There have been times when I have been ashamed to be part of the media industry: this week was one of those.
The role that the media played in the virtual destruction of a poor family’s life in the Western Cape this week cannot be overlooked.
Before he became the focus of media attention in the mistaken belief that he had won R91 million in the national lottery’s Powerball competition last Friday, Stanley Philander lived a quiet life in the backyard of a relative’s home in Parkwood, Cape Town. Like so many other Cape Flats families, Philander lives in a Wendy house at the back of relative’s property.
On Sunday, a tabloid ran an interview with the deaf man who works as a cleaner at a Wynberg store, complete with a picture identifying him as the person who had won R91 million. Within hours of the newspaper hitting the newsstands, Philander and his wife had to go into hiding.
I could not believe when I heard on radio how the presenter identified Philander as the winner. Later I could not believe when I saw his picture in a newspaper.
I recalled one of the first stories I did as a young reporter: it dealt with a man from Elsies River who had won a huge jackpot and had to go into hiding as relatives he never knew suddenly came out of the woodwork and everybody else wanted to get their hands on his money.
Two days later, it has been learnt that though Philander had the correct numbers, he had the wrong date on his ticket. Instead of Friday’s date (February 12), his ticket was dated February 16.
One of the basic rules of journalism is that you need to verify information before you publish anything. Clearly, the person who wrote the original story did not verify that the information was correct before deciding to publish. Surely, the reporter should have asked to have a look at the ticket?
In this case, I don’t only blame the reporter and photographer. I also blame the editors who must have salivated at the thought of publishing this “exclusive” story.
The fact that all the other media followed their lead shows the “hunting in packs” mentality that has gripped the media in this country. Just because one media outlet says something, everybody else believes it to be true.
To their credit, the Cape Argus decided to inspect the “winning” ticket, but only a day after they already carried a front-page article on the “lotto winner”.
Now that their “scoop” has been proven to be untrue, it will be interesting to see if anyone in the media industry will take responsibility for their actions. Will anybody apologise to the family for invading their privacy and effectively destroying their lives?
I think not. We are not known to take responsibility for our actions in an industry where we thrive on trying to make sure that everybody else accounts for their actions. Somebody in the media industry owes Mr Philander and his family a huge apology.
(First published on the Mail and Guardian's Thoughtleader site on 16 February 2010)