Renee’s Golden Rules

In my years as a sub-editor on South African newspapers, and as a trainer, I wrote some training materials. Below is one that’s intended as a one-page guide to the basic legal rules applying to SA journalism. It was first published on my sister Gill Moodie’s site Grubstreet:


Court reporting:
1. Children who are the victims of sex assault of any kind can’t be named. Accused people under the age of 18 also can’t be named. Rape victims in general are not named, unless they choose otherwise.
2. Traditionally, people who have not yet pleaded to a charge involving rape or sex assault can’t be named. This one’s under debate but your job as a sub is to tell a senior staffer if you are worried.
3. A person is NOT GUILTY until the judge or magistrate has said otherwise. Further, a story should never make a judgment that only a judge can make – so you can’t say that someone lied in the dock or that one thing contradicted another – only the judge can decide on that. You can only report what was said – no editorialising of any kind.
4. A court story should not contain comment about the proceedings.
5. Prior to the start of a court case, or during it, you can’t publish information which might affect the court case. Eg a man is on trial for bribery and corruption, and someone in his company comes forward with financial statements that are not part of the court record – in theory the newspaper can’t publish these while the case is in progress. An editor might decide to do it anyway – your job is to alert your superiors if you see this happening.
6. If someone has prior convictions for other crimes, these can’t be considered by the court till judgment has been passed. They also can’t be written about.

General reporting

There are all kinds of complexities about defamation and pre-conviction and such: in general, you cannot go wrong if you apply the following thought to a story: Is anyone in this story being accused of something bad? (eg robbery, or cheating a customer, or bullying a classmate, or cutting down an old tree, or being a racist, or running down a cat, or insulting a neighbour … you get the picture). Rule of thumb: if you were this person’s mother, would the accusation/s make you cross? If that’s the case, sit up and read it carefully. Apply the rules below and all will be well:
1. Does the story make it crystal clear that these accusations are allegations and not statements of fact? If not, rewrite to make that the case.
2. Does the story have the accused person’s/company’s point of view, or has an attempt been made to contact them – if not, then tell a senior staffer. If there is comment, do all the accusations have a responding comment.?
3. Sometimes the accused person can’t be contacted (eg a man in a vehicle with a company logo picks up, then assaults a hitchhiker). You won’t have comment from the bad guy – but if the story carries comment from the company, that helps. And the story is better if it carries police confirmation of the assault.
4. If the story is about a matter in which a court case is pending, be careful of anything which pre-convicts the accused, or the person who might be accused of the crime. So, don’t say the intruder dressed in the red T-shirt murdered the woman (only a judge can decide when it is murder). Rather, the woman was killed, allegedly by an intruder in a red T-shirt. Sitting in your office, you don’t know how she died!

* Renee Moodie is deputy editor of Independent Online. She has 25 years sub-editing experience on Cape Town print and online publications.