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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