Public editor responds to News24's inaccurate 'coronavirus vaccine' story

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Bill Gates.
Bill Gates.
Yana Paskova/Getty Images

Carpenters have a dictum that is very applicable to modern day journalism in the age of social media – and, unfortunately, too often not applied diligently in my profession: "Measure twice, cut once."

Earlier this week, News24 retracted an article and apologised to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for stating incorrectly that Gates was alleged to have said that a vaccine against Covid-19 would be tested on Africans. The details of how the fake news was virally spread on social media by rumour mongerers were analysed in depth by News24’s investigative reporter Kyle Cowan, an incisive and eye-opening study illustrating the dangers of uncritically believing the twitterati’s often terrifying and destructive lies.

In his trenchant exposure of the viral dangers when posts on social media are  indiscriminately believed and distributed, the award-winning author Jon Ronson shows how a new person every day "emerges as a magnificent hero or sickening villain", creating a "stage for constant artificial high dramas". He calls it "mass online destruction", a "group madness". It is mostly driven by the confirmation bias of a group targeting the created "villain" – in this case Bill Gates – "only taking seriously pieces of information that confirmed its pre-existing belief", again here that Gates was the culprit in this woeful tale of finding a cure for Covid-19.

For journalists trying to make sense of all the information floating around in the ether, the dangers of getting it wrong has become one of the modern scourges threatening to overwhelm trustworthy journalism. In the rumour of a vaccine that would be tested by the Gates Foundation on Africans, we published without proper gates in place to prevent this story from also entering the ether. In the process, News24’s editorial lapses fulfilled the definition of the ether as a highly flammable liquid that can lead to a destructive conflagration.

Fortunately, the editor-in-chief, Adriaan Basson, tried to douse the fire through accountable journalism by retracting the report and apologising to the Gates Foundation. Schadenfreude there still is a-plenty as closing a gate when the horse is already running in the meadow, always leads to a blame-game by people forgetting that life is filled with mistakes because it is lived by humans, not gods.

READ | Adriaan Basson: We have learnt a hard lesson and will strive to be better

When I was a young cub reporter, ethical accountability by the media was a rare phenomenon. Press codes mostly did not exist and a watchdog such as the Organisation of Newsombudsmen and Standards Editors (ONO), the international body today guarding over journalism standards, did not exist and was only established in the 1980s. Today, most media in the print and broadcast industry function with ethical codes to guide journalists to report from an environment built on four pillars: to report news as accurately, truthfully and fairly as possible, to minimise harm, to act fiercely independent from all pressure and interest groups trying to influence its reporting, and to be accountable (admitting our mistakes and apologising for them, when necessary).

How did this mistake happen that led to the ethical and honourable thing to do, a retraction of the article and an apology? In my investigation requested by the editor, I found four reasons why it could have happened, in some sense more broadly trends in journalism today which surfaced during this unfortunate mistake.

Structural shortcomings

What is clear from my investigation, was that the newsroom was understaffed on Saturday night when the story was assigned and written. The question of experience arises in analysing the structural problem and the main lapse was that a senior, knowledgeable editor was not overseeing the process on Saturday night. Newsrooms worldwide have been decimated by financial constraints, leading to a serious loss of institutional wisdom that in the face of an onslaught of fake news and fables being spread as the truth, mainly on social media platforms, but even from the White House and political forums, become an immense problem for normally trusted media. Stories are often insufficiently researched, compiled in a hurry, with not enough eyes checking facts and verifying sources.

Training and appointments

It is clear that consistent training in the basics of journalism, with all the challenges that continuously crop up in day-to-day reporting, is a serious issue that needs urgent attention. Journalists are today required to be able to distinguish between a host of possible sources, many of them unreliable on social media platforms, where comments and rumours are often regarded as the truth while they are in fact fake news. This was the basic problem in this retracted Gates Foundation story.

Aggregation of news from various sources has become a big challenge to journalists and they should be properly trained to be able to compile stories from trustworthy sources, verified and fact-checked. The question of verification is of paramount importance and unfortunately too often neglected, also negatively affected by single-source journalism.

Young journalists often arrive from schools, universities or other training facilities uninformed and with a lot of theory, but a dearth of basic skills to report on complex news issues. Regular compulsory training courses in gathering news, source evaluation, writing and other important facets of reporting should be held, as well as sub-editing courses. Appointments should only take place after a thorough journalism evaluation test that should include a writing and editing test, as well as an evaluation of an applicant’s general knowledge. This should be followed by an interview and checking of references given by an applicant.

There are many fly-by-night journalists today and media houses should only appoint the best people whose credentials have been found to be reliable and trustworthy. It damages the profession when we get things wrong and in recent times, we have seen how some "journalists" have been state-captured, draping themselves in and flying the flags of political parties or the Zupta brigades – unfortunately still regarded as credible reporters by many getting their oxygen only from Facebook and Twitter. And too many of these "journalists" are still in senior positions at former reputable newspapers or even at a prominent television station. Journalism cannot compromise on quality, too much is at stake.    

Unfamiliarity of journalism’s ethical codes

Every journalist and all senior editors should know what the South African Press Code and the code of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission entail. Accurate, truthful reporting that is fair is a sine qua non of media ethical codes. As journalists, we should all know these codes by heart to enable us to safely navigate the pitfalls confronting credible media today.

General knowledge, fact-checking and science reporting

It was obvious that a major reason for the mistake in publishing the Gates vaccine story was the failure to catch the serious error of not making a distinction between test kits and ventilators as preventative medical measures while there is no vaccine, and a vaccine as a final preventative health implementation. In other words, not understanding the science and science policy and believing the scurrilous nonsense spouted on Twitter about Gates.  

The absolute necessity of journalists having a sound general knowledge is non-negotiable but is tragically, to the detriment of an informed and knowledgeable society, seriously neglected by the profession. If we want to inform society accurately, reliably and truthfully, we as journalists should be informed, knowledgeable and, in the words of that doyen of South African scientists, Phillip Tobias, we as "journalists should always be voracious readers in (our) discipline but read as widely as possible, be amphibious people, able to swim in the sciences and walk in the arts. Only by reading enough can (we) fulfil this goal".

What the crisis with Covid-19 shows, as well as the fundamental tragedy of climate change and the growing crisis created by the anti-vaccination campaigners, is confirmation that no story today is untouched by science and a good understanding of science and the processes part and parcel of it. One cannot expect journalists to be scientifically literate, we are more generalists than specialists, but we should always remember the words of Robert Park, science advisor to President Bill Clinton’s administration, during whose presidency the human genome was mapped.

Park emphasised that "It is not so much knowledge of science that the public needs as a scientific worldview – an understanding that we live in an orderly universe, governed by physical laws that cannot be circumvented". Journalists can no longer hide behind an excuse that science is too difficult to understand or that they specialise in another field of journalism. All journalism today is directly affected by science, as the coronavirus, climate change and the anti-vaccination debate show. It affects the economy, sport, art, politics, everything.

A final word, to quote a former executive director of ONO and first ombudsman of National Public Radio, Jeffrey Dvorkin: "When there is more accountability, there is better journalism." In my view, News24 fulfilled its accountability role by acting quickly to redress the mistake of publishing the erroneous article, not under pressure from the Gates Foundation as some twitterati alleged, but because readers pointed out the mistake, and we acted on their criticism. Not measuring twice before cutting, is hopefully a hard lesson learnt.

George Claassen is News24’s public editor and a board member of ONO.

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