How to stay on the right side of the law in journalism

In my years as a sub-editor, manager and trainer at South African news publications, 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.

I published that verbatim in 2013, aimed at reporters and editors.

In 2022, it’s still relevant. Here, I have updated it, and added some context for people who are not necessarily part of the journalism world, but who might need the information. Or who might simply want to know what rules govern reporting practice in this country (or should govern them, anyway).

(Bear in mind that I am not a lawyer, but I do have decades of experience on the front-line of editing in journalism.)


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 and different publications might decide what to do about this on a case-by-case basis (here’s a good News24 article illustrating some of the issues to be considered.)
  3. A person is NOT GUILTY until the judge or magistrate has said otherwise. And a writer should never make a judgment that only a judge can make (so until the burglar is convicted of burglary, they are “the accused”, or are alleged to be a burglar). Also – a journalist should not state that someone lied in court, or that one thing contradicted another. Only the judge can decide on that.
  4. Similarly, a court story should not contain comment about the proceedings.
  5. Prior to the start of a court case, or during it, publications should not carry information which might affect the court case. For example, if someone is on trial for bribery and corruption, and someone in their company comes forward with damning 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, if they think it is in the public interest.)
  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

The legal issues involved in writing more generally are complex – defamation and hate speech may be involved. Ethical and moral concerns also need to be considered. As always, these complexities can be approached by applying some basic decency.

I’ve always advised reporters and sub-editors to think about the words in front of them like this:

Is anyone in this story being accused of something bad? (For example: 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. Think it through, using these steps:

  1. Does the story make it crystal clear that these accusations are allegations and not statements of fact? If not, rewrite the text to make that clear.
  2. Does the story have the accused person’s/company/organisation’s point of view, or has an attempt been made to contact them? If not, that must be done. If there is comment, are all the accusations made in the story answered? If every effort to get comment has been made but none has been forthcoming, does the article say that? (In crime reporting, there’s no way to get comment from the person accused of committing the crime. But every effort should be made to get the details of the incident correct.)
  3. Sometimes, there’s peripheral damage. For example a man in a vehicle carrying a company logo picks up and then assaults a hitchhiker. There won’t be 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 an intruder dressed in a 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.

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

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Main picture: Mari Helin, Unsplash



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