Two days ago a young woman named Khuthi tweeted a story that left many on South African Twitter heartbroken. In a thread of 70 tweets she shared about her friend, Kamo, who was brutally abducted and raped in Johannesburg, South Africa. It was chilling. It was horrific. It was sad. And it was easy to believe because these things happen in our society on a daily basis. #RIPKamo and #JusticeforKamo were trending. People sent her messages in solidarity. Some told her they would pray for her. Others felt sorry for her and a few empathized too. She thanked them.
BUT. IT. WAS. NOT. TRUE.
A reputable daily newspaper, The Star, has been under fire for publishing the story based on the Twitter tale without doing basic fact checking which, as it turns out, some Twitter users did because they just weren’t buying it. It’s embarrassing for the paper but it’s also a good lesson to all in the SA media, it reminds us that in order to do justice to stories we need to do our due diligence and avoid chasing deadlines more than we chase the truth. Why? Because stories like this do so much harm.
This reminds me of an ethical case that we studied last semester. It was on a Rolling Stone article that told the story of a woman who alleged she was gang raped by fellow students on campus at the University of Virginia (UVA). A week after the story was published the journalist started to recount the story. She started to question her reporting and so did journalists at other publications. She realised she had made a horrible mistake. The woman’s story had loopholes. The journalist had not done her due diligence. The story had to be retracted.
The journalist had gone into the story with the vision of highlighting the problem of rape on campus and failures by university systems to adequately deal with these investigations. She worked with a counselor on campus who put her in touch with a young woman who was willing to talk. In gruesome detail the woman, known only to us as Jackie, shared the story of how the gang rape happened at this frat party. She didn’t want to name the one guy in the group that she could identify. According to her story he had invited her to the party. He was her date. She didn’t want to share his full name because she was afraid of him and what he would do to her if he was named in the story. The journalist understood that. She asked for his last name off the record. Jackie struggled to spell his last name and even though the journalist’s warning bells sounded at that point – she ignored her instincts. She figured Jackie was reliable because she had found her through the councillor. She didn’t check.
Her mistake wasn’t believing Jackie. Her mistake was not verifying that all the characters Jackie included in her story existed – that what she said about them added up. For example Jackie said the guy who invited her to the party was a lifeguard she worked with and a member of the frat. After the story came out, this was the first thing the journalist tried to verify. There was a guy she worked at the pool with but he wasn’t a member of the frat so he couldn’t have been the guy. There were also three friends she claimed to have called immediately after the rape. She said they had discouraged her from reporting the guy. Again something the journalist could have verified but didn’t. It turned out that the name she had given these three friends was completely different from the one she had given the journalist and she had made up their quotes too.
She wrote a story about rape based on a single source. You can’t do that it’s Journalism 101.
The Columbia Journalism Review did a great job at breaking down the story and where the failures of the journalist and the publication could be pinpointed.
For me, it was an eye-opening story to read. One that showed me that I need to be so careful when I report about things I am emotionally invested in because the fact is I could do so much harm to a bigger issue by not telling the best and most accurate story possible.
Each of these two failures in journalism are a problem because the intentions are good but as they say “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. The intention was to give this story of rape national attention. To raise awareness on the atrocities that women face in societies where the justice system often fails them and media is a form of justice they can get by having their voices heard. There IS rape on campus that often ends up being buried or under reported. This happens across the world. There ARE women who are raped brutally and left for dead. This too happens across the world.
But when the story is false it perpetuates this idea that many women lie about rape. It perpetuates the thinking that rape is not as big a problem as people make it out to be and only a few isolated incidents occur. It undermines the bravery of survivors who choose to lay charges and speak out about their experience because some women lie about rape. It shifts the debate. It highlights the wrong thing. It undermines the legitimacy of the point that was supposed to be made.
It hurts. It hurts those people who have been victims of rape. Those who have survived and those who have died. Those who reported the crime and nothing was done. Those who reported the crime and something was done. They were interrogated. They were questioned. They had to prove it happened. They had to fight to be heard but no one listened and even those who did – did nothing about it.
It hurts the true stories. The ones we need to hear. The ones we need to share. The ones that need awareness. The ones who need their justice.
I was broken by the Kamo story. I was even more broken by the fact that is wasn’t true. I was hurt by the jokes that ensued afterward because I was hurt that people weren’t more hurt that someone would lie about something so important. Something so real to so many people. Something that people identified with, that people related too and even wept for.
I don’t understand why Jackie lied. I don’t know why Khuthi lied either. I just don’t get it.
It’s not okay to lie about rape. It’s not fair. It’s not funny.
P.S. Here’s a story about rape by Pro Publica that highlights how sometimes the law gets it wrong and discourages women from pursuing their right of recourse through the justice system.