Flamingo Primary School vs Diamond Fields Advertiser

Complainant: Flamingo Primary School

Lodged by: M. Africa

Article: Parents queue at school for a desk

Date: 1 November 2010

Respondent: Diamond Fields Advertise

Complaint
The Flamingo Primary School (FPS) complains about a story in the Diamond Fields Advertiser (DFA), published on August 17, 2010 and headlined Parents queue at school for a desk.
The FPS complains that:
·        it was erroneously portrayed in the story as one of many schools where “knives and drugs” were prevalent and where “discipline is not a priority”;
·        the parent who reportedly wanted his son to be transferred from FPS was in no way linked to this school;
·        no reason was given in the story for the transfer of a child (from FPS); and
·        it was not asked for comment.
Analysis
The story is about more than a hundred parents who reportedly were “desperate” to enroll their Grade 1 children into Kimberley Junior School (KJS). The story says that these parents camped and even slept on the school-ground in an attempt to avoid the rush the next day. The reasons for this, stated either directly or indirectly, are that KJS:
·        is an English medium school;
·        is one of the best schools in Kimberley;
·        has good discipline;
·        does not embark on prolonged strike action; and
·        does not pose safety problems.
The story also names two parents who reportedly wanted their children to be transferred from FPS to KJS.
We shall now consider the merits of the complaint:
Erroneously portrayed
The part of the story in dispute reads as follows: “Mugamadien Kemmy added that he wanted his son to be transferred from Flamingo Primary because safety and discipline was a priority. Here (the KJS) children are not exposed to knives and drugs and they are well behaved. I come from Bloemfontein and I want my son to attend the best school in Kimberley.”
The FPS complains that this implies that its learners have knives and drugs and that discipline is not a priority for the school – which, the FPS says, is outrageous.
The DFA argues that the article is in no way a negative report on the FPS. “In fact, the article has nothing to do with the school.”  The newspaper continues that they had no reason to doubt the two parents who told it that they wanted their children to be transferred from the FPS to the KJS.  The DFA adds that it merely reported the perception of one of these parents, namely that he wanted his child to be transferred from FPS because safety and discipline was a priority. The newspaper emphasizes that the article never stated drugs, knives or discipline was a problem at the FPS.
There is little doubt that this was exactly what Kemmy thought – if the report on what he said is accurate.
However, the DFA is correct in that the report is about Kemmy’s perception and nothing else. As such there is nothing wrong with reporting his perception – Kemmy had the right to say what he believed, and the newspaper had the right to report on that.
It is understandable that the FPS finds this “outrageous”; the school may even be 100% correct in that there were no problems at the school regarding drugs, knives or ill-discipline – still, the newspaper had the right to report Kemmy’s opinion.
Parent not linked to FPS
Referring to the same sentences quoted above, the FPS complains that Kemmy was “in no way related to our school”. The school says that the statement about safety and discipline “comes from a man whose child has been attending school in Bloemfontein, by his own admission to the reporter.”
The DFA argues that it had no reason to doubt Kemmy’s testimony that his child was enrolled in FPS at the time.
The newspaper is correct – and again it merely reports what Kemmy said.
No reason given for transferring child from FPS
The sentence in question quotes another parent, Ms Dinono Ngcofo, as follows: “The Department of Education found placement for my child at Flamingo Primary but I would prefer if my child was transferred to KJS.”
The FPS complains that the reporter failed to state the reason why Ngcofo wanted her child to be transferred from the FPS to the KJS. The school says it was because the parents have relocated to an area closer to KJS – and not because she had problems with FPS, as the story implies. (The FPS says that both parents told the school that the reason for wanting to move their child from the FPS to the KJS was a financial consideration and not an academic one.)
The newspaper (again) counters that it merely reported what the parent told its journalist.
To this, the school replies that it is “criminal” to sensationalise the legitimate efforts of parents to have their children enrolled at another school of their choice and not objectively report on the reason given by these parents.
The same principle apply here once again: The reporter interviewed a source and reported on what the source said.
Not asked for comment
The FPS complains that the reporter did not test Kemmy’s allegations “by contacting our school to verify whether either of these parents have children at Flamingo Primary, or whether knives, drugs and ill-discipline is a problem at our school.”
To this part of the complaint, the DFA merely says it is note-worthy that neither Kemmy nor Ngcofo contacted the newspaper after publication to inform it that they have been misquoted.
This argument is flimsy, to say the least – the fact that the interviewees did not complain is irrelevant.
Let’s look at the bigger picture:
·        There is an insinuation that safety and discipline at the school is a problem (“…transferred from Flamingo Primary because safety and discipline was a priority.” – emphasis added);
·        This insinuation can cause the FPS unnecessary harm (the DFA does not contend that there are problems with safety and discipline at the school);
·        There is a possibility that Kemmy’s child was not even enrolled at FPS;
·        The reason why Ngcofo wanted her child to be transferred from FPS may have been not because of wrong-doing in that school.
While it was reasonable for the DFA to report on the above, it became likewise necessary for the newspaper to ask the FPS’s comment. Failing to do so was unfair, as the school was (rightly or wrongly) portrayed in a negative light – at least readers may have interpreted it as such. It was the newspaper’s responsibility to listen to the other side.
This is what probably would have emerged, had the newspaper asked the school for comment:
·        A denial from FSP that it encountered safety and disciplinary problems;
·        A statement to the effect that Kemmy’s child was not even enrolled at the school. (Our office obtained the school’s class enrolment lists for 2010 and is satisfied that Kemmy’s child was indeed not enrolled at the FPS); and
·        A statement to the effect that Ngcofo’s reasons for wanting her child to be transferred from FSP were not negative towards the school. (The story admittedly does not say that she wanted her child out of FSP because of problems at the school, but within the context of the story readers may have interpreted her comment as being negative to FSP.)
There was no excuse for the newspaper not to ask the FPS for its comment. It had enough time – it mentions a comment from another (unnamed) junior school.
The failure to do so not only led to at least one inaccuracy (as stated above), but it also probably caused FPS unnecessary harm. Remember the old media ethical maxim of maximizing truth and minimizing harm. To a certain extent, the opposite happened here.
 Finding
Erroneously portrayed
This part of the complaint is dismissed as the newspaper merely reports the opinion of one of its interviewees.
Parent not linked to FPS
This part of the complaint is dismissed as the newspaper merely reports the opinion of one of its interviewees.
No reason given for transferring child
This part of the complaint is dismissed as the newspaper merely reports the opinion of one of its interviewees.
Not asked for comment
Although the primary focus of the story is on the KJS, the FPS is mentioned twice – at least once in a negative light. The failure to ask the FPS for comment probably caused the school unnecessary harm and is in breach of Art. 1.5 of the Press Code that states: “A publication should usually seek the views of the subject of serious critical reportage in advance of publication…”
Sanction
The DFA is directed to apologise to the Flamingo Primary School for failing to ask for its comment. This should be done prominently and on the same page that the story was published on.
The newspaper is directed to publish a summary of this finding, the text of which should be provided to our office prior to publication.

Please add the following sentence at the end of the text: “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za (rulings, 2010) for the full finding.

Appeal

Please note that our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven days of receipt of this decision, anyone of the parties 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 reached at khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.
Johan Retief
Deputy Press Ombudsman