Vathiswa Mgolombane vs. City Vision


Thu, Nov 29, 2012

 

 

Ruling by the Deputy Press Ombudsman

November 29, 2012

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Ms V. Mgolombane and the City Vision newspaper.

Complaint

Ms Vathiswa Mgolombane complains about a page 3 story in City Vision on 19 July 2012 and headlined Death complicates dispute over ownership.

Mgolombane complains that the:

·         reporter did not interview her father and did not verify his information; and

·         story falsely alleged that her father was inadvertently responsible for someone’s death.

Analysis

The story, written by Asiphe Nombewu, was about the death of Ms Nomakhaya Mgolombane who apparently had been involved in a lengthy battle with Mr Nelson Mgolobane (Vatishiswa’s father) involving a family house that he had been living in. According to the article her death was allegedly “triggered” by the dispute over the house.

No chance to comment

Mgolombane complains that the reporter did not interview her father, despite an invitation to do so. “We as a family are now living in fear of the community,” she says and adds that the house was vandalised by those who believed the story.

Nombewu states that he went to the home to get comment from Mgolombane.  Vathiswa then told him that her father was not at home, but invited him to return to the house when her father would be available. The reporter says “…I should come back later, later was when I had to go and write my articles”.

There simply is no excuse for knowingly transgressing one of the most basic rules of journalism, which is to listen to both sides. Nombewu’s excuse that she did not have the time to go back to Mgolombane’s house to get his comment is not good enough – she should rather have waited for Mgolombane’s response (who was willing to talk to him) before going to print. It also does not hold water that the reporter says that she wanted to speak to Mgolombane. The proof of the pudding lies in the eating – the mere desire to talk to the subject was certainly not enough.

I also note that the story said that the City Vision gave Mr Mgolombane a “chance to respond”, but that “he refused to speak”. However, by the newspaper’s own response, both of these allegations were false – the reporter did not speak with him, and he therefore also did not refuse to speak.

If this did not erode the newspaper’s credibility, I do not know what would.

Responsible for someone’s death

The story does not state as fact that Mr Mgolombane was responsible Ms Mgolombane’s death – it merely reported this as an allegation, as someone’s opinion.

The newspaper would have been justified in reporting this allegation as an allegation – if it gave Mr Mgolombane a chance to defend himself. In reality, though, he never got a chance to respond, in which case the newspaper was not justified to publish the allegation. If anything, that was fundamentally unfair fair to Mr Mgolombane and his family.

Please note that this is not a verdict that Mogolombane inadvertently caused her death or not, it is merely an ethical, journalistic decision to the effect that it is unfair to publish a damning allegation if the other party did not have a chance to respond.

General comment

This story is a prime example of the unnecessary harm that irresponsible journalism can cause when the Press Code is ignored. I remind the newspaper of the following words in the Preamble to the Code: “As journalists, we commit ourselves to the highest standards of excellence, to maintain credibility and keep the trust of our readers. This means striving for the maximum truth (and) avoiding unnecessary harm…”

Finding

No chance to comment

The statements that the newspaper gave Mr Mgolombane a chance to respond and that he refused to do so, are in breach of Art. 1.1 of the Press Code that states: “The press shall be obliged to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly.”

The reporter neglected to ask the subject of serious critical reporting for comment. This is in breach of Art. 1.5 of the Code: “A publication should seek the views of the subject of serious critical reportage in advance of publication… If the publication is unable to obtain such comment, this shall be stated in the report.”

Responsible for someone’s death

The newspaper was not justified to publish a damning allegation without giving the subject of the story a chance to comment. This is in breach of Art. 1.1 of the Code, with the emphasis on “fairly”.

Sanction

City Vision is directed to unreservedly apologise to Mgolombane and her father for publishing an unfair story which resulted from not obtaining comment from them. The apology must be published prominently. The headline should include the words “Mgolombane” and “apologises” or “apology”.

 

The newspaper is directed to publish the following text on page 3:

City Vision unreservedly apologises to Ms Vathiswa Mgolombane and her father, Mr Nelson Mgolombane, for not asking them for comment – which lead to an unfair story that caused them some serious and unnecessary harm.

The story, published on 19 July 2012 under the headline Death complicates dispute over ownership, was about Ms Nomakhaya Mgolombane’s death and who apparently had been involved in a lengthy battle with Mr Mgolokmbane about a family house that he had been living in. The article, written by Asiphe Nombewu, reported that Mgolombane’s death had allegedly been “triggered” by the dispute over the house.

Our apology comes after Mgolombane lodged a complaint with the Press Ombudsman. As a result of the story, the family said that their house had been vandalised and that they lived in fear of those who believed that Mr Mgolombane had caused Ms Nomakhaya Mgolombane’s death.

Deputy Press Ombudsman Johan Retief said there simply is no excuse for knowingly transgressing one of the most basic rules of journalism, which is to listen to both sides. He stated: “This story is a prime example of the unnecessary harm that irresponsible journalism can cause when the Press Code is ignored. I remind the newspaper of the following words in the Preamble to the Code: ‘As journalists, we commit ourselves to the highest standards of excellence, to maintain credibility and keep the trust of our readers. This means striving for the maximum truth (and) avoiding unnecessary harm…’.”

He added that we would have been justified in reporting this allegation as an allegation – if we gave Mr Mgolombane a chance to defend himself. In reality, though, he never got a chance to respond, in which case we were not justified to publish the allegation. He stated: “If anything, that was fundamentally unfair fair to Mr Mgolombane and his family.”

 

Retief noted that the story falsely stated that we gave Mr Mgolombane a chance to respond and that he refused to speak. “If this did not erode the newspaper’s credibility, I do not know what would,” he said.

We also apologise for this mistake.

Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding.

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Appeal

Please note that our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven days of receipt of this decision, either party may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Appeals Panel, Judge Ralph Zulman, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Deputy Press Ombudsman