Complainant: Arno Lamoer, Marie-Louise Kellert
Lodged by: Arno Lamoer, Marie-Louise Kellert
Article: The killing goes on – Another teenage girl beaten to death as Anene’s ‘murderers’ appear in hof
Date: 26 March 2013
Respondent: Daily Voice
Both Lamoer and Kellett complain about a front page picture of a dead body in the Daily Voice on 13 February 2013. The story was headlined The killing goes on – Another teenage girl beaten to death as Anene’s ‘murderers’ appear in hof.
The respectively, and independently, complain that the publication of the (“close-up”) picture:
· was in bad taste;
· demonstrated a lack of respect for the deceased’s family or, alternatively, it invaded van Schalkwyk’s privacy and that of her family;
· was visible to young children, with all sorts of negative permutations; and
· was unethical in a country where people have been desensitised to murder.
The story was about a teenage girl, Jo-Anne van Schalkwyk (18), who was “savagely bashed to death” outside Atlantis (near Cape Town) after she had been raped. This followed a similar incident in Bredasdorp a week before, where Anene Booysen (17) had also been brutally assaulted before having been left for dead (which enjoyed country-wide and even world-wide coverage).
The reporting of van Schalkwyk’s murder covered the whole front page (save for the masthead and a small strapline at the bottom of the page). The picture was used big and showed the deceased’s bloody head and her full face.
Before I come to the particulars of the complaint, I need to record how the editor of the Daily Voice, Shane Doran, responded to the issue in general.
Firstly, he explains that the decision to publish the picture was a difficult one and that he only proceeded after careful consideration – he realized that most people would find the picture shocking and disturbing.
He therefore published a motivation for his decision on the newspaper’s Facebook, in which he re-iterated the above. He explained that he was swayed by:
· the spate of murders and rapes that occurred regularly in the Cape – which was the “harsh and inescapable truth”;
· the horrific killing of Booysen;
· the need to create a real debate as to why these crimes were happening so regularly; and
· van Schalkwyk’s family also wanting to ensure that no other parent had to endure the same experience they were going through.
In his response to the complaint, Doran elaborates on the crime situation in the area of his newspaper’s distribution. He adds that “little of the real horror and shock can be experienced by readers who read only written descriptions”. He argues that he wanted to share his own experience when looking at the picture with his readers. He states: “I was hoping to anger the community, not at my decision to publish, but at the senselessness of the crime, by seeing the broken vulnerable body.”
He also says that, after publishing the photograph, he phoned van Schalkwyk’s father and:
· explained to him his reasons for publishing;
· expressed his condolences;
· discussed and shared the hope that the publication of the image of his daughter would help to avoid recurrences of such tragedies;
· offered (non-financial) support to help the family through their tough times; and
· agreed that his reporters would remain in touch with him to report on further developments.
He also notes that newspapers worldwide have often used graphic photographic images to record the brutality of certain events. “Many of these photographs have become iconic, notwithstanding the horror and shock that they caused the readers at the time of publication.” In this regard, he refers this office to several such instances (the killing of a Viet Cong soldier, a Vietnamese girl running naked, Hector Peterson being carried away after he was killed by the Police, a starving child with a vulture in the background, and the faces of two deceased sons of Saddam Hussein).
Doran concludes that his “…principal argument is the principle that, when the circumstances call for me to present the news in the harsh reality that only a well-lit and graphic photograph can provide, I will not shy away from it”.
In response to a query of mine, Doran reiterated that he had spoken to Mr van Schalkwyk after publication, not beforehand. “The decision to publish the picture was an editorial one… There was no ‘deal’ making in this process.”
He added: “I personally contacted Mr Van Schalkwyk to explain these reasons as a mark of respect. During the conversation, he did not any stage say he was unhappy with our coverage or our reasons for doing so. In fact, he thanked us for taking the stance we did. That very day local residents in Atlantis – where four young women have been killed and raped in the past 12 months – residents marched holding up copies of our front page demanding that the authorities wake up to the frightening reality of these horrific crimes on their doorstep.”
Before I come to the specifics of the complaint, I need to state up-front that I am impressed by the fact that Doran clearly did not take his decision lightly, and that he published his argument for deciding to go ahead. This is a good example of responsible journalism, even if one may disagree with (some of) his arguments.
I am now going to deal with the particulars of the complaint, after which I shall come to some general conclusions.
Lamoer complains that the publication of the picture was in bad taste.
I am not going to entertain this part of the complaint, as the Press Code does not make provision for good or bad taste – the latter does not constitute a breach of the Code. In any event, Socrates already said that one cannot argue about taste.
Lack of respect for the deceased’s family; privacy
Lamoer complains that the picture demonstrated a lack of respect for van Schalkwyk’s family; Kellett calls this “a gross invasion of (her) privacy” as well as that of her family.
Doran rejects this argument, as the deceased’s family has not objected to the publication of the photograph; he also argues that “nothing was private about Jo-Anne’s body being left out in the open”, and says that her privacy “stopped” when she was killed.
Two issues are at stake here: “lack of respect” for van Schalkwyk’s family, and the invasion of her (and her family’s) privacy.
Firstly, it would have been better if the newspaper had either asked or at least told the family of the publication of the picture in advance of publication – the family may have reacted negatively (which they fortunately did not, but the newspaper was not to know that in advance).
Be that as it may, the editor’s phone call to the deceased’s father proves to me that his decision to publish did not demonstrate a lack of respect for the family – much rather, Doran had to weigh up all the relevant matters and, given the context, decided to publish (not as a result of disrespect, but because of the seriousness of and public interest in the matter).
Secondly, Doran is also correct in that the deceased’s body was found in public, which implied that she was not private. One cannot invade somebody else’s privacy if that person is in public.
Visible to children; harmful
Lamoer complains that van Schalkwyk’s face was displayed on the front page – without any forewarning; he adds that this was “openly visible to even young children who walk in at various outlets where the paper is sold”. Kellett states: “…it is not right that they (children) should be forced to see such images without warning and without the consent of their parents”.
Kellet also provides me with an article that emphasized the negative effect of such publications on children.
Doran argues that there is no conclusive scientific evidence to prove that such images are harmful or disturbing to children. “In fact, some of the empirically research reports suggests the contrary.” He also says that opinions and research neither proves nor disproves Kellett’s submission.
This is an extremely difficult matter, as it ventures on the field of media sociology. It takes years and years of research to credibly establish if coverage has negatively impacted on children – and even then issues other than the media need to be taken into account. For this office to now declare that the publication of the picture in question has negatively impacted on children would be irresponsible as it would be without scientific foundation.
However, this is not the last word that I am going to say about this matter.
Desensitised to murder
Lamoer says that the public has been desensitized to murder in South Africa; clearly, he believes that the publication of this picture enhanced this “desensitisation”. Kellett also argues that this picture merely made it okay to see dead bodies. “Instead of arousing shock and horror in the viewer, it actually deadens us to the monstrosity of … these acts and contributes to the root of the problem”.
Doran counters that, as was the case with possible harm to children, experts again do not agree on the issue of desensitisation. “There is no proof either way,” he argues.
The same argument that I put forward above is valid in this instance. So again, I still need to add to this…
General conclusion; considerations
After having said all of the above, I need to add that the matter was in the overwhelming public interest (especially for the newspaper’s readership), and therefore that Daily Voice was correct in taking this matter to its front page – and indeed to publish a picture of the deceased on that page.
This leaves me with the following considerations:
In my booklet entitled Guidelines for Ethical Journalism – And Beyond (to be published by Unesco and the University of Mauritius), I state that in the case of dead or heavily injured people, journalists may consider to avoid causing unnecessary harm by:
· not identifying the person (blocking out the person’s face and other vital parts of the body – and doing so adequately);
· not publishing gross details of wounds;
· using pictures in black and white;
· using pictures small;
· using pictures inside and not on the front page; and
· warning sensitive readers on the front page.
Given the public importance of the issue, the last five bullets clearly do not apply in this case.
However, the first one does.
This is why:
· For example, when then the then Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd was stabbed to death in Parliament (in 1966), such pictures were widely used (and justifiably so); the same went for the deceased Pres Saddam Hussain and two of his sons many years later. These events were of immediate – and worldwide – significance. In the case at hand, however, the deceased did not nearly have the same public profile; and
· Coupled with that, the event had to be unique, such as the picture of the vulture eyeing its pray – sadly, however, the photograph of Schalkwyk’s murder was not that unique…
Therefore, I conclude that while it was in the public interest to cover the murder and to use the picture graphically, big, in colour, and on the front page, it was not in the public interest to show the deceased’s full face. Also, it would not have diminished the impact of the picture if the deceased’s eyes, nose and mouth were blocked out. (I am not suggesting that all the blood on her head should have been covered up; I am merely referring to her facial features.)
A secondary argument is that such a blocking out of her face would have erred on the side of caution – IF there were children who would have been negatively impacted, and IF the family’s grief was enhanced by the publication of the picture, such a block-out would have helped to avoid unnecessary harm.
This is a pity, as the editor did everything else correctly.
One last comment: Doran argues that there is no proof that children are negatively impacted by such reportage and that the publication of such pictures were desensitising the public to murder.
That may (or may not) be true – but then he also argues that he decided to publish the picture in order to positively influence society (read: wanting to ensure that no other parent had to endure the same experience than the van Schalkwyks were going through). I would have thought that someone who is skeptical of the possible negative influences by the press on the public would likewise be doubtful of its possible positive influences.
Both complaints are dismissed in their entirety, except for the neglect to block out the vital parts of the deceased’s face.
The latter is in breach of Art. 9 of the Press Code that states: “Due care and responsibility shall be exercised by the press with regard to the presentation of brutality, violence and suffering.”
Daily Voice is reprimanded for not blocking out the vital parts of the deceased’s face.
The newspaper is directed to publish:
· a strapline on its front page with the words: “Ombudsman reprimands us! – page… (4, 5 or 6)”; and
· the text below on that page.
Beginning of text
The Press Ombudsman has reprimanded Daily Voice for publishing the full face of deceased Jo-Anne van Schalkwyk on our front page, not blocking out her eyes, nose and mouth.
On 13 February 2013, we published a story headlined The killing goes on – Another teenage girl beaten to death as Anene’s ‘murderers’ appear in hof.
The story was about van Schalkwyk (18) who was “savagely bashed to death” outside Atlantis (near Cape Town) after she had been raped. This followed a similar incident in Bredasdorp a week before, where Anene Booysen (17) had also been brutally assaulted before having been left for dead – a tragedy that enjoyed country-wide and even world-wide coverage.
Our reporting of the murder covered the whole front page, save for the masthead and a small strapline at the bottom of the page.
Ombudsman Johan Retief said that he was impressed by the fact that our editor clearly did not take his decision lightly and that he aired his considered justification for doing so. “This is a good example of responsible journalism, even if one may disagree with (some of) his arguments,” he added.
However, he also argued that the deceased was not a prominent enough public figure for us to have published her full face, nor was her killing unique enough to give it this kind of coverage.
“…I conclude that while it was in the public interest to cover the murder and to use the picture graphically, big, in colour, and on the front page, it was not in the public interest to show the deceased’s full face. Also, it would not have diminished the impact of the picture if the deceased’s eyes, nose and mouth were blocked out.”
He added: “A secondary argument is that such a blocking out of her face would have erred on the side of caution – IF there were children who would have been negatively impacted, and IF the family’s grief was enhanced by the publication of the picture, such a block-out would have helped to avoid unnecessary harm. This is a pity, as the editor did everything else correctly.”
Retief dismissed the complaint that the publication of the picture had been in bad taste, that it demonstrated a lack of respect for the deceased’s family, that it invaded van Schalkwyk’s privacy and that of her family, that young children could necessarily have been adversely affected by looking at the photograph, and that the publication of such a picture was unethical in a country where people have been desensitised to murder.
Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding.
End of text
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 Adjudication Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.