The Tembisa 10 and the failure of journalism

So much has been written about the Pretoria News lead reporting that 10 babies had been born to a woman in Tembisa.

As the story correctly pointed out, this would be a world-first. And probably a Guinness Book of Records contender (though only the august publication itself gets to decide such things).

My first instinct, when I saw the story, was to look for the quotes from the medical team. It’s been my experience that these things are usually tightly controlled by the hospital and medical team who perform such procedures, and that there will be carefully written and extensive press releases about all aspects of the event. And that all the ethical issues will have been canvassed with the people involved before any reporters are allowed near them.

Since there was no such statement, I was disinclined to believe in the existence of the babies. And still am.

As the story has unravelled, I was at first fascinated, and then exhausted.

The publication, its editor and the company that own the publication have been much in evidence defending their reporting; Twitter has been divided into two predictable camps (“Rampedi is always right and you are racist for suggesting otherwise” vs “where are the pictures”?). The journalism establishment is outraged and issuing statements (with which I agree). All my journalism friends on Facebook are discussing it, with much amusement and schadenfreude.

The only thing I feel now though is sadness.

Because where in all this are ordinary readers, people not on Twitter, people who used to trust newspapers to give them a fairly accurate picture of the world?

And where in all of this is the right to fair reporting for the people involved – the woman claiming to be the mother, her partner, their families, their friends? All of whose personal lives are now out in the open, for all to see.

None of what I have read, either in the Pretoria News, nor in the various publications doing their own reporting, and their own opinion-writing, has covered South African journalism in glory.

What I’d like to see now is for all my colleagues to take a deep breath, stop insulting other journalists and get back to the work of covering the many and complex issues that haunt this country.

And hope like hell that there are any readers out there still prepared to believe a word we say.

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