A newspaper report of an SA Navy frigate gun firing a 76 mm round into Simon’s Town, denounced as fake news, elicited an apology from Melanie Peters, Weekend Argus Sunday Editor.
The IOL (Independent Online) website carries the apology, dated 3 February in response to its 30 January report. The report was termed “unsubstantiated and baseless” by the SA National Defence Force (SANDF).
“It is disingenuous and irresponsible to report on unverified information that has potential to cause panic among citizens,” the SANDF responded, adding people “should guard against speculative reports aimed at causing unnecessary panic”.
The newspaper apology reads, in full: “Although definitely not the first time an unfortunate naval firing incident has happened over the years, it would seem that we, like many of our readers, were the recipients of fake news doing the rounds over the weekend.
“The news desk received calls from Simon’s Town residents who raised concerns about a navy exercise that they believed had gone wrong in the naval dockyard on Friday.
“Our reporter immediately made phone calls to try to verify the information. This included emergency services and the navy. An email was sent to the Navy’s media office, phone calls were made and WhatsApp messages were sent. But we received no response.
“We continued to pursue the story, as we are duty-bound to seek the truth and provide a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues.
“Our reporter received information from a highly placed source in emergency services, that a contact in the navy had said that an incident had taken place but they were handling it ‘in-house’.
“Unfortunately, fake news has become a pervasive pandemic in today’s world and the story also contained uncorroborated information from a local crime WhatsApp group.
“Whilst we try to remain vigilant against rumours at all times, we unwittingly carried unverified information in this instance.
“We therefore unreservedly apologise to our loyal readers and the South African Navy for an error in judgment in our story.”
Veteran journalist Anton Harber responded, questioning the “error in judgement” stating “this was a wholesale failure of journalism. Mistakes are made but this was systematic failure. You were not a victim of a prank, but a victim of your own practices.”
African Defence Review (ADR) Director Darren Olivier believes the apology “rings even more hollow” giventhe original story is still live on the Weekend Argus/IOL website and does not mention the retraction or correction.
“A response like this from the editor does not give me any confidence they’ll be able to avoid being taken in by similarly ridiculous WhatsApp rumour messages again and makes it impossible to trust in the credibility of the Weekend Argus in future.”
He believes a blunder this bad requires more introspection and contrition.