JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA
During the 1980s, as you walked in the sitting rooms of most four-roomed apartheid government houses in the townships, what caught one's attention was a picture of beautiful twins adorned in pink beanies. Almost every house in the townships had this picture hung on the wall. Nearly all street vendors in the townships, taxi ranks, and railway stations sold this popular picture.
The picture of a soft news piece of the first recorded Siamese twins in South Africa, Mpho le Mphonyana Mathibela (Mpho and Mphonyana). The famous twins were born conjoined at the head on 7 December 1986 at Tshepong Hospital in Klerksdorp, North West province. They were later transferred to Baragwanath Hospital, known as Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto for the separation of heads. The excellent separation of their heads by a 40-member medical team made headlines. It also put the Chris Hani Hospital in the spotlight. As it is a norm for South Africans to celebrate in song, top musicians in the country expressed their love for the twins through a song titled 'Mpho le Mphonyana'. It brought joy to many homes, as South Africans were still fighting the ills of the apartheid system. Unfortunately, Mphonyana died a year after the operation and Mpho died at age 34 on 7 August 2021. Following the death of Mpho, the former North West Premier, Tebogo Mokgoro said the twin's successful operation "demonstrated medical excellence in the South African medical fraternity." Their birth, iconic picture, and song are still engraved in the hearts of many South Africans.
On the Other Hand, The Non-existent 'Tembisa 10'...
South Africans woke up to the joyous article about the birth of 10 "miraculous gifts" (decuplets), dubbed the 'Tembisa 10', but with no evidence of pictures and videos. The exclusive piece was published by Pretoria News. Unlike Mpho le Mphonyana, the only trending picture in national and international media was a heavily pregnant woman, Gosiame Sithole. There is also no specific evidence or information regarding the hospital where the decuplet was born or a team of doctors who played a critical role in saving their lives.
The 'Tembisa 10' brought the media and the Gauteng Department of Health into disrepute which resulted in a legal battle between the Gauteng Department of Health and Pretoria News for non-factual reporting. The matter was probed by the office of the Public Protector, on 31 December 2022, just a few hours before crossing over with the year changed to 2023. Times Live published the Acting Public Protector Adv Kholeka Gcaleka's findings on the 'Tembisa 10' saga. According to Times Live, the investigation showed no record of the birth of a decuplet at any of the hospitals in the Gauteng province.
Questionable Dissemination of News
This news chose one journalist, the editor-in-chief of Pretoria News Piet Rampedi. The birth of the alleged babies was played by ear. In his reportage, Rampedi was allegedly told by Sithole's boyfriend, Teboho Tsotetsi that he cannot come to the hospital because of Covid-19 restrictions. With Rampedi's story, there was no available eyewitness. Sources who should have probably been the first eyewitnesses are Sithole and Tsotetsi. Instead, Tsotetsi testified about the babies that he had not witnessed.
I am made to chew over the saga of the New York Times journalism intern of 2003, Jayson Blair. Blair became an ace reporter for best lead stories. But his editors were not aware that he relied on deceit, plagiarism, and fiction. Similarly to Rampedi who did not witness the existence of the decuplet, Blair had not visited places he wrote about. Blair's information in his stories was from stories written by other journalists (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2014: 269).
Yet again similarly to Rampedi who had no eyewitness evidence but only relied on what appeared to be a heavily pregnant woman and her pictures and telephone interviews, Blair depended on New York Times’ archived pictures and telephone interviews but alleged that he was present at the events. In several of his reportages, Rampedi assumed that the Tembisa 10 was a world record, but he did not supply comments from the Guinness World Records. He further did not get a comment from the hospital in which the babies were allegedly born.
“Show Me the Babies”: How Eyewitnessing and Capturing the Spur of the Moment Prevents Disinformation
The crucial thing that I have learned from veteran journalists is that certain stories cannot be published without photographs. This is pure because true events must be captured, in words and images. Readers need to read, feel and be there as well.
Let us take, for instance, Christmas Day and New Year's Day media coverage of newborn decuplet babies. Such soft news is not scandalous but brings joy to mothers, hospitals, and the country. The same applies to multiple births.
Therefore, the first thing that an editor would require from a journalist covering such jubilant stories is an accompanying photograph. But in the case of Rampedi, the decision lay with him as the editor-in-chief. He played two roles in this piece, a reporter and an editor. As the editor-in-chief, he has the final say on what should or should not be published. Therefore, the first thing that Rampedi should have done was to ask Sithole to “Show me the babies”; because without evidence of the babies, there is no legit story.
Why National and International Journalists Erred
Investigation before publishing is highly important. Authors of the book titled, Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel (2014: 100) state that in this current era whereby news is unfortunately “instantly and continuously available in almost unlimited outlets,” this has put the process of verification under pressure.
The authors elaborate that the sources that lead to this pressure are firstly the temptation that reporters face to publish immediately whilst leaving out the verification process. They explain that some reporters do so because they believe that they can correct any errors after publishing. Secondly, it is also a result of the “impulse to publish news simply because it’s already ‘out there’ in the new networked media system.”
I am a mother and I am a lover of babies. But my journalism critical eye prevails over everything before penning anything down. This is known as the process of fact-checking or verification. I guess the Guinness World Record was the only publication that is in the same boat as myself.
Five W’s and H: Basic Information Gathering Questions
Who, what, when, where, why, and how – are the basic questions that close loopholes in news coverage. It ensures success in a journo’s verification process and without it, the Code of Ethics and Conduct of journalism are likely to be breached.
Although international journalists published the story without fact-checking, Guinness World Records felt it was imperative to investigate. The publication understood the importance of answering these basic information-gathering questions. Journalism is not about what you feel in your heart but what is factual.
How Newsrooms Ensure Success in the Process of Verification
The five W’s and H's are discussed during editorial meetings chaired by a news editor or an assignment editor. Possible stories are discussed and agreed upon. The news editor together with the editor and other heads of department within the newsroom will hold a separate meeting to assess the approved story ideas. The editor will determine what should be published, especially with lead stories or exclusives. These meetings are held to ensure that proper gathering of news is followed and that a journalist is well equipped in their reportage.
After gathering facts, the reporter will pen the story for the day. The story will be sent to the news editor for editing. If the news editor is satisfied with the news coverage, he or she will send it to the sub-editor for sub-editing. Sub-editors play a critical role in identifying factual errors that could lead the publication into lawsuits. The sub-editors will liaise with the reporter to verify facts. After sub-editing, the sub-editor sends the story to the proofreader for accuracy and to the editor for approval and signing off. To avoid any lawsuits, investigative stories will go through the editor and legal team for verification.
However, it is a different case with stories written by editors, and in this context, Rampedi. They are discussed at the management level and sent directly to sub-editors and proofreaders. Authors of Basic Journalism, Gwen Ansell, and Rehana Rossouw (2002: 173) state that "sub-editors are regarded as the gatekeepers on matters of press law; they are supposed to spot potential problems and change, hold or consult on stories that may carry a legal risk for a news organization." Although, the Tembisa 10 was "a feel-good story", the sub-editors of Pretoria News, were supposed to have noticed that there was something amiss about the alleged decuplet and pointed it out.
The Main Ethic Journos Should Uphold
Kovach and Rosenstiel (2014: 97) quote a Greek correspondent's methodology report which explains Thucydides' method of coverage of the Peloponnesian War in the fifth century B.C., "About factual reporting of events ... I have made it a principle not to write down the first story that came my way, and not even to be guided by my general impressions; either I was present myself at the events which I have described or else heard of them from eyewitnesses whose reports I have checked with as much thoroughness as possible. Not that even so the truth was easy to discover: different eyewitnesses have different accounts of the same events, speaking out of partiality for one side or the other, or else from imperfect memories" (Smith, 1991: 35-39).
List of References:
1. Ansell, G. and Rossouw, R. 2002. Basic Journalism. Johannesburg: M&G Books.
2. Gcaleka, K. 2023. Tembisa Decuplets: The PP's Report. Available at:
3. Kovach, B. and Rosenstiel, T. 2014. Elements of Journalism. 3rd ed. New York: Crown Publishing Group.
4. Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, bk. 1 and 2, trans. C. F. Smith (Cambridge Harvard University Press, 1991), 35-39. Cited in: Kovach, B. and Rosenstiel, T. 2014. Elements of Journalism. 3rd ed. New York: Crown Publishing Group.