/ 29 August 2011

The Sunday Times feels the strong arm of social media

Sunday Times editor Ray Hartley’s explanation about his newspaper’s controversial front page has left users of social networks as skeptical as ever.

South Africans on Twitter and Facebook erupted into a small outcry over an outdated image of a “Facebook racist”. Last Sunday the paper published an image of a white man holding a rifle and kneeling next to the body of a young black child.

The story details how the Hawks have launched an investigation into the posting of a racist photograph on a Facebook profile also included comment from two Cabinet ministers and several children’s rights organisations, condemning the image.

The picture was posted on the profile of user “Eugene TerrorBlanche” — a reference to slain white supremacist Eugene Terre’Blanche.

But it wasn’t the shocking image that set Twitter and Facebook abuzz on Sunday. In the article, the Sunday Times makes no mention of previous reports of the image appearing on Facebook and consequent media reports, even though their daily sister publication — the Times — ran a story about the incident at the same time as other publications did in 2008.

‘Still relevant’
Hartley insisted that the story was still relevant during an interview on Radio 702 on Monday.

“I’ve got to say right away that this is not an old story,” he told host Chris Gibbons. “There was a story published several years ago about a student from Potchefstroom who was expelled after he was involved in a Facebook group [for] a similar image. It could well have been this image, but it was never published so it’s hard to say.”

He suggested the image was hijacked and recycled on the profile that formed the basis of his newspaper’s story, and denied that the article insinuated that the man in the image was the person police were after. “We were very clear in our story: not saying that the police want the person in the image. In fact, in our sub-headline on page one, we said they were looking for the person behind the image.”

The editor maintained that the story was an important one. “This story is about 2011. This picture is up on the Facebook profile of someone called Eugene Terrorblanche. It’s someone we’ve been monitoring very closely on Facebook for several months now [who] has posted a lot of very inflammatory, very racist and very dangerous things.”

He likened the Facebook user to the man behind the violent Norway killings by a rightwing fundamentalist in July. “That was very much at the top of our minds. You get the feeling that someone is on the edge of doing something very bad.”

But Hartley’s attempts to soothe the outrage were met with mixed reaction.

“Ray Hartley now seems to have a regular Monday Afternoon Please Explain It slot on 702,” tweeted columnist Marianne Thamm.

Author Max du Preez said on Twitter: “I found Ray Hartley’s explanations wholly unconvincing.” Politicsweb editor James Myburgh replied: “Maybe Avusa is actually trying to deter Capitau from swallowing it up by going all toxic,” in reference to the due diligence the paper’s holding company is in the middle of with potential buyers Capitau.

Eyewitness News broke the original story about the image in May 2008. This was then followed up by the Mail & Guardian, Beeld, and the Times.

Hartley was editor of the Times when the original story was run.

Many on social media networks felt the newspaper was sensationalist in printing the article and accompanying photograph.

Media commentator Eusebius McKaiser questioned the reporting and editing processes at the paper.

“So it turns out the front page story of the Sunday Times is years old. Conclusion?” The systems at [Sunday Times publisher] Avusa failed,” he posted on his Facebook wall.

Hartley responded, arguing the article remained newsworthy.

“Eusebius — The fact remains that this image has been published NOW, in 2011. We reported on the fact that the police want to know the identity of the person/persons who published the image along with a series of recent racist remarks. There has been no ‘system failure’, except that Facebook allows such images to continue to be published,” he said in reply to McKaiser.

The status update resulted in a lengthy conversation thread with numerous users decrying the article.

“I don’t buy Ray’s justification,” said Rob Van Hille. “If they were not aware it being an old story it smacks of shoddy journalism and poor editorial oversight.”

The criticism also flowed freely on Twitter, with many users worried about the credibility of the Sunday Times.

“Last week Sunday Times invents DA R1bn contract story. Now makes right wing idiot pic famous. How good can paper be if Facebook is a source?” tweeted comedian John Vlismas.

Hartley later tweeted: “Our story is about an extremely racist image being published on Facebook now, in 2011. We must find the person who published this image.”

Trying times
The Sunday Times also came into criticism earlier in August for an apparent exposé into a dodgy tender awarded by the Western Cape provincial government — ruled by the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA).

After several complaints by the party’s leader Helen Zille, the paper followed up with several responses from the opposition leader and TBWA — the company involved in the tenders — disputing the story in its entirety.

The story also comes at a time when Avusa — the company which owns the Sunday Times — is facing additional controversies over questionable editorial judgment at one of its other titles, the Sowetan.

At the beginning of August, the tabloid published an image of a police officer and a correctional services officer engaged in a sexual act while on duty.

This followed a furore over the publishing of inflammatory columns on the publication by Eric Miyeni and Kuli Roberts, both of which resulted in their dismissal.

“They appear to be going through a rough patch. Everybody wants to sell papers but when you start blowing up stories you immediately lose your credibility,” head of the Wits School of Journalism Professor Anton Harber told the M&G.

The latest report attracted global attention as it was picked up by international new agency Agence-France Presse, the Washington Post and the Huffington Post.

Meanwhile, Hartley acknowledged in the interview that the newspaper should have referenced previous articles about the photograph. “I really do think we should have, but this is not a repetition of that story. This is a new story of someone doing this as we speak.”