In what is seen as a victory for the gay community, and for the practice of good journalism, the press ombudsman has reprimanded the Saturday Star newspaper for contravening the press code in its recent “Blood Wars” story.

A complaint to the ombudsman was filed by Ian McMahon, head of Cape Town Pride, following the sensationalistic front page article on the 14th of January about the supposed mass donation of blood by gay men in protest against the South African National Blood Service (SANBS). The protest is thought to never have taken place; the SANBS not finding any unusual activity in its donations.

The article led to a flood of outrage from GLBTI organizations and individuals who slated the newspaper for basing the piece on little more than outrageous press releases from the discredited Gay and Lesbian Alliance (GLA). The Saturday Star refused to apologise for the report.

The press ombudsman found that:

“In these times of widespread scams, hoaxes, computer hackers, fraudulent e-mails and other calls on the general public to suspend its critical faculties, it is essential for a newspaper to question the credentials of informants and the validity of claims they make. Failure to do so can have serious consequences, equivalent to shouting Fire in a crowded cinema. The rules of ethical professional practice place an obligation on newspapers to check and corroborate information in order to achieve the aim of truthful, accurate and fair reporting.

The Saturday Star admits that the GLA may have exaggerated some of its claims and says it did all that was possible given the time restraints to check before publication.

It appears from what the Saturday Star says that that effort was confined to contacting the blood transfusion service, who “found it difficult to check the veracity of GLA claims”, and the Triangle Project which criticised the GLA’s tactics. The photographs provided by the GLA were of anonymous people and without verification that these were GLA members unsure oft heir HIV status, they did not add to the authenticity of the report.

That was inadequate.

Moreover, the report was written in a way that conveyed the impression that it was factually accurate. The headline and first three paragraphs are statements of fact without attribution to anyone. It leaves the impression that the Saturday Star is sure of those facts. It goes on to quote David Baxter of the GLA stating categorically that 65 per cent of its members who donated blood on Friday were unsure whether they were HIV-positive and that one had full-blown Aids.

When the representatives of the blood transfusion service and the Triangle Project are quoted, nothing is included about their doubts about the GLA’s claims or its credentials. That leaves the readers with the impression that there may be blood in the transfusion service that came from people who are HIV-positive.

That does not square with the Saturday Star’s acceptance that the GLA may have exaggerated some of its claims and of its awareness of the allegations against the GLA by other gay and lesbian organisations.

The Saturday Star says it should not accept unquestioned the claims against the GLA. It is equally true that the Saturday Star should not accept unquestioned the claims by the GLA. If the Saturday Star did have doubts about the GLA’s claims, it certainly does not appear so from the published report.

The Saturday Star is held to have contravened paragraphs 1.3 and 1.4 of the press code.”

In addition, the Saturday Star has been ordered to publish the following with appropriate prominence in its next available issue:

“Complaints were made to the Press ombudsman that the front page report headlined “Gays launch blood war” in the Saturday Star on January 14 was published without adequate checks on the Gay and Lesbian Alliance and the accuracy of it statements.

The press ombudsman has found that the Saturday Star contravened the press code of professional practice in two respects.

The first requires that only what may reasonably be true having regard to the sources of the news may be presented as facts, and such facts shall be published fairly with due regard to context and importance. Where a report is not based on facts or is founded on opinion, allegation, rumor or suspicion, it shall be presented in such manner as to indicate this clearly.

The second requires that where there is reason to doubt the accuracy of a report and it is practicable to do, it shall be verified. Where it has not been practicable to verify the accuracy of a report, this shall be mentioned.

These provisions of the press code are among those whereby newspapers may achieve the aim of truthful, accurate and fair reporting.

The Saturday Star is reprimanded.

E H Limington

Press ombudsman

27 January 2006”

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