National School of the Arts vs The Star

Complainant: National School of the Arts

Lodged by: Brenda Sakellarides

Article: a front page lead published in The Star on 3 June 2014, headlined ‘Racist’ teacher outrage – Pupils upset at the denigration of blacks; an online article, published the next day, headlined School backs ‘racist’ teacher; a street poster which read ‘Racist’ teacher uproar, together with the above-mentioned headlines; and the over-all effect of the above.

Author of article: Lebogang Seale

Date: 10 September 2014

Respondent: The Star

COMPLAINT

The School Governing Body (SGB) of the NSA is complaining about:

  • a front page lead published in The Star on 3 June 2014, headlined ‘Racist’ teacher outrage – Pupils upset at the denigration of blacks;
Complaint: The story was based on allegations that were not properly corroborated; besides, several statements were inaccurate (some of which were stated as fact) and out of context – details below.
  • an online article, published the next day, headlined School backs ‘racist’ teacher;
Complaint: This article misleadingly positioned the “prestigious” school as racist and/or supporting racism by stating inter alia that it had “defended the teacher in question”.
  • a street poster which read ‘Racist’ teacher uproar, together with the above-mentioned headlines; and
Complaint: The poster and both headlines were “deliberately misleading and sensationalist”. The second headline was particularly unsubstantiated and inflammatory.
  • the over-all effect of the above.
Complaint: The texts have caused unnecessary harm to the school’s and to the teacher’s dignity and reputation.

THE TEXTS

The first story, written by Lebogang Seale, said that a Grade 8 history teacher at the prestigious NSA was in trouble with the Gauteng Department of Basic Education (GDE) for allegedly using racial slurs in class. Seale stated: “She is alleged to have told her pupils that black people were demons and the reason the government was failing was because it was led by blacks.” These alleged remarks reportedly came to light when the parent of one of the pupils complained to the Department.

The story was accompanied by an MMS from the learner to her mother, in which similar allegations were made, and a picture of the front of the school.

The online article, also written by Seale, reported that both the GDE and the NSA have launched internal investigations into the allegations of racism against the teacher, who was identified as a “Miss Nel”, who has “a master’s degree in apartheid history”. (Her surname is “Nell”, not Nel”.) The reporter added: “This came as two more parents phoned The Star [after the first story was published]to complain about the same teacher.”

Even though the NSA’s investigation had not been completed, Sakellarides reportedly said that an early probe indicated “the possibility that the learner could’ve misconstrued class discussions”. She explained: “[The teacher] commented that the earliest Europeans to arrive on South Africa’s shores…in their ignorance often viewed indigenous populations as savages and, in some cases, demons due to their traditional dress and demeanour.”

ANALYSIS

The lead story: its content

The NSA complains that the story:

  • was based on allegations that were not properly corroborated. Sakellarides says that Seale contacted the school late in the afternoon, after the switchboard had closed, saying he “only got the story late in the afternoon”. The reporter then asked for the principal’s cell phone number, but was told that the school was not allowed to give out this number. The chairman argues this means that Seale recklessly published the story in haste and without proper corroboration – while, in fact, there was no urgency to publish;
  • carried several statements that were inaccurate (some of which were stated as fact) – for example, the statements that:
    • the teacher’s alleged remarks came to light when a parent complained to the GDE – while the Department heard the story only through the media;
    • two parents visited the school to complain, and that more angry parents were due to visit the institution – while no parents visited the school in this regard. “This untruth implies that we were aware of the issue and had chosen not to act on it.” The NSA says it also heard about the allegations through the media;
  • twisted factual comments to imply that they were directed only at black learners – “completely misrepresenting the context of such comments to make them appear racist and derogatory”. For example, the statement:
  • that some learners were “not getting anywhere, except to wash dishes”, implying that this comment was directed only at black learners (as it is stated in support of the “racism” claim) – yet this phrase is used lightheartedly in arts education institutions worldwide to motivate learners, “given the number of would-be performers around the world who work in fast-food outlets or restaurants while trying to make their way as artists”; and
  • in the MMS that “black people only have 2 hair colours and that’s why their hair looks so stupid” – this refers to an incident where a black learner arrived at school with purple braids, which was a breach of the school’s dress code.

The chairman would not address all the specific allegations in detail, as they were the subjects of continuing investigations.

The Star says a reputable, “highly placed” source from the GDE contacted Seale (on May 30), who also obtained a copy of the MMS message. The reporter got hold of the mother’s contact details on Monday, June 2, who confirmed that her daughter indeed had sent her that message and added that there were more issues involving the same teacher.

Seale tried to get hold of the principal (between approximately 15:55 and 17:00) on the Monday, but managed only to speak to three teachers – who refused to provide the journalist with the principal’s contact number, despite repeated requests. Two of these teachers confirmed that they were aware of the complaint against the teacher, based on the MMS; however, they would neither confirm nor deny the incident when pressed further on this issue.

The reporter then phoned the spokesman of the GDE, who expressed surprise that the newspaper was aware of the complaint, and confirmed that the Department was investigating the matter.

Regarding the complaint that Seale did not properly corroborate the information, Ritchie says that the story was factually correct in that:

  • a complaint had been lodged with the GDE (this was verified by the mother, the Department’s spokesman, as well as by its source in the Department – and by the school itself, the day after publication);
  • the content of the MMS was confirmed by both the mother and the Department;
  • the references to other incidents of racism investigated by the GDE were accurate background information about a trend of racism at schools; and
  • the comments by the mother were accurate.

The acting editor concedes the statement that two other parents visited the school to complain about the same teacher was factually incorrect and that it could not be verified. He proposes a correction and an apology in this regard.

He adds that the:

  • NSA conceded that the statement about washing dishes was uttered and that it was an unfortunate phrase. “The fact is that the child interpreted it as racism”; and
  • teacher’s interpretation of the comment about hair colour clearly differed from that of the learners. “Nevertheless, it forms part of the complaint by the child and is an accurate depiction of what is contained in the MMS.”

The school replies it was untrue that:

  • Seale got the information the afternoon before publication – by The Star’s own admission, the reporter received the information already on Friday, May 30;
  • the Department had launched an investigation prior to publication of the story – it only heard about the allegations through the media. The authenticity of the newspaper’s source is therefore questionable. It says it has verbal (MEC’s office) and written (Deputy Legal Director: GDE) confirmation that the matter came to their attention only through the media;
  • some of its teachers “confirmed” that they were aware of the complaint based on the MMS, as “to date no complaint has been lodged neither with the school nor with the GDE”; and
  • it had confirmed that a complaint had been laid – it merely said that an investigation had been launched into the matter.

It adds that comments made by the mother might have been correctly reported, but they were nothing more than unverified hearsay.

My considerations

Ritchie identified the source and his/her position to me, the details of which I shall keep confidential. Suffice it to say that I do believe this person was senior and knowledgeable enough for the newspaper to have taken him/her seriously.

I’ll now deal with the complaint point by point:

Not properly corroborated

Seale spoke to at least three teachers and communicated with the spokesman of the GDE in order to verify his information. He also tried to get hold of the principal. The fact that this attempt was unsuccessful was not his fault. I therefore accept that the reporter did enough to try and verify his information.

Even if he had received the information a few days earlier (on the Friday), I take into account that the school was in all probability closed during the weekend.

Parent complaining to the GDE

The information that a parent had complained to the Department came from the newspaper’s source – who was, as stated above, senior and knowledgeable. I am satisfied that Seale had enough justification to state this as fact. Moreover, the testimony of the GDE’s spokesman as well as that of the mother confirmed this information.

Two parents visiting the school to complain

Ritchie has admitted that this statement was inaccurate, and offered a correction and an apology in this regard.

Noted.

Not getting anywhere, except to wash dishes

I do not believe that the reasonable reader would have thought that these words reflected on black children only, and submit that The Star was justified in publishing this statement.

Only two hair colours

This reference was in the child’s MMS to her mother. Surely, the newspaper was justified in publishing her interpretation of what the teacher had said.

The online article: its content

The story said: “The school expressed dismay at the allegations and defended the teacher in question.” (My emphasis.) It also called the school “prestigious”, and it revealed the teacher’s name.

Sakellarides complains that:

  • this statement (“defending the teacher in question…”) positioned the school as racist and/or supporting racism;
  • use of the word “prestigious” implied that the school was an exclusive private institution (while, in fact it was a state school – a fact that the reporter did not know); and
  • the article published the teacher’s name “in flagrant disregard of her rights” – yet neither the learner’s nor the mother’s name was revealed (she says that she still does not know their identities).

She concludes: “Instead of the follow-up article quelling the media feeding-frenzy and public outcry that had resulted from the first article, it only added fuel to the fire…”

The Star says that, after the first story had been published, Sakellarides asked for a right of reply (which the newspaper received on the same day in the form of a press release, and which was published the next day). In the meantime the mother told Seale there were four other parents whose children had made similar complaints against Nell, and that they wished to speak to the reporter. The results of these interviews were reflected in the article. Seale also asked Nell for comment, who said she was not allowed to do so.

Ritchie adds that this story was accurate because:

  • where it referred to the NSA’s response it quoted directly from its press release;
  • it referred to direct evidence provided by the parents who contacted Seale; and
  • the school refers to itself as “prestigious” – but that did not imply that the NSA was a private school.

He also argues that the circumstances justified the publication of the teacher’s name. “It is noted that the teacher has not lodged a complaint.”

My considerations

Supporting racism

The story stated as fact: “The school expressed dismay at the allegations and defended the teacher in question…”

This piece of information was derived from a press release by the school, following the publication of the first story.

However, the school did not express dismay at the allegations, but rather “at today’s media reports of a teacher’s racism” – the dismay was directed at the story, not at the allegations themselves.

The press release can also not justifiably be interpreted as a defence for the teacher. It merely stated it was possible that the learner could have misconstrued class discussions. In the meantime, the investigation was still continuing.

I find it hard to believe that the NSA actually defended Nell at that stage – even before the internal investigation came to some sort of a conclusion. That, I submit, was not reasonably true.

This statement in dispute has caused the school unnecessary harm in that it falsely implied that it may have been supportive of possible racist behaviour (despite its assurances to the contrary).

‘Prestigious’

The school’s conclusion that the use of the word “prestigious” implied that it was an exclusive private institution (while, if fact it was a state school – a fact that the reporter did not know) has no leg to stand on. The NSA itself says that it ranks among the country’s top 25 schools. That does make it “prestigious”. The argument that Seale did not know that it was a state school is irrelevant.

Nell’s name revealed

The wisdom of the newspaper’s decision to reveal Nell’s name while the investigation was still under way is questionable. However, because it was stated clearly that the probe into this matter had not yet been completed, the implication was that the teacher was not yet guilty of racism – which makes me believe that The Star operated within the borders of the Press Code on this issue.

However, after having revealed her name I submit that it becomes The Star’s duty to report on the outcome of the school’s investigation.

Poster, headlines

The NSA complains that the poster and the headlines misrepresented the facts of the stories as well as the school, and that these positioned the school as racist and/or supporting racism. Sakellarides says that the first headline (‘Racist’ teacher outrage) implied that the teacher was a proven rather than an alleged racist, and that “hordes of people” were up in arms about this matter. The word “outrage” was therefore an exaggeration; so was the use of the word “uproar” in the poster. The second headline was particularly unsubstantiated and inflammatory, she says.

The Star argues that the headline to the first story fairly reflected its content in that:

  • the teacher was not branded as a racist – the word was used in inverted commas and merely quoted some people as saying that she was. “The article was a report about a complaint, not a report about the teacher’s guilt”; and
  • there was indeed an outrage (from both the source in the Department and the parents to whom the newspaper had spoken).

Ritchie adds that the second headline was also a fair reflection of the content of the story and of the press release.

The NSA replies that Seale spoke to other parents only after the first story appeared – therefore, the use of the word “outrage” was not justified at the time of publication. The online article’s headline was also not a fair reflection of the content of the story, as the school says it has never said anything to imply that it “backed” or “defended” the teacher. “These words are unjustified and cast the school in an exceptionally bad light.”

The school adds that the newspaper should not have revealed the teacher’s name.

My considerations

‘Racist’ teacher outrage – Pupils upset at the denigration of blacks

There is nothing wrong with the use of the word “racist”, as it was in inverted commas (not stating it as fact, but rather as opinion).

The word “outrage” may be defined as “extreme anger: a strong feeling of unhappiness because of something bad, hurtful, or morally wrong” or, “the anger and resentment aroused by injury or insult” (Merriam-Webster online dictionary).

I could not find any definition of “outrage” that necessitates anger or resentment by more than one person (as suggested by the NSA). As I accept that both the mother and her child were outraged (justifiably or not), the newspaper was within its rights to use that word for their anger and resentment.

However, the sub-headline is rather problematic in that it stated:

  • that pupils (plural) were upset; and
  • as fact that blacks were denigrated.

Firstly, there is not a single reference in the story to any pupil other than the one who wrote the MMS. The use of the plural is therefore an exaggeration that does not represent a reasonable reflection of the content of the story (as required by the Press Code).

The second part of the sub-heading is even more serious, because it states as fact that blacks were denigrated (the word “denigration” was not used in inverted commas) – despite the fact that the story dutifully reported that the statements in question were allegations at that stage, and that these allegations were the subject of two investigations.

Judge Phillip Levinsohn’s recent verdict (in 2013) in a Supreme Court case in Swaziland about headlines is applicable to this case. He stated: “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.)

School backs ‘racist’ teacher

As argued above, there is nothing wrong with the use of the word “racist” teacher, provided that inverted commas are used.

The use of the word “backs” creates problems, though. I have already said that the newspaper was not justified to report that the NSA “defended” Nell. If a statement in a story is incorrect and/or unfair and that statement is repeated in a heading, then that headline would also be incorrect and/or unfair – as is evident in this case.

The poster: ‘Racist’ teacher uproar

The same internet dictionary (mentioned above) defines the word “uproar” as “a situation in which many people are upset, angry, or disturbed by something”. (Emphasis added.)

At the time of publication, the word “uproar” clearly did not reflect the content of the story, as required by the Press Code, and it amounted to an exaggeration. A few people (such as the mother, her child and the source) can hardly create an uproar.

Over-all effect

Sakellarides argues that the texts have caused unnecessary harm to the school’s and to the teacher’s dignity and reputation, which might impair future funding applications.

My considerations

I agree that the school suffered unnecessary harm mainly in that the:

  • statement that the NSA “expressed dismay at the allegations and defended” Nell incorrectly and unfairly implied that the school condoned possible racist behaviour;
  • sub-headline to the first story (stating the allegation that blacks were denigrated as fact) and the use of the word “backs” in the online headline served to amplify the above; and
  • use of the word “uproar” on its posters also contributed to the above.

Having said that, I also need to see these issues in perspective – only one sentence in each story proved to be problematic. I am quite satisfied that Seale’s reporting was, in the main, ethically sound. (This is not to excuse these mistakes, of course – even one inaccurate or unfair word can cause lots of unnecessary harm.)

The main problems, as I see it, came with the sub-headline to the first story, the headline to the second, and the poster (to a lesser degree).

FINDING

The lead story: its content

This part of the complaint is dismissed, except for the incorrect statement that two parents visited the school the day before publication to complain about Nell. This is in breach of Sect. 2.1 of the Press Code that states: “The press shall take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly.”

The online article: its content

Supporting racism

The statement in question (“The school expressed dismay at the allegations and defended the teacher in question…”) was incorrect and unfair, and also not reasonably true. This is in breach of Sect. 2.1 and 2.3 of the Press Code. The latter states: “Only what may reasonably be true…may be presented as fact…”

‘Prestigious’

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Nell’s name revealed

While this part of the complaint is dismissed, The Star should report on the outcome of the school’s investigation. (This is not a sanction, but rather a recommendation.)

Poster, headlines

‘Racist’ teacher outrage – Pupils upset at the denigration of blacks

The complaint about the main headline is dismissed.

The sub-heading is in breach of the following sections of the Press Code:

  • 10.1: “Headlines…shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report…in question” (with reference to the use of the word “pupils”); and
  • 2.1 (referring to the statement of fact that blacks were denigrated).

School backs ‘racist’ teacher

The complaint with regard to the use of the word “racist” (teacher) is dismissed.

The used of the word “backs” was unreasonable and unjustified. This is in breach of Sect. 2.1 and 2.3 of the Code.

The poster: ‘Racist’ teacher uproar

The use of the word “uproar” clearly did not reflect the content of the story, as required by the Press Code. This is in breach of Sect. 10.1 of the Code, as well as of Sect. 2.2 that reads: “News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by…exaggeration…”

Over-all effect

The school suffered unnecessary harm by one sentence in each story. However, the harm was mainly done by the sub-heading to the first story, the headline to the second, and (to a lesser degree) the poster. I have already ruled in this regard.

I do not believe that the stories unnecessarily harmed Nell, as it was consistently made clear that investigations were under way (implying that she has not been found guilty of racist behaviour at the time of publication). This part of the complaint is dismissed.

SANCTION

The Star is:

  • directed to apologise to the NSA for causing it unnecessary harm by falsely and unfairly implying that it may have been supportive of possible racist behaviour (as outlined under the heading “All-over effect”);
  • reprimanded for incorrectly stating that two parents visited the school on the previous day to complain about the teacher;
  • directed to prepare text for publication on page 2 or 3, which should incorporate the content of both bullets above – the newspaper should provide me with this text prior to publication, and should end with the words, “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding”; and
  • directed to publish a blurb on its front page, above the fold, referring to the apology inside.

If these stories also appeared on The Star’s website, the above-mentioned text should be placed on the site as well.

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 Adjudication Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombudsman