Minnie Dlamini vs Sunday World

Complainant:  Minnie Dlamini

Lodged by:  David de Agrella, Attorney

Article:  Minnie caught between Coke and a juice – presenter must choose one of two competitors

Date: 23 May 2016

Respondent:  Okyerebea Ampofo-Anti of Webber Wentzel, on behalf of the Sunday World 

Complaint

Dlamini is complaining about a headline and a story in Sunday World of 27 March 2016. The teaser on the front page read, Minnie’s coke problem – page 5; the story itself was headlined, Minnie caught between Coke and a juice – presenter must choose one of two competitors.

Regarding the statement that she had a “coke” problem, Dlamini complains that the teaser was one-sided, false, unfair, unjustified, reckless, defamatory, and of no interest to the public, and that it has unnecessarily tarnished her reputation.

She says that she has never taken any type of drug, including cocaine. “I am a public figure and have a responsibility as such to be a positive influence on the community and members of society which I undertake to do at all times.”

The text

The story was about Dlamini, who reportedly had to choose between presenting a show featuring juice and one featuring Coca-Cola.

Sunday World’s response

Ampofo-Anti says Dlamini’s concerns appear to relate to the teaser, and notes that the latter has not articulated why the headline or the actual content of the article had been in breach of the Code of Ethics and Conduct in any way.

Therefore, she only addresses the complaint in so far as it relates to the teaser, as read in conjunction with the article.

Ampofo-Anti argues that the teaser functioned as a sort of headline. She says, “The purpose of a headline is to highlight the content of an article and to do so in a manner that entices readers to read the content of the article in full. Although headlines should not be sensationalist or inaccurate, it is unreasonable to expect the headlines in a newspaper to contain an exact representation of what is in the article or a dry recitation of facts. It is submitted that newspapers must be given space to be creative with their headlines in order to avoid stifling media freedom.”

She also argues that reasonable readers are aware that a headline does not contain the full detail of a story. In order to obtain detail about the story highlighted in the headline, a reasonable reader will review the content of the article, which is where the newspaper can be expected to qualify its allegations and explain the story in full.

Ampofo-Anti draws my attention to the court’s judgment in the Cele vs. Avusa Media Limited case, where the court had to consider the meaning of a headline which was alleged to be defamatory.

The court made the following observations:

“[O]rdinary reasonable readers of newspapers understand that headlines, by their very nature, draw attention to an article by paraphrasing and highlighting its contents through the use of a few well-chosen words or phrases. The headline does not, and is not meant to, reflect the full content or context of the article. It would, therefore, have been clear to reasonable readers of the Sowetan that the plaintiff did not give a specific ‘order’ to the police to shoot criminals as alluded to in the front page headline. The headline was merely a paraphrase of the plaintiff’s statements, which were then elaborated upon in the text of the article.”

Ampofo-Anti submits that the teaser accurately and reasonably conveyed the message of the story itself, which was about Dlamini and Coke. She argues, “In order to obtain full details, readers were directed to page 5 where they would very quickly have understood that the article related to Coca Cola. The word ‘coke’ is a very well know and widely used abbreviation for Coca Cola and as such it was a legitimate choice of word to use in the teaser. The fact that the word can potentially be understood as a reference to cocaine instead of Coca Cola does not mean that the word ought not to be used in a headline. Particularly when the content of the article makes it abundantly clear what the correct facts are.”

She adds that it would be “highly restrictive of editorial freedom” if I were to determine that certain words cannot be used in a headline simply because they have a double meaning. She argues, “Furthermore, approaching the matter on the basis that certain readers only read headlines and not the articles to which the headlines relate is clearly wrong and in conflict with the decisions of our courts as highlighted above.”

Analysis

The last thing this office should do is restrict editorial freedom – when I find against a publication it is not with that intention, but rather to ensure that this freedom is exercised in accordance with the standards set by the Code of Ethics and Conduct. That is why this document exists in the first place.

Like the newspaper, I am also confining myself to the front page teaser (as there is nothing wrong with either the headline or the story on page 5).

Firstly, Judge Phillip Levinsohn has recently (in 2013) said in a Supreme Court case in Swaziland: “Many readers of newspapers simply glance at the bold headings only and then move on. The impression implanted in the mind of the reader by such blaring headlines is likely to be both deep and lasting. Most readers do not read the whole story…”

From this, it is fair to say that headlines should stand on their own and be interpreted as such. (I have asked him personally if this interpretation is correct, to which he replied in the affirmative.)

Therefore, while it is true that a headline cannot contain the full story, as Ampofo-Anti argues, it is also valid to say that it should not be misleading. This is especially true in cases where a teaser is on the front page and the story somewhere inside.

I take into account that the word “coke” is a common noun, while “Coke” is a proper noun. In normal parlance, and when written down, “coke” (with a small letter) normally means cocaine, while “Coke” (with a capital letter) refers to a soft drink.

It is noteworthy that the headline on page 5 did spell “Coke” with a capital letter.

If the disputed words on page 1 had used a small letter (denoting a common noun), I certainly would have found in Dlamini’s favour, as many readers would have seen only the “coke” on the front page, and it was reasonable for many of them to interpret that word as referring to cocaine.

However, the whole teaser was in capital letters, which means that the word “COKE” did not necessarily denote cocaine.

Given this fact, I need to conclude that:

·         there is not enough ground for me to find that the newspaper was in breach of the Code;

·         while there was a possibility that some readers could have misunderstood the meaning of the word “COKE”, it would only be fair for the newspaper to point out that it was not its intention to accuse Dlamini of the use of that drug; and

·         because I cannot find against Sunday World in this instance, and therefore have no powers to sanction the newspaper, I leave it to the goodwill of that publication to clarify this matter in its next edition.

Ampofo-Anti correctly says that it is beyond my powers to grant the request that Sunday World should be ordered to “stop all further unjustified, unreasonable, arbitrary publications” relating to this subject. I indeed cannot regulate future breaches.

Finding

The complaint is dismissed.

Sanction

There is no formal sanction, but please refer to my comments above regarding this matter.

Appeal

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

Johan Retief

Press Ombud