Many people at the receiving end of media focus on the basis of information obtained from “sources” about them are often at a loss as regards how it can possibly be permissible for a journalist to publish information about them without ever having spoken to them to check the accuracy of the information.

Not so long ago, the South African Minister of Finance found himself in that position when a headline in a Sunday newspaper screamed:

“Tito Really Wants Out”

He tweeted that the newspaper had not spoken to him for the story. The story itself did not cite “official” sources. It consisted entirely of inferences from the Minister’s past tweets.

In another more recent story, an online publication published a story quoting the Chairman of the South African Medical Research Council as saying cases of malnutrition at Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital were seen “for the first time” in May 2020 amid the hard lockdown imposed ostensibly to combat covid-19 in South Africa. The publication had not fact checked the assertion because, said the editor

“What she says matters and is deserving of publicity.”

The malnutrition story was subsequently disputed by the Minister of Health in an official cri de coeur, resulting in the publication issuing an ex post facto  “clarification”, with the editor later tweeting that he did not have to do a fact check since the person in question was an authority.

There appears to be disagreement among media experts on this view. One media expert and fact-checker is quoted as saying in a tweet:

“I strongly disagree. Journalists aren’t scribes. And no expert gets it right all the time. At the very least, the journalist should have established if Prof Gray had direct knowledge of the claim she was making about child malnutrition at Bara … The kind of journalism that publishes unverified claims and correct them later is not the kind of journalism that will help the industry build trust…”

So, what exactly are the ethics of fact checking in South African journalism?

This paper explores that question and finds the answer at the highest possible echelons of South African journalism, the South African Press Appeal Panel.

Read Full Analysis and Review here:To Fact Check or Not – Journalism and Ethics in South Africa