opinion piece: Journalist’s role is to tell story, not to intervene and influence outcome

IT WAS always going to be a story that would get readers hot under the collar: a three-year-old dying after being attacked by a pack of dogs, and enraged residents of Sweet Valley Farm in Philippi turning their anger on neighbourhood strays. 

The pictures spoke for themselves; the image of pathos, the small lumpy mound of Philasanda Mbokothola’s body covered by a blanket a few feet from his home, and the others, of men and women with rocks and spades and sticks attacking the dogs.
The e-mails came in thick and fast. Most people who wrote in condemned the people pictured on our front page for their assault on the “defenceless” strays. One went as far as calling them “barbarians”. For another the key issue was teenage pregnancies. Highlighting the fact that the mother was just 19, she questioned the fitness of such young parents for caring for children, and the values of the society which allowed girls to become mothers at such a young age.
One reader asked why the photo-grapher and I had not stopped the attack on the dogs.
Journalists often face moral dilemmas that arise over their values as individuals and their role as journalists. Our job as journalists, indeed our value to society, is to tell the story as it unfolds and resist the temptation to intervene as moral or concerned individuals since the desire to exercise such individual morality risks undermining our purpose and value.
Had the photographer put down his camera and helped to save the dog in that one isolated incident, it is almost certain that there would not have been the ensuing important public debate, or the concerted effort by the authorities and animal welfare organisations to confront the serious problem of stray dogs and animal care in the metropole.
Had there been no photograph, or public outcry as a result, stray dogs would still be roaming in Sweet Home Farm, other children would be at risk, yet more dogs would incur the wrath of frustrated people.
Within days of our reporting, a new forum was established to tackle the problem of stray dogs, which are estimated to number at least 230 000.
As animal rights activist Toni Brockhoven notes in a letter to the Cape Argus: “A child had to die and become headlines before this matter was addressed.”
For me, what was especially disturbing and emotionally worrying about the reaction to the story was that the respondents – most of them – seemed to care more about animals than people. A human tragedy had occurred; a young mother lost her son. The child was as vulnerable as the dogs; neither chose to grow up in a place like Sweet Home Farm.
The attack on the dogs is inseparable from the poverty and hopelessness of this Philippi settlement. Sometimes, people’s sense of helplessness robs them of the kind of values that others may expect of them. To criticise Sweet Home Farm residents and label them “barbarians” – or suggest, as one seemingly well-educated, middle-class reader did in an e-mail, that they should be “be stoned to death, the lot of them” – is to ignore the circumstances that led to the development of communities such as this. If you are an unemployed adult living in squalor and a dog attacks and kills your child, or a neighbour’s child, your reaction is likely to be desperate.
In the days that followed, residents were giving up their dogs, most out of fear that they would be attacked by others should another child die in an attack. It is not, after all, uncommon: SPCA inspectors said they had responded to at least 10 dog-related attacks in the area in June.
If journalists have a helpful role to play in circumstances where children are mauled by dogs, or where powerless people react brutally to assert some control over circumstances not of their making, it is to remind society that its best ideals are threatened most by the existence of squalid, hopeless places with cruelly ironic names like Sweet Home Farm.

first published on 07 July 2011

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