Daily Sun.
Ironically, much of the coverage in the media has been about elements relating to the case: how media should report it, whether it is an “alleged rape” or “a rape”, and whether the media should be revealing the identity of the alleged perpetrator. While critical, thinking about how we report is essential. The focus on the perpetrator and his identity and the anger take away from what arguably should be the focus – the rape of a 7-year-old girl.
To be clear, the media are correct not to name the accused as under our law the accused in a rape case cannot be named until he/she has pleaded in a court. On social media however the accused’s identity has been distributed. On the weekend, Rapport and City Press also named the alleged perpetrator, along with a picture of him and details of his pregnant fiancé. Why focus on her? Is the fact that she’s pregnant meant to be the link, that somehow this rape might have been a foretaste of what he is capable of? What about the fact that 63 other children were raped that day? The editors should be asked to explain their decision.
In addition some social media posts have also revealed details of the alleged rapist’s partner, including personal details like his schooling and mobile number. While the desire to name and shame the perpetrator may be understandable, we have to ask what the consequences may be for those who are named or identified and who are not the perpetrator.
Not only will their reputation suffer but they may also be assaulted. We have to question the potential consequences for those who were named or linked to the perpetrator but were not involved.
Social media posts on the story have been typified by extreme levels of rage at the person who committed this awful crime. Calls for the man responsible to be murdered, tortured and raped are common. In a nation as violent and traumatised as ours the anger is understandable. The dangers however are also very real, for while the actual accused may be in custody the others may be attacked and harmed.
Anger doesn’t help us understand child rape
But there is a broader issue here. The focus on the accused and the volcanic anger does little to help the girl deal with her trauma. It does even less to help understand the issue of child rape and does nothing for us to help combat and prevent the problem of sexual assault against our children.
This reality is made all the more stark when we consider that that girl was one of 64 that day, there have been another 64 the day after and indeed every day of the week. So yes, anger is valid and essential, but how does vitriol and threats of violence help build a more caring, child friendly society?
Similarly, a video has emerged in the last few days purportedly showing the immediate aftermath of when the suspected rapist was caught out by angry people in the restaurant. It is disturbing to watch but offers little information.
News24 opted to use an edited and blurred out version and while they took steps to warn people the question we have to ask is what does the video add to the story? Watching it may make you feel angry or traumatised or sad. It doesn’t empower you, it doesn’t inform you about child rape nor does it add a new dimension, so what value does it bring in terms of news?
Like the urge on social media to be first with the dirt, having a video might drive more clicks, but how does it inform, contextualise and help us understand just why and how a person would commit such an atrocious act? Indeed, the broader question is perhaps how does it satisfy the ethical principal to minimise harm?
If people want to be angry, express the anger at the Dros restaurants. Their callous nonchalant statement and refusal to engage with the issue show exactly what happens when there is just anger but no action.
We should direct our anger to ask them what steps they will put into place in all their restaurants. What concrete steps will they take to help combat and prevent violence against children? How will they contribute to building genuine child safe and child friendly communities? Agreeing to pay for the child’s health care is a positive step, but it doesn’t help to prevent further violence.
The role of race
Accusations are also now swirling on social media that the media are protecting the identity of the accused because he is white. The sad reality is that the media may well have taken extra care to adhere to the law and ethics precisely because the accused is white.
It’s important to add that the processes are likely to be informed by the fact that class and access to resources play a critical role in this, for those with resources tend to take steps to protect their identity; their lawyers help them and so do their other social structures.
We know of many instances where the accused isn’t a stranger but a family member and has been named. What makes these cases worse is that in naming the accused they also indirectly identify the child. It is clear that in the overwhelming majority of instances where either the child and or the accused have their identity revealed these children and the accused are poor and black.
A review of our MADS over the last ten years demonstrates this. Our research shows that in 10% of stories about children the rights of the child are violated, most commonly through their identity being revealed where it is clearly not in the child’s best interest to do so.
One response seems to be that we should name the child or the accused in the current rape at the restaurant. Another response is that we need to step up pressure on media to ensure they take the same precautions and care with all similar cases regardless of race and class.
The good news here is that despite appearances the media are actually getting better at protecting the names and identities of the most vulnerable regardless of race and class.
When MMA started our monitoring of children in the news 15 years ago there were no clauses in our Press Code protecting children, and none in the SABC Editorial Policies. It was also not unusual for media to name children in high profile cases who had been sexually assaulted.
There was concern in one such case that media were only covering white girls’ disappearance, so it was perversely opportune that a black young boy also disappeared at about the same time. Media then raced to cover all and reveal all, including graphic details of how the children were sexually assaulted. It was additional trauma for the children and their families.
Thankfully while media still make mistakes and trends still favour our apartheid legacy, we have one of the strongest press codes in the world on children and protection in our public broadcaster is also significant.
Like much of the rest of our society, racial inequality continues, but it is to our media’s credit that they are not taking the easy route and simply naming the perpetrator even when it would be a lot easier to do so.
It was American Slavery Abolitionist Wendell Phillips who said, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” Indeed, it is up to the public to be vigilant and to call media out and ensure they protect all. If we want to be debased we can choose to go to the dark side of the internet, but if we want to build a better society and democracy we have to be active citizens who do more than get angry.
*Article published on Media 24