Braindead editors in headline drama

Saturday Star, 12 April 2008, page 1Yet another big banner headline. Yet another braindead “news” room exposed. “Lost girls in MXit drama”, the bold black letters scream, above photographs of two teenagers. The sub-headline repeats the headline, as if readers are too dumb to get it the first time: “Chat service linked to disappearance”.

The basis for this sensationalist drivel in the Saturday Star is that, amazingly, both girls are among the 5.2 million people in South Africa who (the article claims) use MXit. Unnamed experts warn of the “massive risks” on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace (which have squat to do with MXit). Desmond Olivier, a “private investigator” associated with Missing Children SA, says MXit is “evil”.

If the girls had disappeared from the mall, would the headline have screamed “Lost girls in mall drama”? If they had met some guys at a disco, or communicated by telephone rather than by text, would the story have railed against the dangers of nightclubs? Would it have called the telephone evil?

Besides, what massive risks? Two missing girls among 5.2 million users is 0.0000385% of the user base. Stop the presses! Hold the front page! Oh wait, that’s exactly what the idiots did. Yet by my reckoning, such odds make MXit the safest possible thing for kids to be doing while awake.

It would have been real news is if they managed to disappear without being able to communicate with anyone. That takes some doing.

It gets better, though. One of the kids, 15-year-old Chantelynn Janse van Resnburg, lives with her father in Orania. She travelled alone, by bus, to visit her mother in Naboomspruit (which someone should inform the sub-editors is officially known as Mookgophong) and upon her return, instead of meeting her father in Hopetown, got off the bus in Johannesburg. Now I haven’t been to Orania, a kind of ultra-conservative white Afrikaner enclave, but I have been to Hopetown. There, I met the local satanist, a 17-year-old boy, so known by the townsfolk because he preferred black t-shirts and wore an earring. That his sights were set on escaping to the “big city” was not the most surprising news I’d heard that day. If I were that teenage girl, I’d also get off the bus in Johannesburg, rather than return to Hopetown or Orania.

The other girl, 17-year-old Hannelie Grabie, packed a suitcase, and took her make-up, hairdryer and back medication with her. Either that, or robbers who specialise in teenage accessories stole them. “We don’t know if she’s run away or disappeared,” says our private investigator. Boy, I hope he has a day job. What do you think, genius? That you need a hairdryer to access MXit? And this is the Clousseau who proposes to find South Africa’s missing children? I sure hope he’s not representative.

Both sets of parents are surprised at their daughters’ disappearance. Aren’t most parents of runaways surprised? If they had a clue, the girls probably wouldn’t have felt the need to run away.

Saturday Star, 12 April 2008, page 12I feel for the parents, and I hope the girls are found, and that they’re okay. But there’s nothing more to this story than a pair of runaways. Plain and simple. Unhappy at home, bright lights in their eyes, fell in with dodgy company, who knows? Slapping this on the front page, and blaming it on MXit, or Facebook, or MySpace, or the internet, or cellphones, or postcards, or bus services, is absurd. It’s braindead sensationalism which does the girls’ case more harm than good and slanders both the creators of MXit and its 5 199 998 other users.

The front page of the Saturday Star is worse even than its back page. At least the back page features serious news, such as: “‘My Nazi orgy with twisted F1 boss'”. Now that’s real journalism.