Facts are facts and opinion is opinion. A truism if ever there was one. Yet this is one of the biggest conflations that newsrooms make.
The PCSA asked the JR to apologise for labelling the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement “anti-Semitic” after a cartoon (of a greedy capitalist — a Donald Trump lookalike, in my opinion) was published. The JR deemed the cartoon an anti-Semitic caricature.
In three recent cases, two rulings were made against the JR, but rather than comply with rulings to apologise, it withdrew its membership. A third ruling, which the JR is quiet about, was made in its favour because it was clearly opinion, and marked as such.
If it’s opinion, it must be marked Opinion and not passed off as fact.
Sub-editors and editors have to check this before publication. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t.
If it’s not marked up front as News, Opinion, Comment and Analysis, Sponsored Content or Advertorial, then audiences and readerships become confused. Publications lose credibility and trust.
Advertorial or sponsored content should not have the same typeface, headline and font, for example, as editorial pages.
Guidelines from the Advertising Regulatory Board for advertorials say “there is an obligation on all concerned with the preparation and/or publication of a print advertisement to ensure that anyone who looks at the advertisement is able to see, without reading it closely, that it is an advertisement and not editorial matter”.
The SA Press Code refers to sponsored content or advertorial in the section that deals with “Independence and Conflict of Interests”: the media shall not allow commercial, political, personal and other non-professional considerations to influence reporting, and avoid conflicts of interest as well as practices that may lead readers to doubt the media’s independence and professionalism; not accept any benefit which may influence coverage; indicate clearly when an outside organisation has contributed to the cost of newsgathering; and keep editorial material clearly distinct from advertising and sponsored events.
There is supposed to be a “Chinese Wall” between these different categories.
Engagement and participation, but old trends remain
Some argue that given the blurry lines of what constitutes journalism today — for example, citizen journalism — we don’t need hard walls. But this is public engagement and participation, not journalism.
There are varied conceptualisations around this. The internet allows voice and access to the public to express their views, enabling political dissent. Fantastic for a robust democracy.
However, what about professional codes of ethics — where do these fit in, if anywhere at all?
The Press Council finds itself in the middle of this complicated matrix where there are blurry lines in journalism.
All State of the Newsroom reports for the past decade, from 2012-2022, published by Wits Journalism show the impact of digitisation; the declines in legacy media in revenues, advertising and circulations. The result is job cuts, skills loss and shortage and the concomitant growth in online and social media.
Unverified news spreading on social media creates a huge conundrum for mainstream media and for codes of ethics too. The blurring of fact, opinion and advertorial affects trust in media at a time when journalism can least afford it.
While it’s a changed media landscape, one of the old trends that remains consistent is not adhering to the right of reply issue in the Press Code — not giving subjects adequate time to reply. It doesn’t matter if it’s a known crook. All subjects should be given adequate time to reply.
You still see at the end of stories: “At the time of going to press Known Crook had not responded.” The story should then have been held over for the next day or the next week.
Slow journalism is good because it enhances the reputation of journalism as a force for good, serving the public rather than itself, or journalists wanting a scoop and to have the front-page byline.
Regarding the gathering and reporting of news, the Press Code says: “The media shall take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly; present news in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by distortion, exaggeration or misrepresentation, material omissions, or summarisation; present only what may reasonably be true as fact; opinions, allegations, rumours or suppositions shall be presented clearly as such; obtain news legally, honestly and fairly, unless public interest dictates otherwise… a subject should be afforded reasonable time to respond.”
When you make a mistake, you have to make amends by publishing promptly and with appropriate prominence a retraction, correction, explanation or an apology on every platform where the original content was published, such as the member’s website, social media accounts or any other online platform; and ensure that every journalist or freelancer employed by them who shared content on their personal social media accounts also shares any retraction, correction, explanation or apology relating to that content on their personal social media accounts.
Facts, opinion, confusion and conclusion
Fact: You can in a column make comment and give your opinion. If things are disputed, you can argue that it was “fair comment”. You can do analysis, based on facts, after you do research, or investigations.
Fact: Members of the Press Council abide by its rulings. Rarely (it’s almost unheard of) they do not, and then the council is obliged to expel them (eg the JR, first-timers).
Fact: Disclosure statements are important; the public knows where you are coming from. If the disclosure says that ‘I belong to these organisations’, then you can add, but my views are independent.
Fact: Newsrooms are understaffed and checking is not always done. Research has shown this.
Opinion: It is my opinion that the majority of journalists are not that familiar with the Press Code or how the PCSA works. I haven’t done the research on this yet.
Confusion: Some believe their opinions are facts, ie the latest brouhaha with JR’s retaliation against the Press Council.
Conclusion: News, opinion and advertorial must be clearly marked as such. Better journalism ethics would be served when we have one big umbrella code that encompasses all media: online, print, broadcast and social media. And, members comply even when they find rulings disagreeable. DM
Glenda Daniels, an associate professor of media studies at Wits University, sits on the executive of Sacomm, the Press Council and Sanef. These views are her own.
Links to other sites that have covered this will give readers a clearer idea of both sides of the decision to expel the Jewish Report: