Journalism ‘legals’: Renee’s golden rules

In my years as a sub-editor on South African newspapers, and as a trainer, I wrote a host of training materials – one of the most used being my one-pager on the legal side of reporting in South Africa.

Here it is. Bear in mind that I am not a lawyer, but I do have decades of experience on the front-line of editing journalism,. When in doubt, ask the next person up in the hierarchy for help! But use this guide as your first line of defence.


Court reporting:

1. Children who are the victims of sex assault of any kind can’t be named. Accused people under the age of 18 also can’t be named. Rape victims in general are not named, unless they choose otherwise.

2. Traditionally, people who have not yet pleaded to a charge involving rape or sex assault can’t be named. This one’s under debate but your job as a sub-editor is to tell a senior staffer if you are worried.

3. A person is NOT GUILTY until the judge or magistrate has said otherwise. Further, a story should never make a judgment that only a judge can make. You can’t say that someone lied in the dock or that one thing contradicted another – only the judge can decide on that. You can only report what was said – no editorialising of any kind.

4. Similarly, a court story should not contain comment about the proceedings. Thinking about expressing your opinion about how the prosecutor is doing? Just don’t.

5. Prior to the start of a court case, or during it, you can’t publish information which might affect the court case. For example, if a man is on trial for bribery and corruption, and someone in his company comes forward with financial statements that are not part of the court record, the news publication can’t publish these while the case is in progress. An editor might decide to do it anyway – your job is to alert your superiors if you see this happening.

6. If someone has prior convictions for other crimes, these can’t be considered by the court till judgment has been passed. They also can’t be written about.

General reporting

There are all kinds of complexities about defamation and pre-conviction and such. In general, you cannot go wrong if you apply the following thought to a story:

Is anyone in this story being accused of something bad? (eg robbery, or cheating a customer, or bullying a classmate, or cutting down an old tree, or being a racist, or running down a cat, or insulting a neighbour … you get the picture). Ask yourself: if you were this person’s mother, would the accusation/s make you cross? If that’s the case, sit up and read it carefully.

Then apply the rules below and all will be well:

1. Does the story make it crystal clear that these accusations are allegations and not statements of fact? If not, rewrite to make that the case.

2. Does the story have the accused person’s/company’s point of view, or has an attempt been made to contact them – if not, then tell a senior staffer. If there is comment, are all the accusations made in the story answered?

3. Sometimes the accused person can’t be contacted (eg a man in a vehicle with a company logo picks up and then assaults a hitchhiker). You won’t have comment from the bad guy – but if the story carries comment from the company, that helps. And the story is better if it carries police confirmation of the assault.

4. If the story is about a matter in which a court case is pending, be careful of anything which pre-convicts the accused, or the person who might be accused of the crime. So, don’t say the intruder dressed in the red T-shirt murdered the woman (only a judge can decide when it is murder). Rather, the woman was killed, allegedly by an intruder in a red T-shirt. Sitting in your office, you don’t know how she died!

Contact me if you would like to chat about how I can help with all your organisational or communication needs (coaching, editing, writing, social media).

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