By Arthur Chatora
Journalism ethics are once again in the limelight following the coverage of an alleged abduction and rape of a minor in Bulawayo. The article which appeared in The Sunday News titled “Eveline High girl drugged, raped, dumped” narrated the ordeal of a 16-year old pupil reportedly raped by “[three men] commuter omnibus drivers who later dumped her in Lobengula West [Bulawayo]”. An image of the girl lying on her back by the roadside surrounded by passers-by accompanied the story. The picture which was published on the paper’s website [viewed 2 827 times before it was blurred out] and shared on Social Media has been widely seen and criticised as “inappropriate and offensive”, “unethical” and “irresponsible” and has called into question whether the media is turning a blind eye on ethical practices.
The publication of this image indeed puts into focus the issues of limitation of harm, protection of privacy and media responsibility when dealing with rape and sexual assault victims. The use of images in stories is not without ramifications on the subjects. Indeed, pictures can help to tell the story and enhance the story but fundamental questions have to be raised and addressed in the editorial decision making process. Essentially, how does the image tell the story and help in understanding the story? Did the editorial team consider ethics in its decision to publish this image?
Considering the sensitivity and gravity of the issue, I am of the view that publishing the image falls short of adhering to good ethical practices. The published image could affect the girl’s ability to recover from the distressing experience. Thus, due consideration should have been exercised in packaging this story. Owing to good ethical standards, most news publications do not publish images or reveal the identity of rape and sexual assault victims unless the victims are willing to be publicly identified.
The irony of publishing the image of the girl without her consent or family’s consent is within the actual story itself. Commenting on the rape incident, the girl’s father said to the news crew, “What you are talking about happened but it’s history and we do not want it to be publicised.” The father’s statement is the clearest cue to the publication’s editorial to respect the girl’s privacy and not to publish the image or anything which might further cause emotional suffering to the victim and her family. Thus, the publication ought to have respected the family’s position and should at least not have published her image.
It is the media’s professional obligation to be able to assess the sensitivity and vulnerability of the people they report on and the impact stories have on subjects’ lives vis-a-vis the public interest principle. Of interest and utmost importance to many media practitioners in print and electronic media is the Legal Resources Foundation of Zimbabwe published booklet, “A Guide to Media Law in Zimbabwe” intended to “assist journalists to understand the various aspects of the laws in Zimbabwe that have a bearing on their professional work.”
On cases of rape and other sexual offences, the guide stipulates that, “[a]s a matter of proper Journalistic ethics, the identities of victims of sexual offences such as rape and indecent assault must never be published by the press.” However, this stipulation is not statutory although it acknowledges that “there are various restrictions placed upon the media on reporting…cases involving rape and indecent assaults certain matters related to court proceedings.” The prerogative to report on and reveal such sensitive information rests with the media but due care and responsibility needs to be exercised.
As such, images of children in traumatic experiences always need to be carefully balanced against their potential harm and the public interest in publishing them. In this case, the public interest in showing a 16 year old girl in such distress is difficult to defend and comprehend. It is difficult to justify how revealing her identity by showing her picture help the story or aid in understanding the situation she was in?
Since journalism and media professional ethics include the principle of limitation of harm, media practitioners have a duty to show great care. As such, they ought to adhere to industry and institutional code of ethics and conduct which protect the vulnerable. The code of ethics outlines how news organisations should report on rape and sexual assault stories and what protection should be given to rape victims.
For example, the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics advices that professional journalists should:
- Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.
- Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.
However, despite these principles which speak to limitation of harm, it is disheartening and of great concern that the protection of children and mitigation of harm is usually ignored, as it was in this case. In the article, it is disheartening to note that the reporting insinuates the victim was in a relationship with her alleged attackers. The article states that, “a student at the school said a number of girls were in relationships with commuter omnibus drivers who also attend school events”. This quote begs the questions, why was it included in the story? What purpose does it serve or what message does it send?
Reporting on rape is of great concern and utmost responsibility needs to be exercised considering that information produced by the media can entrench assumptions related to rape. These misconceptions can often lead to the victims being blamed by the media and society. Thus, a change of attitude and approach when reporting on rape and sex crimes needs to be taken to protect the vulnerable and to challenge dominant perceptions.
While most international media organisations have their own code of ethics and social media policies with guidelines on covering rape and reporting on children, our news agencies should have similar codes which they strictly and accurately adhere to.
Arthur Chatora writes in his personal capacity. You can write him at: