MAHLATSE MAHLASE: The big fat lie of 10 babies and its effect on the media
Journalism the world over faces a crisis of trust. The reasons for the trust deficit are plentiful and varied. Those who rule to steal and pillage, attack the profession to hide the truth about their misrule and misdeeds.
In South Africa, as sure night follows day, politicians caught with their hands in the cookie jar will scream “fake news”, “white monopoly capital”, “Stratcom”, “ThumaMina minions” or any number of other accusations in order to discredit journalists and divert the public’s attention from their looting. It also dilutes some of these serious issues that we should be aware of as a country.
Others don’t trust the media because they think having something to say, being able to afford data, possessing a social media account and an ability to type makes them journalists.
Mistrust also deepens when the media fails to reflect the lived experiences and voices of South Africans.
And sometimes we, as reporters, score own goals by failing to do the journalism.
Not all stories are easy to cover - some are complex, depend on classified information, have multiple sides, varied actors and manipulative sources.
But there are some stories we just can’t get wrong, and top of that list should be the birth of decuplets.
The “exclusive” story by Independent Media Group’s Pretoria News and IOL on Thembisa parents who welcomed a birth of 10 babies was a spectacular failure that played out on the world stage. It was not journalism, yet it has massive ramifications for the media’s relationship of trust with the public, and exposed some deep fault lines.
We should not term it “fake news” but rather call what it is – a big fat lie.
Nine days after the story was published, Independent Media has written several articles on the topic. Yet, to date has failed to produce a single shred of evidence that the woman was indeed pregnant with ten babies or that the babies were born.
The closest thing to evidence was a series of pictures, taken on a single day, showing the woman with an extremely oversized stomach.
Journalism is about asking many questions, repeatedly, to different people, assessing the evidence, and coming to a conclusion as an independent person. This is why stories are double checked in newsrooms – there’s a whole structure that’s meant to pick up questions a reporter might have missed and check their bias. Equally crucial is questioning the motives of one’s sources.
The first red flag about the story was the sheer coincidence that it came a month after a Mali woman gave birth to nine babies. Such pregnancies are exceedingly rare. Yet, shortly after that birth, a South African supposedly followed with 10. In fact, the interview by Independent was done the very month the Mali woman gave birth.
But in the full month that the publication sat on the story, they did not find a single medical professional who confirmed treating the woman, who could independently confirm the miracle pregnancy and subsequent birth.
Nor did they ask for the birthing plan that would have answered whether the best in the country were deployed, whether the hospital was adequately resourced and what support government would give.
We were all willing to accept and respect religious and cultural practices as the reason for not showing us the ultrasound scan or pictures of newly born babies. But what is the excuse for not telling us who the lead obstetrician was?
A series of subsequent stories sought to cover up the original lie, which in and of themselves lacked empathy, and only succeeded in deepening confusion.
One story blamed the supposed mother for concealing her whereabouts while painting the father as a loving dad desperate to see his kids (nevermind that he risked COVID-19 and flew over 1,500 km to collect R1-million cheque while his babies - born prematurely at 29 weeks - would have been fighting for their lives).
A fundraising campaign was launched the day after the first story appeared, complete with banking details, and at a time when the cracks in the story were already apparent.
Then the father called it quits, stating now he didn’t believe that the babies were born at all. The Independent Media group then found the mother, who told said that she knew where her babies were and promised to reveal them when she was ready.
Then, as if the plot wasn’t thick enough, boom! The group defended the story and publicly demanded government to tell them where the babies are. That story listed a series of questions, answers to which should have been sought as part of the reporting on the original story.
The journalist, Piet Rampedi asked the public to trust him as he launched an investigation into his own exclusive story.
The group made malicious claims of neglect, incompetence and non-functioning incubators, that possibly led either to the death of the babies or a stillbirths. It made a mockery of the real stories of pain and misery inflicted by our buckling public health system on poor South Africans.
This is, of course, despite their initial story (the one that they are “standing by”), reporting that the babies were born at a public hospital in Pretoria. The Gauteng Health Department released a statement last week saying they had no record of the decuplets being born at any of the province's private and public facilities.
The story also failed the transparency test - all interested parties, when reached, referred all journalists and even government officials to Rampedi, the journalist who wrote the story in the first place.
On the face of it, someone lied. At best, the journalist fell for a made-up story hook, line and sinker, forgetting about journalism 101. At worst, this was an elaborate scam to steal from a public that was willing to help the family in need.
Journalism is on the ropes, newspaper circulation is down (before this story was published, Pretoria News was at 1,800 copies a day), competition for clicks online is stiff and advertising revenue has dwindled, presenting an existential crisis for the media. But we will not turn the corner if we dumb down.
Neither can we blame our sources for our failure to do the journalism.
The story also showed that the divisions within the industry, often times engineered by politicians, have found resonance with some people.
Social media was littered with insults against journalists who dared to raise alarm bells. They were vilified and accused of being jealous of “the best journalist in the country” who has taken on the establishment, some argued.
It has taken a long while for this country to accept that there are no angels and devils in our politics, just self-serving politicians who shift allegiance to fill their stomachs and fund their lifestyles. It’s even more reason for the media to be united in the pursuit of truth.
We should remain critical of each other to build on our democracy and help the public decipher truth from fiction.
There were points in this strange chapter in which many journalists wanted to leave the debate to preserve their sanity, but we should never do that. Remaining silent means the lie is not countered and there is no accountability.
But crucially, we need a discerning public that always calls out below-par journalism and defends those who strive to serve them with distinction.
Mahlatse Mahlase is group editor-in-chief at Eyewitness News. You can follow her on Twitter on @hlatseentle.