The Sunday Times’ investigative team didn’t do the basics of journalism 101, relied too much on documents, and were too secret with their work.
These are the views of some academics who gave their viewpoints to The Media Online about what went wrong with the paper’s journalists and the lessons that can be learnt from the situation.
The newspaper’s editor, Bongani Siqoko, recently apologised for its role in stories about the SARS ‘rogue unit’, which was proved to be fake news, and the award-winning Cato Manor death squad stories which also proved to be false.
Used by their sources and too much secrecy
Glenda Daniels, chairperson of the South African National Editors Forum’s (Sanef)’s ethics and diversity subcommittee and associate professor of Media Studies at Wits University, says the Sunday Times journalists were used by a political faction or allowed themselves to be used by one set of sources only. “I don’t know if this was deliberate on their part or not,” she adds.
Anton Harber, Caxton Professor of Journalism (Adjunct) at Wits University, believes the problem goes deeper than what Daniels has described.
“The most generous version is that the Sunday Times’ essential editorial verification systems failed because of a toxic mix of poor internal processes, a dysfunctional newsroom culture and the failure by the responsible individuals to vet the stories properly,” he says. “But this does not explain why such errors continued through 32 stories. Perhaps it was arrogance and a sense of immunity, but the Sunday Times needs to convince us it was not because at least some of those in their editorial team were caught up in the state capture project.”
Former Sunday Times news editor and current freelance journalist and journalism trainer Raymond Joseph, who is deeply saddened by the whole situation and the state the Sunday Times is now in, says the biggest problem for the paper is that they didn’t deal with the situation with the urgency that they should have.
He points to the secrecy of the investigative unit as its undoing, as well as its failure to interrogate the motive of its sources. “It operated in absolute secrecy, their stories were off diary, it was never properly discussed in an open conference, there was too much secrecy going on. Too few people were involved in interrogating this. There was too much pressure to produce scoops and normal checks and balances failed. They failed at ordinary verification journalism 101,” he reckons.
The warning signs were there
Joseph identifies many warning signs that the Sunday Times should have taken notice of. Former Kwa-Zulu Natal Hawks boss Johan Booysen, who was the accused at the centre of the Cato Manor death squad story, warned them of problems. Noseweek ran a series of articles on Cato Manor, which debunked the story from the very beginning. One of the Sunday Times’ own investigative unit members left, warning the others of the way they were doing things.
Poor Bongani Siqoko
Both Daniels and Joseph feel sorry for current Sunday Times editor Bongani Siqoko, who is not only handling the fallout but has also had to apologise multiple times for work of his predecessors.
“Why are the two former editors (Ray Hartley and Phylicia Oppelt) so quiet?” Daniels asks. “Don’t they feel they owe the public who bought their stories and us their media colleagues anything? They are the ones who need to come out and explain and apologise … As for the journalists in question – it’s not once, and not twice but far too many times they ‘got things wrong’ or were used.”
Joseph says Siqoko “inherited a poisoned chalice” and “he is doing what really should have been done a long time ago”. Joseph also applauds him for never saying “well, I wasn’t there”.
Anton Harber’s lessons
- Editors and journalists need to take a deep breath and slow down. “Good journalism cannot be done at the pace of social media. There is much more damage from running into print with an incomplete investigation than waiting until one is sure of the story. It is not worth sacrificing your credibility and the trust of your audience in order to edge ahead of your competitors. The long term damage of getting it wrong far outweighs the short-term advantage of being first. That’s the most basic lesson.”
- There are incredible online tools and resources to fact-check and verify. Also, media houses have to up-skill their newsrooms and adapt their workflows to bring these into the newsroom processes.
Glenda Daniels’ lessons
- Some newspapers apparently enjoy writing about the “media wars” (the tensions between media companies) – how banal and what a waste of time. I like writing about media ethics because this issue illustrates how important this is – in the age of factional politics in South Africa and fake news (lies and disinformation) globally. It is going to be more important in the run up to our national election next year.
- The public has a right to know – but facts – and not one sided sensationalist and dangerous drivel which ruins peoples’ lives.
- Media commentators and analysts have to write more about ethics and the importance of systems in newspapers that work, for verification.
- Stop being so competitive – as in editors wanting their newspapers to be first with the story. Competition is great, but collaboration is better.
- Sources must always be protected – is one of our mantras – but in this instance the sources made up lies to support the corrupt faction in the country – should these “sources” still be protected? At present I am wondering about this issue and about the editors under whose watch this debacle happened.
Raymond Joseph’s lessons
- When you make a mistake, admit you made a mistake then and there. Apologise and correct it.
- There’ are multiple sides to a story, and you need to canvas all of them.
- Don’t place too much trust in documents, to the exclusion of actually doing the journalism.
- A healthy scepticism is essential for good journalism.
- You need multiple sources.
- Sometimes you need to try and knock your own stories down to see if they will still stand up.
- Trust no one, be sceptical and constantly question your sources and their motives.
- Newsrooms mustn’t have units working in total isolation and secrecy, without some kind of oversight.
Don’t paint all media with the same brush
Daniels stresses that one of the biggest challenges media is facing currently is all being painted with the same brush.
“You hear everywhere now: ‘the media lies’, ‘the media tells fake news’, ‘journalists are corrupt’, but this is not true – conflating every journalist and news outlet with what has happened at the Sunday Times pre-Bongani Siqoko is illogical and irrational given that we have so many other great investigative outfits that hardly get anything wrong e.g. AmaBhungane and Scorpio.
“There are a few journalists who have tainted their own reputations and that of their newspaper in the process but it can’t be of journalism as a whole,” she emphasises.
Daniels summed it up best in her closing remarks: “Of course an even bigger problem from these stories is that institutions were destroyed, not just individuals being traumatised and losing their jobs – through these incorrect stories. It’s cost our country dearly.”