Ubuntu in Germany Column

RTL story about HIV schoolgirls shows how foreigners see South Africa

(Editor: Alex Smit-Stachowski is speaking in her column about life as a South African now living in Germany. The South African journalist lives in Krefeld, in North Rhine-Westphalia/ Germany).

Every third schoolgirl in South Africa is HIV-positive! The German television RTL ran an incorrect story on a weekend in March 2013 about sugardaddies who target young teens for sex in exchange for money or presents. On the face of it – it’s another typical another day in Africa. Aids, underage sex and no values – what do you expect from a Third World country being run by the locals? I am fed-up with such shoddy reporting about Africa.

© The German television RTL reported that every third schoolgirl in South Africa is HIV-positive! A journalist from the newspaper Sowetan misunderstood a report on statistics. RTL has adopted wrong information, said Ubuntu columnist Alex Smit-Stachowski. (Source: flickr/ Joseph A Ferris III)

© The German television RTL reported that every third schoolgirl in South Africa is HIV-positive! A journalist from the newspaper Sowetan misunderstood a report on statistics. RTL has adopted wrong information, said Ubuntu columnist Alex Smit-Stachowski. (Source: flickr/ Joseph A Ferris III)

An average TV viewer will see the report, believe it at face-value and think the worst. It turns out the report was not verified. A journalist from the Sowetan, the daily newspaper in Johannesburg misunderstood a report on statistics talking about a small group of schools in Kwa-Zulu Natal. This was soon snapped up by the news agency Sapa and soon spread abroad – to be used by Aljazeera, the UK’s Independent and here in Germany.

German news agency, dpa did not use the story but other Germany outlets did, without verifying the facts. Critics would be right in saying, the story came from South Africa, was incorrect in the first place and the international agencies just ran with it – so the fault should lie with the South African news sources. As a seasoned journalist, one knows – the buck stops with us – it’s up to the publisher to double-check, not the source. Others might say, so the HIV rate among young girls is not 30% but 13% is also very high. Yes, 13% is high but is one in 10, versus one in three.

The problem with such lurid stories is that they remain in our consciousness. CNN and other news outlets have been reporting about Africa for years as the continent with dying babies covered in flies and corrupt black leaders – that even after the FIFA© World Cup, coverage soon returned from happy kids playing barefoot soccer in the townships to hopeless HIV statistics and crime spiraling out of control.

I used to book films and TV content for African airlines. A prerequisite from them was any programming about Africa – must not come from Discovery, National Geographic or any foreign licensor. Content from and by Africans was what they wanted to see. Some might wonder why? It is simple – Africans are aware of problems at home but are also proud of our achievements, our strengths and our possibilities. Shows highlighting local fashion designers, aspiring musicians, politicians who are helping their communities and showing the best places to visit are welcomed.

© Alex Smit-Stachowski, Souh African journalist living in Krefeld, in North Rhine-Westphalia/ Germany. She is carrying the Ubuntu in Germany Column on “SÜDAFRIKA – Land der Kontraste”, the German Gateway to South Africa.

© Alex Smit-Stachowski, Souh African journalist living in Krefeld, in North Rhine-Westphalia/ Germany. She is carrying the Ubuntu in Germany Column on “SÜDAFRIKA – Land der Kontraste”, the German Gateway to South Africa.

So when RTL, a leading TV channel runs a story about well-to-do older men taking advantage of poor and impressionable young virgins – of course, the majority of German viewers will take the story at face value. It reinforces the stereotype about blacks being more up for sex plus be willing to do anything for extra cash. Besides this false impression, this report also discourages future tourists. Who wants to visit a country where one in three schoolgirls is HIV-positive? Many Germans still believe HIV afflicts gay men – going to a country with such a high HIV rate certainly would put off most traditional Germans.

The story has been run and the damage done. In future, all news agencies need to go back to fact-checking and confirming sources. Too many news agencies report on stories which are reported on as hearsay or assumptions from secondary sources. I know that time is of the essence and that in many cases, it is not possible to double-check but I hope that news channels will take a few minutes to confirm the facts. The long-lasting consequences outweigh the temporary newsworthiness.

Here is the offensive clip:

http://www.rtl.de/cms/news/rtl-aktuell/suedafrika-sugar-daddys-verbreiten-hiv-unter-maedchen-2cfa9-51ca-50-1453315.html

Here is the confirmation that the HIV ‘facts’ are wrong:

http://mg.co.za/article/2013-03-22-media-reports-that-third-of-schoolgirls-have-hiv-is-incorrect

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3 Antworten zu “Ubuntu in Germany Column

  1. Pingback: RTL-Korrespondentin in Afrika | SÜDAFRIKA - Land der Kontraste

  2. Detlev Reichel

    Baie dankie, Alex, vir hierdie kommentaar. It doesn’t surprise me, though, that RTL runs a story like that. Too often journalism is mistaken for sensationalism. The ever accelerating chase after news, the extraordinary „unique“ story and scoop, of course, is a dangerous trap in which any-one of us can fall. Even the respected Redi Thlabi of Talk Radio 702 went for this one.

    • Alex Smit-Stachowski

      Thanks for the feedback, Detlev. Ja, jy het reg. Many journos were equally lazy and didn’t check the facts but – it’s all the more damaging when such reports are flighted. Much harder to correct the wrong impression with a retraction afterwards. TV makes a strong impact….
      I guess the ideal situation would be to have news that is full of impact and colour but which is factually based!
      For instance, RTL could do a story on the Aids orphanages – these could do with foreign investment – those babies and young kids left without families due to this sickness are the silent victims.
      They could partner with the Soul City Foundation and work actively to present the good that the social services are doing in the community.
      The stories are there – we just need the foreign press to be committed to taking it further.

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