Analysis: Media Coverage of children during looting

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In July, South Africa witnessed considerable news coverage of issues relating to the public unrest that some members of the public felt was brought on by the arrest of former President, Jacob Zuma. Other sectors still feel that the unrest which led to property destruction and mass looting of businesses in KwaZulu Natal (KZN) and Gauteng was caused by inequality and poverty among other issues.[1]

In all this, the media are to be commended for covering these events as they unfolded, in some instances showing live visuals of what was happening on the ground despite one reported media having been robbed of their equipment while reporting and,[2] despite facing threats such as attacks or being caught up in stampedes.

Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) monitored the overall media coverage of the unrest while paying close attention to how children participating in the looting were reported on. The purpose of this analysis is to look at specifically how children were portrayed in the media coverage in relation to their rights to privacy, dignity, participation and overall protection. All images, articles and footage of children involved in the looting or protests from most mainstream media were monitored. The monitoring period was from the beginning of the unrest up until calm was restored. The protests were rife from the 11thto the 17th July, 2021.

The build-up to the protests might have started earlier but we will focus on this period as this was when the protests dominated media coverage.  While a lot of media items were monitored, only a few examples of either poor reporting or good practice are included in this analysis merely as examples. MMA monitored aspects such as whether the voices of children during such coverage were present as well as whether ethical principles in news reporting of children in such events were applied.

To begin, the media needs to be commended for reporting what was happening on the ground during the unrest. In coverage, journalists can be seen braving the cold, seemingly ducking bullets and even getting robbed of their reporting equipment. It is also thanks to the media that the rest of South Africa got to see video footage, images, interviews and analyses from different groups of people including experts.

One of the outstanding areas of coverage was the plight of the children and here the media needs to be applauded for thinking and reporting about the well-being of children involved in the looting. In a broadcast by Newzroom Afrika titled, “The long-term effects of children witnessing violence and instability” (14/07/2021), the news anchor speaks to an expert who is a clinical psychologist to discuss the effects and impact that children who are looting or seeing such level of violence may experience. Although children are not asked for their opinions, the expert’s contribution to the discussion is very important for both parents and children and shows that Newzroom Afrika considered how the looting might affect children in future.

The looting resulted in destruction of school infrastructure and this has a direct impact on children who will be returning to school.[3]  With all the impact this and other looting activities have on children, the media still failed to adequately let children participate in the media through voicing out their opinions on the protests and looting.

Much of the news items monitored that involved children were either images or videos. While the children were present in some of these clips, they are not spoken to and in instances where they should be protected, their identity is not withheld. For example, a live coverage by SABC Channel 404 on 11th July, 2021 in a clip titled, “Protestors vow to continue until Zuma is released” shows adults being interviewed about why they were protesting and looting. These interviewees are surrounded by people who also include children chanting the name, Zuma. In the clip, they are calling for the release of Jacob Zuma. Since no one in the video clip is shown looting, MMA is of the view that the journalist should have also interviewed the children present to get their opinions on the on-going unrest and where necessary, hide the children’s faces to protect them.

In its recent report on media’s coverage of children, MMA found, “Children make up more than a third or 37% of the national population, yet research shows that they are only mentioned in 13% of written news stories. What’s more, most of these stories do not include the voices or perspectives of children.”[4]

In coverage where the media should have protected children, they failed to do so. This was coverage that showed the actual looting where children can be seen taking part. As looting is a crime, such children should have been afforded the protection due to them as outlined in the Criminal Procedure Act Section 154 (3). The Section forbids the identification of children who are suspects, are victims or are witnesses at criminal proceedings.

Showing children committing crimes without making efforts to withhold their identities was irresponsible. Such coverage that neglected to protect the children involved includes an article published by The Saturday Star  titled, “Child rights organisations concerned about children involved in looting” (17/07/2021). The article reports about Teddy Bear Clinic and Save the Children condemning the involvement of children in the looting. A picture of a child looting accompanies the article. Although the child is not named, he can clearly be identified.

MMA also believes that images and videos shown in the media with children looting or at scenes of looting have the potential to perpetuate negative stereotypes about children from communities deemed disadvantaged. As some members of the public linked the looting to poverty, the children in the media coverage of the unrest could be viewed as children living in poverty. While this might be so, such portrayal becomes dangerous because it reinforces and deepens these stereotypes over and above what such children already face in society and in the media.

While we appreciate how overwhelming it can be giving live coverage of mass looting by a large number of people including children, we urge the media to always be cautious and act in ways that minimise harm when coverage involves children.  Part of this entails the media to be creative with how they show footage of children involved in criminal activities. It is the responsibility of the media to protect children in coverage by acting in the best interest of children as outlined in the Bill of Rights of the South Africa Constitution in Section 28.2.

While MMA appreciates the public’s right to know, we are of the view that some information, such as identities of children adds little to no value to the coverage. Further, while it can be argued that showing children looting with their identities revealed is in the public interest, we argue that revealing the children’s identities had little to no impact on the public and that the children’s identities were merely interesting to the public and not in the public interest.

In instances that do not call for the withholding of children’s identities, the media needs to go beyond just mentioning or showing children to accessing them especially when in the best interest of those children. MMA feels that South Africa would have benefitted from hearing children’s voices speaking about how the unrest and especially the looting impacts their lives, livelihoods and education etc.

Media must always strive to portray children in roles that are empowering rather than disempowering. For example, instead of portraying children as looters as many visuals have shown, the media could have got creative and looked at another angle, an angle such as one exploring why so many children are involved in these activities, of course, while withholding the children’s identities.

We are calling on the media to act in the best interest of children in future reporting of such events and where there is no harm to the children, to include their voices to coverage.

By Lister Namumba, Ntsako Manganyi and George Kalu


[1] https://www.wits.ac.za/news/latest-news/opinion/2021/2021-07/what-drove-south-africas-recent-violence-and-looting-and-what-to-do-about-it.html

[2] https://www.sabcnews.com/sabcnews/sabc-news-crew-robbed-while-covering-protests-in-alexandra/

[3] https://ewn.co.za/2021/07/16/fears-some-kzn-schools-may-not-re-open-after-32-schools-vandalised

[4] See https://health-e.org.za/2020/11/24/media-monitoring-children-news/

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