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.