News24 podcast series hunts down sexual predators in schools
Ideas Blog | 27 March 2023
Online news Web site News24, alongside non-profit company My Only Story and writer Deon Wiggett, produced a six-part true-crime podcast exposing sexual predation in schools.
It began in November 2018, when Thomas Kruger took his own life at St. Andrew’s College, an Anglican high school for boys in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa.
The 16-year-old’s death haunted his family and pushed Wiggett to investigate allegations of improper conduct against the school’s former teacher and water polo coach, David Mackenzie.
However, school management claimed it was unaware of any predatory behaviour by Mackenzie that could have caused Kruger’s death.
News24’s My Only Story Season 2: Back to School uncovered some of the boundaries that Mackenzie crossed and exposed more sexual predators targeting minors in classrooms.
Picking up from Season 1
News24 readers were first introduced to Wiggett in Season 1 of My Only Story, when he tracked down the man who raped him when he was a schoolboy.
In Season 2 of the subscriber-exclusive podcast series, he cast his net wider, identifying Mackenzie and three other predatory teachers from different schools.
Working with executive producer Alison Pope, News24 deputy multimedia editor Nokuthula Manyathi, and News24 reporter Sesona Ngqakamba, Wiggett led the podcast series and live investigation.
Not only did the team expose the sexual grooming of minors, they also sparked a nationwide discussion about the faults and duty of care within the schooling system.
Going slow and remaining sensitive
Unlike the daily newsroom environment of live updates and breaking news, the production process demanded a much slower, more sensitive treatment.
The podcast team stepped away from the fast news machine and moved toward a more mindful approach, keeping the survivor top of mind at all times. The focus was not breaking news but building trust, Manyathi said. It was imperative to treat children’s stories with the utmost sensitivity, respect, and care.
“It was a long process because you also have to build trust, and you have to build relationships, and you also have to give people time,” Manyathi said.
At every step of the process, they made sure that sources did not feel their power or agency was being taken away, Manyathi said.
“When telling an abuse survivor’s story, you want people to feel empowered. You want to make them feel comfortable. You don’t want them to feel rushed. In this case, you have to deal with stuff with a very gentle hand.
“These kinds of interviews will always be pretty delicate. They take a great amount of preparation and patience. You’re asking people to relive some of the worst moments of their lives. So as journalists, our responsibility is to listen and report not just accurately and thoroughly but with compassion.”
Wiggett added: “They needed to be very gently guided, listened to and believed.”
Getting it right
Due to the stigma and secrecy that still remains around sexual abuse, Wiggett said it was important to hook News24 subscribers through a “narratively compelling” and high-quality production with each new weekly episode.
“You can get past the initial disinterest by just telling the story in a way that is so edge-of-your-seat that you have no choice but to get engaged,” he said. “It’s [about] taking a really dark topic and writing and presenting it in such a way that it becomes a serialised story that people have to listen to despite themselves.”
Measuring the success of the award-winning podcast, Manyathi said the true prize is giving survivors a voice and seeing them happy with how their stories were represented.
“For me, it’s getting feedback from the people whose stories we told. If they trusted us and were happy with the outcome. If they felt we did due diligence, and didn’t feel the story was manipulated. That’s always, for me, paramount.”