In 2018, I wrote an impassioned article about “the Sunday Times issue”, which took a long look at how trust is earned and maintained in journalism.
That article looked at the traditional ways in which accuracy is maintained in the journalism production process, and supported the call for an inquiry into how a major South African newspaper got things spectacularly wrong.
This week, I had intended to look at what that report said about journalism in South Africa. But something else has happened: the Jacques Pauw affair.
In brief, for those not familiar with this issue, Jacques Pauw, a celebrated and acclaimed South African author and investigative journalist, wrote an article in February 2021 which was published in local publication the Daily Maverick, detailing an experience he had at a restaurant in Cape Town which ended in his arrest by police.
A few days later he retracted the report on Twitter, saying he had had too much to drink and there were errors in the article.
The Daily Maverick has posted an editors’ note about the issue, and taken down the offending article. The note says: “… we decided to publish it as a column, as opposed to our own report. Given the nature of the allegations in his piece, we also decided to check the veracity of Pauw’s claims – an unusual extra step for an opinion piece.”
In addition they have published a piece by Richard Poplak, going into great detail about the facts that the Maverick has subsequently established.
And there have been various commentaries and reactions, with SANEF saying that the episode causes “the public to doubt the media’s credibility and further erode the fragile relationship between law enforcement and the media”.
That’s the background. I have some thoughts about the issue – but I must say at the outset that I am not going to indulge here in bashing either Pauw or the Daily Maverick. In the first place, I did not read the original article before it was taken off the site. And secondly I simply don’t know enough about the Maverick’s production processes (I have in the past done some ad hoc editing for the publication, but they have expanded and changed things since then, so my tiny bit of insight is certainly outdated and irrelevant).
Rather, I’d like to interrogate the opinion/column/ethics/fact-checking issue in broader terms. That’s because I think there’s some woolly thinking, in the general public and among journalists, going on around this saga.
(I’m aware there are many readers of news publications who simply don’t care about journalism debates like these, and that for many of my colleagues I’m stating the obvious. But sometimes it helps to go back to first principles.)
WHAT IS FACT, AND WHAT IS OPINION?
There’s no special journalism definition of what a fact is, so a general defintion applies. This one from Wikipedia is a good one:
A fact is an occurrence in the real world. The usual test for a statement of fact is verifiability — that is whether it can be demonstrated to correspond to experience. Standard reference works are often used to check facts. Scientific facts are verified by repeatable careful observation or measurement by experiments or other means
Wikipedia says an opinion is:
An opinion is a judgement, viewpoint, or statement that is not conclusive, rather than facts, which are true statements.
And makes this useful distinction between the two:
Distinguishing fact from opinion is that facts are verifiable, i.e. can be agreed to by the consensus of experts. An example is: “United States of America was involved in the Vietnam War,” versus “United States of America was right to get involved in the Vietnam War”. An opinion may be supported by facts and principles, in which case it becomes an argument.
With that in mind, let’s move to journalism practice.
KINDS OF JOURNALISM, AND KINDS OF EDITING
The basic building block of journalism is the hard news report: for the sake of argument, a report written about a speech given by the mayor of a town. As I wrote in 2018, the first line of quality control is the newsdesk, where someone will read the report about the speech, applying to it varying degrees of checking, the aim being to make the article factual, and for the facts if contains to be correct.
Fact-checking processes (there’s a good article on this here) will depend on the publication’s fact-checking policies, the resources and time at hand, and the extent to which the news editor relies on the reporter (a text by a veteran of 30 years standing who is celebrated for never getting things wrong will be looked at differently from a report by a new reporter, in her first week on the job and freshly arrived from another city in the country). But however senior the reporter, the text will always be read, assessed and checked. The report will be subjected to further checking by sub-editors.
A variant of the hard news report is the investigation of allegations or claims or a narrative by someone who approaches the newspaper. Someone might ask for an appointment or phone the newsdesk, and tell a personal story of being harassed at work by the mayor. The first line of defence will often be instinct: does the person seem credible? If the claims are baseless (the person claims that the harassment by the mayor was instigated by invisible people, for instance), a decision might be taken to move on. But even gut instinct says the person is credible, their claims will be checked, and preferably corroborated by other people, and the mayor will be asked for comment. Internal details of the narrative will be checked for consistency.
Aside from these bread-and-butter reports, various people on a publication might be editing features (a long interview with the mayor), analysis (taking apart what the mayor might have meant in their speech) or “soft” news – a page of the mayor’s favourite recipes.
In all of those cases, there will be processes in place to check the internal accuracy of the text (is the mayor’s name spelt correctly throughout? does one of the recipes mention an ingredient that is then not mentioned in the method of cooking?).
The fundamental ethical principle applies: as far as is humanly possible, the facts will be correct.
And now we get to opinion – the category into which Jacques Pauw’s now-discredited article falls, according to Daily Maverick.
WHAT IS AN OPINION PIECE ANYWAY?
There are several kinds of opinion pieces: movie or theatre reviews spring to mind. Then there’s the humorous or satirical column. And there are a lot of opinion pieces in which the writer is simply expressing their views about the events of the day. So an opposition politician might write a piece expressing what they think about the speech by the mayor, and calling for his or her removal from office. Or a climate change expert might write a piece expounding on the faultlines in the mayor’s climate change remarks, and outlining what policies they think should be in place.
In all of these cases, factual assertions made in the opinion piece will be checked against reality: if the movie critic gets the name of the movie slightly wrong, that will be corrected. If the satirical columnist attributes something to a public figure that he or she simply did not say, then that will be queried (is the writer making a deliberate error? let’s ask them!)
BACK TO JACQUES PAUW
So, where does all this place the original Pauw article? I think it is neither a column, nor an opinion piece. To me, it falls into the category of first person narrative: a man telling a story of unfair treatment by the police (in its essence). And such a piece should not be published until there is strong certainty as to the facts, and corroboration has been sought and obtained. Even if the man involved is a well-known journalist.
The ethical imperative remains: check the facts, no matter who is saying things.
DOES THIS SHAKE SOUTH AFRICAN JOURNALISM TO ITS FOUNDATIONS?
Get a grip, people of Twitter. One very messy saga does not make a watershed moment. Ethical breaches have been committed, and bad ones at that. But repairs are being made, the fabric holds.
The Maverick has openly admitted its mistakes, several times (though I did find Richard Poplak’s drunk-shaming in bad taste: it seems to me that Jacques Pauw needs help and support, rather than having his prodigious alcohol consumption on the day being used as a way to deflect attention from the publication’s own part in the mess).
Jacques Pauw has taken responsibility for what he did, and is living with the reputational, material and emotional consequences of what he has done.
And everywhere, newsdesks and sub-editors – including those of the Daily Maverick, I am sure – continue stoically to make things as accurate as they can, even though that process is much harder than it used to be. The explosion of social media and the implosion of journalism revenues have stripped publications of a depth of experience in these matters.
It is this in fact that shakes journalism to its foundations: that in countless publications worldwide, resources and experience and time are in critically short supply. Because money is in critically short supply. Yet again, I urge you to pay for your journalism. It really does matter, as this example and many others demonstrate.