The series about unethical journalism is aimed at helping journalists identify and resolve ethical issues relating to news reporting and storytelling. It is also designed to help news consumers to identify the red flags of unethical journalism. The aim is to help establish a stronger and more ethical media landscape. But what are media ethics
The Press Code of Ethics and Conduct for South African Print and Online Media, effective from 30 September 2020, described how the media is guided at all times by the public interest, understood to describe information of legitimate interest or importance to citizens. This statement implies that the content of news reports should be in the interest of the wider public. It includes matters such as impartiality, objectivity, balance, bias, truthfulness and accuracy and the truth – when it comes to news reports. It also means that both sides of the story should be provided to allow the news consumer to conclude on the matter.
In a nutshell, it is about the importance that journalists should do the right thing when it comes to news reporting. It is important that news reporters should think critically and gain a deeper understanding of ethical principles. News reporters should verify facts and make sure that the sources of information are credible, otherwise the news report will be in jeopardy. It is the duty of a journalist to seek out the truth. Most importantly, a news reporter should not get too involved in the story or the news informants.
The impact of the media on public perception is massive. The media could prompt the news consumer to react in a certain way, influence individual views and beliefs, or increase a person’s knowledge. It can also reinforce or destroy an existing belief. The intentional spread of fake news, masked as news in the interest of the public, has escalated over the years, advancing a hidden agenda or generating advertorial revenues. False statements have become ‘alternative facts’, and the news industry has reached a new low now. Consumers simply can no longer trust the media, and the media should work harder to regain their trust.
We will continue to explore and demonstrate all the elements of ethical journalism in future articles.
THE CASE OF KWASIZABANTU MISSION
KwaSizabantu has been more than once on the receiving end of smear campaigns which turned into media onslaughts. The News24 coverage about them is a good case to use to expose the perils of disinformation. The most obvious tactic that the media used to destroy the Mission’s reputation, is that of labelling. In short, the Mission was labelled in the media as a cult where children are abused and women raped. The founder, Rev Erlo Stegen, was labelled as a cult leader. However, no unquestionable evidence was provided of any of the allegations they published about the Mission and its founder. The media repeated the same labels over and over again on different media outlets, and that in itself is a red flag. The investigative magazine, Noseweek, suggested that the editor-in-chief of News24 had an agenda in his coverage of the allegations due to the extraordinary amount of news reports on the Mission and the continuous repeat of the stories. (Follow the link: https://digital.lib.sun.ac.za/bitstream/handle/10019.2/16942/noseweek250.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=z)
The book, A Journey to the Truth, the Case of KwaSizabantu, describes all of the elements of a smear campaign which got the media involved in labelling KwaSizabantu. Context is very important so the news consumer can conclude and not be dragged into the perception or the truth of the news reporter. KwaSizabantu has been mistreated by the mainstream media tremendously when the context of their work was excluded. How they contribute to the community’s well-being was also excluded and this information is readily available on their official website, www.ksb.org . This way, the Mission was framed as a bad place with no good qualities. The media also omitted very critical information which they had readily available when they wrote about the false allegations.
NOTE: The writer of the article, Gerda Potgieter, published a book, A Journey to The Truth, the case of KwaSizabantu Mission. Gerda is a seasoned communicator and exposed unethical journalism in the book after researching unethical media practices, with specific references to the case of the Christian Mission. This series demonstrates how news consumers should be on the lookout for the red flags of unethical journalism. Journalists and future news reporters can learn from the series. The book is available on Amazon: eBook - https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0CC2V989F The book can also be bought from Christian Liberty Books in Cape Town.
Should mainstream, secular media ridicule Christianity? What does ridiculing a Christian organisation or religious person have to do with the persecution of Christians? Is there a link between an irrational hatred for Christians and Christianity and a campaign in the media to ridicule and smear them? We explore these questions in this article.
CH Spurgeon once said, "The more prominent you are in Christ's service, the more certain are you to be the butt of calumny. I have long ago said farewell to my character. I lost it in the early days of my ministry by being a little more zealous than suited to a slumbering age. And I have never been able to regain it except in the sight of Him who judges all the earth, and in the hearts of those who love me for my work's sake."
Many Christians and Christian organisations will agree with Spurgeon and countless have stories to tell about how secular media ridicule Christians and Christianity. Two good examples are the articles which were published by News24 (links below). News24 also launched an attack on the KwaSizabantu Mission and these attacks were exposed by Noseweek in the video series, REVELATION: How News24 got it wrong. It is also demonstrated in the book, A Journey to the Truth: The Case of KwaSizabantu Mission.
MEDIA ATTACKS ON CHRISTIANITY
There are different kinds of persecution. One kind (direct) refers to the explicit killing, kidnapping, or execution of people for their faith. It includes instances where churches and Christian symbols are destroyed, among other horrible acts.
Indirect persecution includes actions such as harassment, intimidation, shunning by friends or family opposed to the gospel, blasphemy, and mocking of Christianity. But there is another dangerous kind, the silent (indirect) and less obvious one, disguised as culture and modernity or progress. It includes media misrepresentation of Christian organisations and news articles that spread disinformation about Christian individuals, groups, or Christianity as a whole.
A smear campaign or simply smear in the media is one example of negative propaganda that the secular media sometimes uses to discredit Christians or a Christian organisation. These tactics are commonly used to undermine effective arguments. And there is a huge concern about how religion and belief are portrayed by mainstream media.
The media is a consumer-driven industry. It has a huge reach in society and is a key filter through which consumers learn about other people, cultures, religions, and beliefs. Mass media plays a definite role in shaping collective identities and intergroup attitudes. By typecasting them or, in other words, assigning a value of a certain type to another type, they distort the picture that audiences see of different groups or individuals.
There is enough evidence to suggest skewed media representations promote public hostility toward a certain group. Missionaries, for instance, are a people group regularly targeted by secular media and often labelled cults because they either look, speak, or act differently from the rest of the secular world.
Social media platforms are just some of the effective tools used by people with agendas to spread false news at the speed of light about Christians and Christian organisations in their efforts to discredit the largest faith on earth. Critics of Christianity use and elaborate on stories (many times false) of corruption, abuse, violence, and countless other negative practices to try and discredit Christians in general and ultimately the Christian faith.
Many Christian organisations have been attacked in recent times, and you can read about it elsewhere in this issue. The KwaSizabantu Mission is but one example of a Christian organisation which became a target of media abuse. Studying this case provides me with the opportunity to use it as an example to prove my point about the persecution of Christianity in general.
THE KWASIZABANTU CASE
Following an extensive onslaught by News24, the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL Rights Commission) started investigating the allegations in November 2020. On 13 July 2023, the Commission released its findings and found that in terms of the church’s doctrines and cults’ practices, “the teachings, principles, rules, (doctrines) of the Mission are within the scope of freedom of religion.” The chairperson, Prof Mosoma, also said during the press conference when the findings were released, that KwaSizabantu displays no qualities of a cult and that the media abused the word ‘cult’. Read more about the CRL’s findings in Issue 38 of Devoted by following the link: https://online.pubhtml5.com/asxvv/ddze/
It is no secret that some individuals and churches fail to represent the life of Jesus, the central figure of Christianity. We all had bad experiences with so-called Christians who did not walk the talk. But that does not mean the entire Christian faith should be questioned, ridiculed, or attacked.
In a world where misinformation and bias can sway public opinion, it is crucial to scrutinise how religious groups are portrayed in the media. We must continue to advocate for fair and accurate representation. At Devoted, we will do our part by continuing to share uplifting stories about Christians and Christian organisations with the world. The media should aim to work for greater religious literacy and foster a better understanding and representation of all religions in media coverage.
NOTE: The writer of the article, Gerda Potgieter, released a book, A Journey to The Truth, the case of KwaSizabantu Mission. Gerda is a seasoned communicator and exposed unethical journalism in the book after researching unethical media practices, with specific references to the case of the Christian Mission. This series demonstrates how news consumers should be on the lookout for the red flags of unethical journalism. Journalists and future news reporters can learn from the series. The book is available on Amazon: eBook - https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0CC2V989F The book can also be bought from Christian Liberty Books in Cape Town.
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News headlines are important and should be ethical. Apart from grabbing attention, it should announce what the content of the article is. Headlines are there to grab our attention and we trust what we read. But should we?
Editors should avoid meaningless puns, clever wordplay, emotive words, and – most importantly – sensationalism. News headlines can make or break a business or ruin the reputation of innocent people. Using subjective terms in headlines and in news reports such as in the attached illustration and request for a boycott, is unethical because it shows bias.
The Bill of Rights, as contained in the Constitution, protects, among others, human dignity and religion. Defamation violates a person’s dignity and religion. In South African law defamation is committed whenever a person publishes a defamatory statement about a living person and it refers to any statement that tends to lower the standing of another person in the eyes of ‘right-thinking’ people. It is not only the person who originated the defamation that could be in trouble but also anyone who subsequently repeats it or shares it – especially on social media platforms.
Naming and shaming is one tactic that is popular among activists, lobby groups and the mainstream secular media to defame Christian organisations and Christian leaders. Stereotyping or looking into a particular group and portraying them as if they are alike and share certain qualities does not have a place in ethical journalism. A good example is to frame a religious organisation as a ‘cult’. It is a highly emotive word that mainly implies acts of wickedness, brainwashing, mind control, captivity, abuse, and a wide range of other atrocities.
This word is in general used to defame people or Christian organisations – mostly without good reason. The word is laden with prejudice which may negatively affect the group or individual belonging to the group.
Dressing or behaving differently, wearing no make-up or jewellery, or practising religion different from what you are used to, is not evidence that a group is cultic. It is irresponsible to label an entire community based on such meaningless qualities. This is a word that should not be used loosely because of its derogatory connotation.
The case of KwaSizabantu Mission
The KwaSizabantu Mission was labelled by News24 as a cult, despite the fact that there is not any sign of deviant or exclusive teachings in their confessions of faith. Furthermore, the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL Commission) has found no grounds for the allegations that KwaSizabantu is a cult and claimed that the media abuse the term ‘cult’. Promoted by the media onslaught on them, and after an almost three-year investigation into the Mission’s practices, the CRL found the teachings, practices, principles, rules and doctrine of the Mission are within the scope of freedom of religion as per Section 15 and Section 31 of the Constitution.
Will the Mission ever clear its name and restore the damage done to its image? How do you prove something that did not happen? How do you get the truth through to a wide audience that believes all they read in newspapers? A good beginning is to educate the masses with an article such as this one that is aimed at educating the public about the red flags of unethical journalism.
NOTE: The writer of the article, Gerda Potgieter, recently released a book, A Journey to The Truth, the case of KwaSizabantu Mission. Gerda is a seasoned communicator and exposed unethical journalism in the book after researching unethical media practices, with specific references to the case of the Christian Mission. This series demonstrates how news consumers should be on the lookout for the red flags of unethical journalism. Journalists and future news reporters can learn from the series.
The book is available on Amazon: eBook - https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0CC2V989F The book can also be bought from Christian Liberty Books in Cape Town.
Unfounded allegations imply innocent until proven guilty
The journalistic code of ethics should be embraced by journalists as a guide for ethical behaviour in the newsroom. This series of articles was designed to create awareness of the lack of ethics in journalism. Real-life case studies are used to demonstrate the flags of unethical journalism. The question in this article is whether news reporters should publish unproven allegations.
The terms ‘journalist’ and ‘news reporter’ are used interchangeably, but there are notable differences in terms of the scope of their work that distinguish them from one another. Both focus on collecting and disseminating information, but while journalists often cover a range of stories across various media formats, news reporters focus on news. Both are essential to the functioning of a well-informed society and the key is ethical reporting. In this series of articles, the focus is on measuring the News24 EXODUS campaign against key ethical standards of fairness, public accountability honesty, independence, and minimising harm. Ethical news reporting also implies that an accused remains innocent until proven guilty by a court of law through fair processes.
Unfounded allegations mean there is no evidence or proper basis which supports the allegation being made. News outlets should be careful about how they report alleged crimes, especially if no charges have been laid yet against the accused. Crime reporting can be a legal minefield for news reporters and a news outlet can be sued for defamation. In most cases, claiming a crime was committed is impossible until a court has passed a guilty judgment.
The media is not above the law. When reporting about an alleged crime, the media should respect the presumption of innocence rule until the accused is arrested and found guilty by a court of law. This is to avoid harming those who are wrongly accused. Before that, it remains an allegation and should be stated as such.
Omitting the word ‘alleged’ from a news story can create issues for reporters, but it is also unfair and unethical. The presumption of innocence is a legal right of the accused and an international human right stated in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 11. In South Africa, it is also a guaranteed constitutional right. This means in layman's terms that the accused remains innocent until proven guilty by authorities who properly investigated them through fair processes. The accusers have the burden of providing proof and must present compelling evidence of guilt.
An accused can be severely impacted regarding personal liberty, social life, finances, and general well-being if wrongly accused. It is assumed that large media outlets are aware of their legal responsibilities, and their reporting should reflect this.
CASE STUDY: THE CASE OF KWASIZABANTU MISSION
The News24/KwaSizabantu reportage makes for an excellent case study for exposing the perils of disinformation. The onslaughts on the KwaSizabantu Mission by mainstream media started in 2019. The Mission was trialled by the media and was found guilty until proven innocent! Almost three years after mainstream media launched its attack on the Mission, it was clear that nothing that the media reported about them should be taken at face value.
By then it was also clear that a smear campaign which the media was dragged into, was at the core of the negative news reports about the Mission and was prominent in the News24 EXODUS campaign. A smear campaign, generally known as character assassination by way of false allegations, uses discrediting tactics such as labelling; relentless and continuous attacks; removing of context and/or omitting critical information; unverifiable rumours; distortions; blatant lies and half-truths. All of these red flags of unethical journalism are present in the EXODUS campaign.
In many cases, News24 and its sister publications reported on a wide variety of unfounded allegations, and many times omitted the word, ‘alleged’ from the narrative, giving the impression that the Mission and its managers are guilty of the atrocities they were accused of. These media outlets presented no compelling evidence of guilt against any of the accused, only wild accusations. None of the accused in the endless media reports was arrested for any of the alleged crimes, and none of the mission’s managers was found guilty in a court of law for any of the crimes they have been accused of. But the Mission was found guilty by the media. The media used the untested information as a weapon to harm the Mission and its directors and eventually, they were also found guilty by the court of public opinion, with much harm to the reputation of the Mission and to its image.
Presuming guilty until proven otherwise is a significant oversight that is definitely not aligned with quality and ethical journalism. Credibility in reporting is judged by the story and how it is told by the narrator. A reporter should address credibility issues openly. The emotional content of the reporting should match the need for the story to be told and believable, for instance, what relevance the story has to the audience.
This is unfair and not in the interest of the community that works there or those that benefit from their ministry and humanitarian work over a broad spectrum. Credibility in reporting is judged by the story and how it is told by the narrator. A reporter should address credibility issues openly. The emotional content of the reporting should match the need for the story to be told and believable – for instance, what relevance the story has to the audience.
The media onslaught against KwaSizabantu was eventually exposed for what it was – an orchestrated attempt to take over the mission and its businesses by family members in cahoots with disgruntled former workers. The EXODUS campaign represented problematic journalism. It is nothing less than tabloid puffery and presents little well-researched news. Instead, it uses eye-catching headlines, scandalmongering, and sensationalism to target specific people at the Mission.
(Read more: A Journey to the Truth: The Case of KwaSizabantu Mission, by Gerda Potgieter. Available on Amazon)
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Journalism in the interest of the public
The media strive to hold these rights (as described in Section 16 of the Bill of Rights) in trust for the country’s citizens, and they are subject to the same rights and duties as the individual. Everyone has the duty to defend and further these rights, in recognition of the struggles that created them: the media, the public and the government, who all make up the democratic state. The media’s work is guided at all times by the public interest, understood to describe information of legitimate interest or importance to citizens…
Investigative news and local democracy reporting are generally regarded as ‘public interest journalism’, but is it always the case? It is my experience that stating in a news report that a case was investigated, without providing clear evidence, cannot be automatically regarded as public interest.
Journalism plays a critical role in promoting a healthy society. In essence, journalism should provide news consumers with trusted and fact-based information while remaining independent. In the interest of the public does not mean issues or topics that the public would find interesting. It refers to matters that affect the public’s health, livelihoods, quality of life, and governance. In effect, it means the ‘common good’ and ‘societal relevance’ of the broader public and does not include what might fascinate or entertain them.
Journalism plays a central role (as a watchdog) in a democracy where the public interest is in having a safe, healthy and functional society. Investigative news reporting often challenges the powerful and stands up for the powerless, but the coverage must adhere to the basic principles of fairness, accuracy, truthfulness, accountability, independence, and humanity. The accused must also be given the right to reply.
The key in the quotation at the beginning of the article is the word ‘trust’. And there is no doubt that the spread of false news has escalated, advancing hidden agendas and generating significant advertising revenues in the process. This resulted in a general loss of trust in mainstream media.
The media should not be seen as becoming involved in a smear campaign with a personal agenda or family fall-outs. The media should not intrude into people’s private lives without being shown and seen to be in the wider public interest.
The valuable website, www.mediahelpingmedia.org gives some justifications for public interest justifications where the published story:
THE CASE OF NEWS24/KWASIZABANTU REPORTAGE
The unfounded allegation against the KwaSizabantu Mission in the News24 reportage is that the Mission is a cult, more particularly that its teachings are not scriptural and in line with the Apostles’ Creed. Another false allegation is that it used nefarious means to compel people to stay at the Mission against their free will and that they were then abused.
Following an extensive onslaught by News24, the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL Rights Commission) started investigating the allegations in November 2020. On 13 July 2023, the Commission released its findings and found that in terms of the church’s doctrines and cults’ practices, “the teachings, principles, rules, (doctrines) of the Mission are within the scope of freedom of religion.” The chairperson, Prof Mosoma, also said during the press conference on 13 July 2023 when the findings were released, that KwaSizabantu displays no qualities of a cult and that the media abused the word ‘cult’.
If a Christian organisation is a cult and it is proven to be a cult, it would definitely be in the interest of the broader public if it is published to warn them. However, the media onslaught against KwaSizabantu was based on a smear campaign for personal gain, driven by opportunistic family members and disgruntled former workers. There are countless evidence of that.
An interesting part of the News24 EXODUS campaign was that it was driven by the editor-in-chief, Adriaan Basson, who called on the public to boycott the aQuellé bottled water brand. He asked the public: “Want to stop a cult? Then Don’t buy aQuellé bottled water.
The water is bottled on the Mission and proceeds are used to run the ministry and mission, to execute the humanitarian work over a broad spectrum and to reach out to the community in various ways. News24’s fierce campaign escalated with dire consequences to the remote community whose livelihoods depend on the Mission for work, and support. The aQuellé brand, as well as other produce from the Mission, was immediately removed from the shelves of various retailers with dire financial and other consequences to the Mission and its community.
At first glance, this request to boycott the aQuellé water seemed like an invitation to hate and to financially harm the Mission. Could that be seen in any way as to the benefit of the broader public?
Another question that could be asked is: Was it a personal request by Adriaan Basson, or was it representative of News24 in his capacity as editor-in-chief? Basson appealed to the public in his name but then gave substance to his request by mentioning the high position he holds at the country’s current biggest online news outlet. Why would the big news outlet support a personal vendetta and what seems to be an agenda of the editor-in-chief? How can they benefit from that?
The most important question to ask is: “Taking into account the consequences of the disinformation, was it in the interest of the broader public or the public whose livelihoods were affected by the EXODUS campaign? In this case, only the agenda of the conspirators was pushed and it cannot be seen as being in the interest of the broader public. The evidence was not sufficient to justify putting the economic survival of thousands of rural families at risk. More importantly, Basson’s request for a boycott and his subsequent media attacks on KwaSizabantu damned the religious beliefs of thousands of people who have been attending the church services at the Mission for over 53 years.
In short, the News24 EXODUS campaign was not in the interest of the general public but was based on an agenda for personal gain.
(Read more: A Journey to the Truth: The Case of KwaSizabantu Mission, by Gerda Potgieter. Available on Amazon)
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