The Ethics of 16 Days Media Coverage

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During 2006 the Media Monitoring Project analysed coverage of the 16 days campaign to examine whether media upheld generally accepted media ethical principles. The findings show that, in covering the Campaign stories, the media most commonly violates the principle to do no harm, frequently by identifying the victim and exposing them to potential further abuse and victimisation.

The principles were compiled by drawing on internationally accepted ethical standards of journalism. The nine principles used, outline clear ethical guidelines that promote respect for human rights and best media practice. These principles were:

  • Seek and express the truth;
  • Be dependent and objective;
  • Minimise harm;
  • Children are afforded special protection;
  • Avoid stereotypes;
  • Violence against women constitutes a human rights violation;
  • Respect and engage with cultural and sexual practices;
  • Be aware of HIV/AIDS dimensions of gender-based violence and child abuse.

50% of the stories (amounting to 129 out of 259) that were monitored supported key ethical principles. Graph 1 illustrates a breakdown of the various principles that were supported. 18% of stories monitored violated key ethical principles. Graph 2 shows the breakdown of the key ethical principles that were violated in the stories monitored. The rest of the stories monitored, 32%, neither supported nor challenged any of the ethical principles.

Most observed ethical principle

The graph below shows the most supported or adhered-to principle was “Woman and Child abuse are fundamental human rights violations”, which occured in 32% of the stories that clearly demonstrated ethical principles. This shows that in some cases journalists made a link between woman and child abuse to human rights. The media should be encouraged to make this link especially in the efforts to raise issues of woman and child abuse during the campaign.

graph 1: Principle Supported

Most violated ethical principle

While the media’s performance overall was impressive, there are still some areas of coverage of the Campaign that could be improved. The most commonly violated ethical principle was “to minimise harm”. In other words, of the 48 out of 259 stories that violated key ethical principles 42% of that portion brought about further harm, most often by identifying “victims” of abuse or crime.

Graph 2: Principle Violated

One example of how media failed to minimise harm came from the Daily Sun.  The article was titled “THEY RAPED IN SA’S TOUGHEST TOWNSHIP…and they paid the price” (Daily Sun 20/11/2006, p. 3). The story was about a couple who were attacked by two young men who repeatedly raped the 29 year-old woman in the story. The young men were caught by members of the public and beaten to death. The picture of the dead bodies was laid out on page 2 with the caption “allegedly attacked a couple with knives [and] repeatedly raped the 29 year-old woman”. Another picture used in the story was of the couple, the caption read “A 33 year-old man and his 29 year-old lover in shock after their ordeal”.

In this story the Daily Sun could have minimised harm by not using the picture of the woman and her partner because it was not in their best interest. The report made a deliberate effort not to name the “victims” but by picturing them it violated their right to dignity and privacy therefore causing further harm. At the time MMP made the argument, in a media update, that it was not clear whether informed consent was given under such traumatising circumstances. Hence one cannot prove that it was in the best interest of the couple, especially the woman, to have their photograph published in the Daily Sun.

Ethical conclusions

South African media have received much criticism from government about their ethical conduct. It would seem that by violating key ethical principles in some of the stories, they are supporting the view that media are unable to regulate themselves. What is particularly concerning is that the most violated ethical principle is the principle not to do more harm, where stories deal with women and child abuse. It would seem that the media is exposing the victims and survivors to secondary abuse and violating their right to dignity through, in many cases identifying victims of violence.

By George Kalu

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