OPINION | That Siya Kolisi headline: A once-off issue, or lack of engagement with ethical matters?

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Ethical issues in journalism are taken very seriously at News24, writes the author.
Ethical issues in journalism are taken very seriously at News24, writes the author.

George Claassen, News24’s public editor, asks if News24 was unfair, even racist, as many Twitterati accused it of being, in its reporting on the arrest in Australia of Dean Carelse, the former rugby coach at Grey High School in Gceberha? 

News24’s original report carried the headline "Siya Kolisi’s former coach arrested on child porn charges". It led to a social media storm of accusations of racism and, as one reader who complained to me wrote: "Siya Kolisi's reputation has now been damaged, the public remembers he was Siya's coach and not his name. The seriousness of this crime is now centered around Siya Kolisi, instead of reporting fairly and ethically and ensuring this paedophilia is exposed and gets thrown behind bars."

To give context of the timeline how this story unfolded, Sport24 editors Lloyd Burnard and Sibusiso Mjikeliso explained how the story was compiled:

"The Carelse story came out of Australia and was published by the Sydney Morning Herald, but it was only picked up by South African media houses after the link to Kolisi was made.

"Sport24 first saw the Kolisi link on the Dispatch Live website where the headline read: 'Former teacher who once coached Siya Kolisi arrested in Australia on porn rap.' That was later changed to: 'Former Grey High School teacher arrested in Australia on porn rap'.  

Sport24 then published an aggregation linking to the Sydney Morning Herald piece just before 13:00. The initial headline read: 'Siya Kolisi’s former coach arrested on child porn charges'.

"That headline was rightly followed by immediate outrage from readers on Twitter as it had unfairly made Kolisi the central figure of the story. In doing so, the identity of Carelse had been hidden and, more importantly, the seriousness of the allegations had been diluted.

"The News24 editors group then consulted and the headline was changed to: 'Former SA school teacher Dean Carelse arrested on child porn charges'. An apology was also included at the end of the copy that read:

"An earlier version of this story had made reference to Springbok captain Siya Kolisi in the headline without naming Carelse. We listened to feedback from readers that this was unfair to Kolisi and agree that Carelse should have been the focus of the headline. We have changed the article and headline and apologise for our error.

"News24 then tweeted their apology. It read: 'APOLOGY | An earlier version of our story on Dean Carelse being arrested in Australia on child pornography charges had made reference to Springbok captain Siya Kolisi in the headline without naming Carelse. We listened to feedback from readers and agree that Carelse, and not Kolisi, should have been the focus and subject in our headline. We have changed the article and headline and apologise for our error.'"

Issue of racism

The issue here at stake is not racism. Anyone accusing News24 of being racist because of the link of Carelse’s arrest to him coaching Kolisi at school, does not see the wood for the trees. News24’s original headline was problematic and in the explanation by the editors above, it is clear that the editors acted ethically to correct the mistake, and to issue an apology to Kolisi.

There is another ethical issue here that should be emphasised. Many critics deplored News24 and other media making the link between Carelse’s coaching past with Kolisi at school. I don’t agree that the context given of Carelse’s past coaching of Kolisi was irrelevant to the story.

The reader quoted above, wrote "It's quite disappointing and disturbing that News24 didn't learn from the Mallett story", referring to a column I wrote on 16 October 2019. In it, I critised News24 for mentioning the name of former Springbok coach and player Nick Mallett in various stories linked to Fiona Viotti, a teacher who resigned amid allegations of a sexual relationship with a pupil at the Bishops Diocesan College in Rondebosch. Viotti is the niece of Mallett and I asked the question: "Is this fair to Mallett?" 

READ | Opinion: What's Nick Mallett got to do with it?

I want to apply the Carelse arrest story to the arguments I used then in why News24 erred in the Mallett case. The original Kolisi headline was unfair and has been corrected, as shown above, but many readers think we should not have mentioned the link of Carelse’s past coaching of Kolisi at school because it is irrelevant and similar to the Mallett case.

I don’t agree, because context in the Carelse story was relevant and naming Mallett in the Viotti report was not at all.

In my column of 2019, I wrote: "Most international media codes of ethics emphasise that minimising harm in the way journalists report about news events is or should be an important pillar of sound and ethical reporting. Yet, are the media always fair in their coverage of news when they name well known people in reports about possible criminal suspects or devious public behaviour, if those famous relatives or relations do not have any relevance to the reader’s understanding of the facts?"

The South African Press Code emphasises that the media shall "take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly". Was it unethical and unfair to name Kolisi at all in a case of Carelse’s arrest of a very serious crime that clearly has no relevance to Kolisi?  

In the Mallett case, I looked at the intent of the Press Code and weighed the media’s reporting of the Viotti case on its scale of striving towards fairness. The Code clearly states in its preamble that the media exist to serve society. Their freedom provides for independent scrutiny of the forces that shape society, and is essential to realising the promise of democracy. It enables citizens to make informed judgments on the issues of the day, a role whose centrality is recognised in the South African Constitution” (emphasis added).  

Public interest

The preamble to the Press Code goes further, stating that the "media’s work is guided at all times by the public interest, understood to describe information of legitimate interest or importance to citizens.

"As journalists we commit ourselves to the highest standards, to maintain credibility and keep the trust of the public. This means 'always striving for truth,' and 'avoiding unnecessary harm'" (emphasis added).

In section 3, the Press Code deals with matters of privacy, dignity and reputation of the people the media report on and that the media shall "exercise care and consideration in matters involving the private lives of individuals. The right to privacy may be overridden by public interest" (section 3.1, emphasis added). It then expands on this in section 3.3, emphasising that the media shall "exercise care and consideration in matters involving dignity and reputation, which may be overridden only if it is in the public interest".  

In section 5, the Press Code deals with discrimination and hate speech but with regard to the media’s reporting on the Carelse case, hate speech is not relevant here, only whether the media were indeed avoiding "discriminatory or denigratory references to people’s … status, and not refer to such status in a prejudicial or pejorative context – and shall refer to the above only where it is strictly relevant to the matter reported, and if it is in the public interest" (emphasis added).

In Media24’s own ethical code that also includes a wide range of best practices, specific guidelines are given under section 2 with the headline "Minimise harm and limit damage to the minimum". It is specifically section 2.1, "Test the fairness of your reporting by subjecting it to the following questions," that is relevant to journalists trying to determine the fairness of their reporting:

"Did you in any way in a news report unnecessarily involve a family member(s) or other related person of an accused/convicted party by, for example, referring to the accused/convicted party’s relationship to a well known person? Is it really necessary to mention the name of the well known or related person in relation to the accused/guilty party? The test will be: Does the well known person have anything to do with the case of the accused/guilty party? Does mentioning his/her name, place any perspective on the fact of the case of the accused/guilty party, or can the story stand on its own legs without mentioning the well known person?" (emphasis added).

Weighing all these different sections of the South African Press Code as well as that of Media24’s own code for its newspapers, one can ask in what way did mentioning Kolisi’s name become at all relevant to the reports on Carelse’s arrest?

I wrote then: "I believe, in interpreting the Press Code, that the reader would not have had a lesser understanding of the facts about the Viotti case if Mallett’s name was not mentioned. His relevance to the story is highly questionable. And in my view, grossly unfair to Mallett as it contravened that part of section 5 of the Press Code referring to his status while it was not strictly relevant to the matter reported."

Contextual relevance

But in the Carelse case the relevance of Kolisi being mentioned as having been coached by Carelse at school, gives in my view contextual relevance. Lots has been written about Kolisi’s rise to stardom and his years at Grey High School. And Carelse was then also mentioned, and quoted, by the media. It had relevance then about how Kolisi became the player he is today, and it gives context to his past and the people who crossed his past and had an influence on his rugby career.

In my column on Mallett, I quoted the media ethicists Jay Black, Bob Steele and Ralph Barney who elaborated on the questions we should ask about privacy invasion in their definitive book, Doing Ethics in Journalism. A Handbook with Case Studies (Boston: Allen & Bacon, 1999):

"Harm from privacy invasion is almost certain, but it is more difficult for a journalist to fully identify benefits from an intrusion… the primary ethical obligation of journalism is to inform the public by seeking truth and reporting it as fully as possible. That obligation must then be balanced against the obligation to respect individuals and their privacy. The challenge for journalists is to be courageous in seeking and reporting information, while being compassionate to those who are being covered."

Although News24’s original headline overstepped the line of relevance as it made Kolisi the focus of the story, I do not think News24’s linking of Carelse’s past coaching experience of the Springbok captain in the story itself as being irrelevant and unethical. Mentioning his name was relevant.

One last observation about how News24 dealt with the outcry following the original story before the headline was changed, the story updated and the apology issued: many of the accusations hurled at News24 on social media were grossly unfair and blatantly untrue: inter alia that Kolisi has now become the face of a white man’s crime; that News24 is driving a racist agenda; that News24 wants to strip a successful black man from his success.

Ethical considerations

As News24’s public editor, my day-to-day experience is not that News24 regards ethical issues as a "once-in-a-blue-moon problem", as Professor Chris Frost, experienced journalist and long-term member of the British National Union of Journalists’ Ethics Council and now at Liverpool’s John Moore University, describes the often general attitude of newsrooms to ethical issues in his excellent analysis of media ethics, Journalism Ethics and Regulation (Longman, 2011).

Ethical issues in journalism are taken very seriously at News24 and it subscribes to the South African Press Code, being accountable to its readers. We listen to readers who make rational and evidence-based observations about News24’s reporting – and, when necessary, act on it by updating our stories, correcting mistakes, and also apologising when necessary.

This policy was clearly applied in the Dean Carelse story.

George Claassen is News24’s public editor and a board member of the international Organization of Newsombudsmen and Standards Editors. 

*Want to respond to the columnist? Send your letter or article to opinions@news24.com with your name and town or province. You are welcome to also send a profile picture. We encourage a diversity of voices and views in our readers' submissions and reserve the right not to publish any and all submissions received.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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