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Editorial: Beware the cruel noise of Twitter

An emotive issue of vicious school bullying, which led to the death by suicide of a 15-year-old girl from Limpopo, raged on social media sites this week. A few hours before that, the death of a young woman engaged to a celebrity spread like wildfire on social media. Few people considered whether her family knew of her death.

These tragedies shine a light on the irresponsibility of people who decide to share posts naming a woman and a child — and sharing her image. Journalists, too, have a responsibility to take care when writing about such tragedies.

It has become common for images and a graphic video such as the bullying incident at Mbilwi Secondary School in the Nzhelele area of Vhembe municipality to be posted and shared thousands of times.

This should not give the media carte blanche to treat the story in a similar way in its race for clicks.

Unfortunately, journalists have tried to keep up with social media, a medium that does not have the checks and balances that journalism has.

South Africa’s Bill of Rights, which should be the lodestar in all things pertaining to human rights, is explicit about dealing with the dignity of children: “A child’s best interests are of paramount importance in every matter concerning the child.”

Media laws and ethics are also direct in how journalists should handle reporting on children. The Press Code for Ethics and Conduct calls for the “exercise of exceptional care and consideration” when reporting about children. This includes not using images if they will cause harm to a child.

It was sad when we in the media published the names and images of the Limpopo schoolgirls without verifying whether the children’s families had been alerted to the bullying and the subsequent death of one of the girls.

When the alleged bully was arrested, her images were also splashed across websites for no other reason than to lure readers to media platforms. This was illegal, as is clearly stipulated in section 154 of the Criminal Procedure Act.

But it’s not only about children; it’s also about the pain inflicted on those who have lost someone they love. No one would want to find out from the noise on Twitter that their loved one had died.

Social media users and journalists alike have to be cognisant of what is to be published and how this will affect someone else’s life. It’s a click of a button that devastates a child’s life or brings mourning into a family’s home. It’s also worth remembering that as much as journalists should always hold themselves to a high standard, any person sharing information on social media also needs to consider the implications of doing so.

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