‘New’ media’s lack of ethics

2014-06-04 00:00

THE age of the citizen journalist has dawned, media theorists argue, and they may be right, but shadows fall across the landscape as the new sun rises.

Anyone can publish almost anything these days. Media explodes on blogs, websites and social media networks by millions of content producers, very few who are journalists or connected in any way to “old media”.

This is a good thing, right? Well, not always.

Let’s examine a case study.

Last week, The Witness’s sister publication Beeld broke a sensational story about an East Rand father who had been arrested after it was discovered he had kept his wife and children in effective captivity for years, subjecting them to shocking torture and abuse.

“Old media” platforms like newspapers, television and radio, studiously avoided identifying the accused or his family members due to legal restrictions that prevent the publishing of the identities of juvenile victims of crimes or any information that may indirectly identify them.

There are also well-established media ethics on this issue.

But these considerations matter naught in the world of citizen-produced media.

The day after the “East Rand Monster” story broke, I came across a Facebook page that contained photographs of the accused in this case, his full name, his occupation and many other personal details, including the identities of family members.

Readers of the page were exhorted to share the information across social networks with as many people as possible. Dozens of readers of the page were posting comments of their personal interactions with the accused and of other details of incidents of alleged abuse that they had witnessed (but never bothered to report to the authorities).

When I checked yesterday, nearly 30 000 people had shared this information, and so, in theory, hundreds of thousands of other readers had seen it too.

I posted an indignant comment pointing out the ramifications of this. I didn’t think anything would come of it. Surprisingly, by yesterday the images that had been posted had been altered “on legal advice” to disguise the faces of the accused and some of his family members, but the damage is already done.

The “East Rand Monster” example illustrates the tension between “old” media and the “new”. The rules that apply to journalists technically also apply to others who are not journalists but who are, in effect, doing journalism. The problem is that few of these “content producers” know the rules or, if they do, believe the rules don’t apply to them.

These ethical rules exist for a good reason in mainstream media. They are designed to give life to the ethical imperative of “limiting harm”.

This was something we had to consider in the story, which Jeff Wicks has been reporting, involving allegations of torture during initiation rituals at a leading Pietermaritzburg school.

The child victim of these alleged acts has been identified by The Witness but only after the agreement with the boy’s mother who, in fact, insisted on it, as she was concerned that other victims of these practices who remained at the school would be suspected of having broken ranks and would be further victimised if she did not go public with her and her son’s identity.

These ethical questions are part of the daily bread of traditional media. Sometimes we get it wrong, but these issues are front of mind in our work; hardly the case for enthusiastic amateurs pumping our material with nary a thought.

Don’t get me wrong. I am no Luddite when it comes to the democratisation of media, but I also think that if you want to drive a car, you should take some time to learn the rules of the road.

To conclude, some items from my Editor’s notebook.

• Apologies to those readers who were fuming over the lack of a crossword in Monday’s paper. We had to reconfigure the paper to accommodate the volume of Comrades’ results that we had to publish.

• Thanks to the Royal Show’s CEO Terry Strachan for the kind invites to several show events last week, at which I was able to meet many new faces. It was my first experience of the show and I wish I had been able to spend more time there last week. I’m making a special note in my diary for next year (when I will take up the zip line challenge laid down to me by PMB Chamber of Business CEO Melanie Veness).

• A big thumbs-up to all the pupils from local schools who came to The Witness show stand to chat to me about journalism. A special nod to Maritzburg College’s Adam Jinnah who wrote me a courteous e-mail of appreciation. Old-school manners still make a great impression.

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