Don’t give us “he said”, give us the facts

  • Melissa Meyer - 19 March 2013

Sowetan’s misrepresentation of a pregnancy statistic points to an urgent need for a culture of fact checking in journalism

When the people who govern our country make public statements there is bound to be something very newsworthy in their speeches. Reporters make a living picking out those useful bits and selling them to the public as “need to know” information.

As news consumers we trust that information and appreciate that we can get the gist of what was said without having to sit through the proceedings ourselves. It would be real value for the readers’ money, however, if the media first checked and verified those statements before printing them.

Too often information is rehashed uncritically and unchecked, with quotation marks signalling an all-too-common caveat: that this is purely something someone said--not to be mistaken for the truth.

Not only can this lead to the perpetuation of misinformation, but it also undermines our trust in journalists to help us get a sense of what is real and true and what may be made up or exaggerated.

Knowing how the government is really doing (not just hearing how it says it is doing) is a corner stone of democracy. This makes a culture of fact checking essential to good journalism and to critically important for effective governance. (The recently founded “Africacheck” is a much-needed initiative that seeks to grow this kind of culture.)

A commitment towards verifying facts does not suggest a suspicion that politicians are attempting to dupe the public. To the contrary, this approach is often equally beneficial to the journalists and media producers themselves as it ensures that information is presented correctly and accurately, because getting it wrong is a serious loss of face—equally so for politicians attempting to pass off incorrect figures as for journalists misrepresenting data.

Case in point: Last week a rather eye-catching headline in the Sowetan suggested that 28% of schoolgirls are HIV positive. This information seems to have been gleaned from a speech made by the Health Minister on a visit to Carolina in Mpumalanga.

Taking Motsoaledi to be a reputable source, the reporter decided to lead with the rather frightening HIV statistic without making an effort to understand where this information came from or establishing the degree to which it was true.

The result is a headline that gives a very false impression. The most recent statistics suggest that nationally HIV prevalence among girls between the ages of 15 and 19 is about 14%--half of what the headline would have us believe.

It is more likely that the minister, speaking about pregnancy in schools, was referring to HIV prevalence among pregnant girls specifically, where the national average is around 20.5% for women aged 15 to 24.

The minister could also have been referring only to the district in which he made his statement. The reader is not given this information and without it is lead to draw essentially incorrect conclusions about the health of South Africans and by deduction, the ability of the government to keep HIV prevalence in check.

It is worth mentioning that according to the article, Motsoaledi made a number of other interesting statements, including that as of 1 April HIV patients would be receiving a single-dose pill. This innovation is a major simplification for health care staff and patients alike and could easily have also been the lead for the article. 

Press events offer journalists so many opportunities to produce valid and interesting coverage. It is a pity that the resulting reports often offer us little more than snippets and quotes, sometimes even put together in a way that leaves us less informed than before.

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