Did Huisgenoot/YOU step over the line in its coverage of Joost van der Westhuizen’s illness? Fienie Grobler speaks to the parties involved.
Last week, Huisgenoot/YOU, one of the biggest-selling weekly magazines in the country, featured an apparent teary-eyed Joost van der Westhuizen, ex-Springbok rugby player and local celebrity, on its cover. It was accompanied by ‘n headline in big, black letters declaring he may have only 18 months to live.
“Joost was very unhappy. The magazine used a picture of him on the cover with the slug giving a time limit on his life without a comment from him or from his doctors,” his publicist, Bridget van Oerle, told TheMediaOnline.
“This was despite a media statement being issued to media on 12/13 May with a comment from his doctor,” she added.
Van Oerle was convinced this was a ploy by the magazine to increase sales.
“It was as far as we are concerned a way to up the sales of the magazine and create a hype. It was as if they gave him a death sentence independently of his doctors’ diagnosis,” said Van Oerle.
The article, which appeared in the week of May 24, quoted a Cape Town neurologist, Izak Burger, who, according to Huisgenoot/YOU, “has treated many people with the disease”.
The doctor is quoted as saying he had seen many patients die over the years, and “if Joost’s condition follows the usual pattern he could have only 18 months to live”.
The article then gives some background on motor neurone disease and people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) – the most common form of the disease.
But the statement released by Joost’s publicist only said that he was suffering from a serious muscle-related neural disease.
Nowhere did Huisgenoot/YOU quote Joost’s doctor — Dr Kelbrick, who announced the illness in a press release dated May 12. The statement requested the press to respect Joost’s privacy and said that he would not be available for interviews and asked for all queries to be directed to Van Oerle.
A second press release was issued by Van Oerle on May 20, from another doctor, Jody Pearl, stating: “His [Joost’s] complex clinical presentation is suggestive of a neurological disorder. The diagnosis of Motor Neuron Disease is unfortunately a possibility, but is not confirmed.
“Joost van der Westhuizen is currently under my care and is still being investigated to determine a final diagnosis,” stated Pearl.
Van Oerle said Huisgenoot requested an interview with Joost shortly after the news of his illness was announced.
“He was sent SMSs requesting an interview and I had phone calls. We requested questions in writing as we always do when dealing with YOU/Huisgenoot (as we prefer to have a paper trail because of articles/comments being taken out of context in the past). We did not receive questions for the article,” said Van Oerle.
She received another call from Huisgenoot last week with another request for an interview.
“I received questions late on Wednesday afternoon after 4pm by email for Joost, but he was not available to answer them. The deadline was at 7pm that night as the magazine goes to bed.
“I feel that as we have issued two statements to the press with comments from the doctors treating Joost, and because Joost is still undergoing treatment they should look at the facts and not try to sensationalise the story of his illness in any way. Once we know what the diagnosis he can then issue a statement,” said Van Oerle.
Media ethics professor Johannes Froneman, of the North West University, said the mistake that Huisgenoot/YOU made was failing to mention in its article that it did request an interview with Joost.
“You must always tell your readers what information you could not get. If you tried and the person was not available, you have to say that,” said Froneman.
“This is not ethical journalism,” he added.
He referred to the Press Code, which states: “Where it has not been practicable to verify the accuracy of a report, this shall be mentioned in such report.”
“This is an obvious transgression of the Press Code,” said Froneman.
Also, Froneman said he would have thought that the doctor who Huisgenoot/YOU interviewed, would have told the magazine that he could only speak about the disease in general, and not about Joost specifically.
“One has to wonder if the doctor did not indeed say that, and if Huisgenoot/YOU just chose to leave that bit out.”
But Huisgenoot/YOU editor Julia Viljoen said she did not see anything wrong with the article.
The magazine also mentioned this week, in an interview with Amor, Joost’s seperated wife, that it did request his comment.
“I fail to see where ethics should even enter the picture when a publication writes about a disease in general terms simply because one has not interviewed the person who has made that disease newsworthy,” she told TheMediaOnline.
“This was standard news magazine journalism – a disease was thrust into the public’s awareness, and we consulted a respected neurosurgeon on how diseases of this nature generally present themselves and unfold.
“We would have liked to interview Joost’s own doctor, but he declined. We also approached Joost, but were refused an interview. We would in any event not have asked Joost to talk about the disease in general as patients are, in our experience, not usually well informed about the scientific details of their disease.”
Also, Viljoen said the headline stating that Joost may have only 18 months to live was not fabricated by their writer.
“I doubt that the article would have attracted nearly as much attention had we not published the fact that Joost might have only 18 months to live. The 18 months wasn’t fabricated by our writer; it was the learned opinion of a neurosurgeon, qualified in the article by the statement that if Joost had this particular form of the disease and if his disease followed the average pattern, then he might have only 18 months to live.
“Should we have said, Not to worry, SA, Joost has another 20 years to go even with MND?,” asked Viljoen.
Viljoen said, “as callous as it might look on a magazine’s cover”, this was an observation by a neurosurgeon “on the plight of a nationally known figure who’d been the subject of earlier controversies simply because of who he is”.
“If the subject of the story had been a lesser known figure, or one who exists at a distance, say in France, or someone less liked by the magazine’s readers, Julius Malema perhaps, would the ethics criticism have arisen? Perhaps this is more about human sensitivity than journalistic ethics,” said Viljoen.
Froneman agreed that Joost’s status as a public figure made reports on his health relevant.
“Is it an infringement on his privacy to write about his illness? The answer is public interest. He is without a doubt a public figure for several reasons — mainly rugby and sex.”
Froneman referred to former Constitutional Court judge Kate O’Regan who said in a judgment once that public figures had a diminished right to privacy.
“And according to any definition, Joost is a public figure,” said Froneman.
Fienie Grobler is a journalist for the South African Press Association (SAPA).