It is difficult to imagine a bigger journalistic disaster than the recent decuplets story by Pretoria News, based in South Africa’s capital city. But it may present an opportunity to think anew about what could be done to address journalism’s crisis of trust.
For a moment, the tale of a woman in Tembisa, northeast of Johannesburg, and her record-breaking “10 babies” seemed like a welcome distraction from the depressing grind of Covid-19, political intrigue and state failures. But it was a very brief moment.
The red flags began fluttering almost before the metaphorical ink was dry on the story. Health officials who would have known about such a rare and complex medical event could find no trace of the birth. Then the man’s family distanced themselves from the claim and the woman was taken into psychiatric care.
Pretoria News editor Piet Rampedi and the Independent Group, which owns the paper, initially defended his story. Then there was a sort of apology from Rampedi while the company announced an investigation.
There seems little doubt that the inquiry will find an overwhelming lack of babies. It is clear that the reporting failed to pass the most elementary test of journalism, as no attempt was made to verify the claim, and it has caused further damage to journalism. Critics like Helen Zille, chair of the opposition Democratic Alliance, gleefully used the story to rubbish the media as a whole. Though it is easy to dismiss her opportunism, stories like this undoubtedly further undermine trust in journalism.
Without trust, journalism can’t do its work of holding the powerful to account and enabling civic discussion. As commentators like University of Cape Town journalism professor Herman Wasserman have pointed out, it is significant that Independent is no longer part of the industry’s mechanism of accountability, the South African Press Council.
Over the years, there have been complaints that the self-regulatory system is toothless and ineffective, and incidents like the “Tembisa 10” story may fuel arguments for tighter regulation of journalism.
But, it would be a mistake to go down this road. There is no possible system of control that can completely prevent misreporting, whether deliberate, manipulated or by mistake, just as even the most draconian laws are unable to prevent crime completely.
And the damage that tighter controls would cause to free speech and, therefore, to democracy is simply too great. Instead, the opportunity should be used to think differently about trust and journalism in the changed and overwhelmingly cluttered information system we now inhabit.
Changed media landscape Changes to the ways in which people get their information have shaken old certainties. The advertising-based business model that sustained journalism for around a century is dying as media income goes to the giants of the internet. Jobs are disappearing and newsrooms are being hollowed out. At the same time, journalists’ position of authority over the kinds of information called news is waning. Everyone is now able to publish easily.
That is often a good thing, but it has also meant a dramatic rise in misinformation. The not-forprofit organisation First Draft talks of an information environment that has been polluted by disinformation, and whereit has never been harder to know what to trust, and never easier to be misled.
As a result, trust in journalism has been declining for some years, though the new Digital News Report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism has found that the Covid-19 pandemic has brought some global recovery of trust.