Consider fines and lifestyle audits for unethical journalists, Sanef inquiry recommends

18 January 2021 - 14:09 By nivashni nair
In a 377-page report, the Inquiry into Media Ethics and Credibility panel set out numerous recommendations to address ethical issues facing South African journalism.
In a 377-page report, the Inquiry into Media Ethics and Credibility panel set out numerous recommendations to address ethical issues facing South African journalism.
Image: Macor / 123RF Stock Photo

The South African National Editors' Forum should reopen discussions on fining or suspending unethical journalists from media organisations, Sanef's Inquiry into Media Ethics and Credibility panel recommended on Monday.

The panel, headed by retired judge Kathleen Satchwell and journalists Nikiwe Bikitsha and Rich Mkhondo, recommended that the non-profit organisation, whose members are editors, senior journalists and journalism trainers from across the country, should also open the debate on lifestyle audits for journalists.

“In the interest of ensuring that all media consumers know how to critically assess the reporting of news and opinion and the conduct of journalists, providing a platform for deeper conversations around ethics and integrity, improving management, editorial and reporting or publishing practices; and rewarding journalists who set a high ethical standard, Sanef should reopen consideration of sanctions — fines or suspension from media organisations — for journalists who commit ethical breaches, since current Press Council requirements avail very limited restorative justice to aggrieved or harmed members of the public.”

The panel recommended that Sanef talk about the establishment of policy on the disclosure of income and interests and/or lifestyle audits for journalists to the extent that such may be seen to bear on their independence and integrity.

In a 377-page report, the panel set out numerous recommendations to address ethical issues facing South African journalism.

“In the age when humanity is crying for facts, truth-telling, fair reporting and accountability, sometimes ethical journalism seems to be on the ropes.

“While there is a growing movement to strengthen the craft of journalism and recognition of how journalists committed to accuracy are doing good work and connecting with news consumers, there are times when ethical journalism appears rather bleak.

“That is why Sanef commissioned an inquiry into the ethical issues facing South African journalism,” the panel said.

Although the inquiry was commissioned following events and controversy surrounding the publication and subsequent retraction of a series of stories by the Sunday Times between 2011 and 2016, the panel’s hearings and perusal of submissions revealed a shared set of systemic problems imperilling ethical conduct across the whole media landscape.

“These include revenue challenges impacting on sustainability; the related diminution of resources for professional development and training and for the effective exercise of editorial and sub-editing checks and balances; the social media-fuelled pressure to break stories ever faster amidst competing mis- and disinformation narratives; societal pressures — including harassment and official disdain and manipulation — on reporters; and lacunae in the scope and powers of regulatory bodies,” the panel said.

However, the crux of the report relates to the Sunday Times coverage of three prominent stories — the so-called “Rogue Unit”, the alleged Cato Manor Death Squad and the Zimbabwe renditions.

“The inquiry could not and did not seek to establish the truth or otherwise of any reportage by the Sunday Times nor any wrongdoing on the part of any person, whether the subject matter of any reportage or any journalist or media entity.

“Nor do the conclusions reached by the panel represent a finding that such misconduct either did or did not take place. The purpose of this portion of the inquiry was purely to investigate any lapses in media ethics.

“The panel found that precisely the same errors and weaknesses identified by the review conducted by Fray, Harber, Kruger and Milo in 2011 of Sunday Times news processes had persisted, not been corrected, and contributed in no small part to the problematic reporting and editing processes that marred the renditions, Cato Manor and Sars [SA Revenue Service] series of stories.

“These were exacerbated by the elite and unaccountable status afforded to the title’s Investigations Unit and pressure for the regular, high-speed delivery of sensational ‘splash’ stories from the unit, rather than patience with slow, detail-oriented work,” the report stated.

The panel said the Sunday Times must apologise to those incorrectly implicated in three prominent stories, reveal its sources and fund an ethics course at university.

The panel said full and complete retraction of incorrect or false or malicious allegations or commentary should be made.

It wants the Sunday Times to make a full disclosure of the nature and extent of the “parallel political project” which the Sunday Times avers took place and that led to the “abuse,” providing details of the persons involved and their actions as well as the wrongdoings or failures of all journalists, editors, editorial and administrative staff involved.

The Sunday Times should also establish a chair in ethics in journalism at one of SA’s formerly black universities, making payment for the full foundation thereof to the relevant university.

“The chair should not be named after the Sunday Times or any holding company but after an investigative journalist of high moral and professional calibre whose media work has contributed to the development and/or maintenance of constitutional democracy in SA,” the panel said.

The panel also wants the Sunday Times to submit the work and culture of its newsroom to scrutiny and assessment by an independent panel every five years from date of the apology of October 2018.

“Such review should be made public to all other media bodies, with the findings thereof reported with suitable prominence in the Sunday Times,” the panel said.

Sanef held a special council meeting on January 16 at which the editors' body said, however, that the Sunday Times does not have to apologise again, after doing so in 2018. And at Monday's press conference, Sanef chairperson Sbu Ngalwa said the funding of a chair of ethics at a SA university is something that all media houses, not just the owners of the Sunday Times, must contribute to.

The Sunday Times said it welcomed the conclusion of the Independent Panel’s inquiry and the publication of the report.

“We hope and believe that the report will go a long way in enhancing the practice of journalism and in encouraging adherence to media ethics by practitioners. As a newspaper we voluntarily participated in the process out of recognition of its potential to lay the basis for necessary and ongoing introspection by both the Sunday Times and the South African media in general,” said editor S'thembiso Msomi.

“It is important to note that many of the weaknesses and lapses in our systems pointed out in the panel’s report were already acknowledged and addressed during Bongani Siqoko’s tenure as editor. The series of stories in question happened between 2011 and 2016. There has been a lot of effort put into improving our systems and to ensure that such mistakes do not happen in future.” 

He said among the significant changes that have occurred was the acquisition of the Sunday Times and other publications in the group by new owners, who had affirmed commitment to editorial independence as well as the strengthening of the newsroom in support of quality journalism.

“We do recognise, however, that improving our systems with the goal of delivering quality journalism and ensuring that errors are minimised in our reporting is always a work in progress. It is for this reason that we intend to study the report further in the coming days as we believe that it has some valuable suggestions for our newsroom going forward.”

Msomi pledged: “As a newspaper, we remain committed to truthful, independent and accountable journalism and pledge to work closely with Sanef and other role players to help improve the craft.” 

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