Both sides must have their say

IT'S GOOD to be back atSowetan - albeit in the new guise of Public Editor.

IT'S GOOD to be back atSowetan - albeit in the new guise of Public Editor.

The past few weeks have given me an opportunity to peep into the lives of people from a different vantage point.

Strangely, this insight comes from people's misunderstanding of what this office is all about.

A pleasant surprise was getting the nicest letter ever from a lawyer representing someone who had been rubbed up the wrong way because of how they appeared in the newspaper.

It pertained to a report in Sowetan of Friday July 3 about Internet cafés on Rockey Street in Yeoville, Johannesburg. The cafés were found to be dens of forgery; where one could buy fraudulent identity documents, bank statements and pay slips the same way a child buys sweets from a spaza shop.

Lawyer Lawley Shein claimed his clients, Toure Taliba and Hady Sow, the owners of Rocky Print, one of the shops, were neither party to nor aware of any illegal activities at their shop. All that he wanted was for his clients to state their side of the story. That's it - no threats to sue, no ultimatums.

True, the owners were not given the opportunity to respond to the damaging exposé. After I intervened, Sowetan published a grovelling article on July 16, giving the owners of Rocky Print a chance to state their case. Fair enough.

This is journalism 101 stuff. That there are two sides to a story - sometimes even more.

But there are sometimes legitimate reasons for breaching this sacrosanct rule. The South African Press Code of Conduct states: "A publication should usually seek the views of the subject of serious critical reportage in advance of publication; provided that this need not be done where the publication has reasonable grounds for believing that by doing so it would be prevented from publishing the report or where evidence might be destroyed or witnesses intimidated."

Why then did Sowetan feel obliged to run the grovelling article about the shop that read like a press release from the café's publicity department?

My take on it is that it would have been enough for the newspaper to simply state, for the record, that the owners of the shop say they and their staff are not party to any criminal activity at their shop; that they give total privacy to their customers and are not aware of what customers use their printers for.

Instead, Sowetan opted for a trick often used by newspapers when they want to correct mistakes without admitting having erred in the first place or to avoid apologising.

The "row-back", as some in the industry call it, is a follow-up article in which the newspaper repackages the story as if it was new. It is a win-win solution in which all are supposed to emerge unscathed: the subject says what he or she wants; the newspaper "wins" in that it avoids the embarrassment of having gotten things wrong.

But the tool, which I admit having used in the past, can be abused and the victory it wins the newspaper is somewhat pyrrhic.

Although intended to protect the image of the newspaper, it can harm integrity. Readers who learn how horrible someone is one day, are left wondering how the same guy comes out smelling of roses the next day or week.

Such readers rightly feel short-changed.