Case Number: 2114 HEREWORTH SCHOOL AGAINST HAWKE'S BAY TODAY
Council Meeting MAY 2010
The Press Council has upheld a complaint by the headmaster of Hereworth School against Hawke’s Bay Today under the Principle of headlines and captions. Two members dissented from the decision.
On 9 March 2010 the regional newspaper, Hawke’s Bay Today, published a front page article captioned “Cyber bullying at top Bay private school”. A photo accompanying the article was captioned “Warning: Hereworth students enticed others to join abusive websites”.
The gist of the article was that two “offensive and abusive” pages had been formed on the Facebook social networking site “by students and ex-students of Hereworth School, a private boys’ school in Havelock North.”
The pages were deemed to be cyber-bullying, targeting “another ex-student”. They were reported to Facebook, who closed them down.
The article further mentioned a YouTube video that, while starting “harmlessly enough,” took “a dark turn to target ex-students.” It is unclear from the article who was the creator of this YouTube video.
The remainder of the article discussed Hereworth School’s response to cyber-bullying, citing the headmaster Ross Scrymgeour on the issue. The article concluded with NetSafe’s development manager praising the school for raising the issue with “the school community”.
A sidebar to the article gave pointers on how interested parties might prevent cyber-bullying.
Mr Scrymgeour contacted the paper the next day, concerned about the paper’s choice of headline and picture caption. In a phone conversation, the paper had accepted his request to submit “a follow up piece” the next morning.
While the headmaster had requested this to be “given similar prominence to the inaccurate item that ran in yesterday’s paper” the paper did not agree to this aspect of the submission.
Hawke’s Bay Today ran a follow-up article, constructed from the one supplied by the school, on page two of the next day’s paper. The school’s supplied headline, ‘Headmaster furious”, had been changed to “School upset with headline” and there were some other minor changes to the material supplied by the school. However, this is not part of the complaint laid to the Press Council.
The headmaster was dissatisfied with the paper’s response, while acknowledging that they had responded promptly. He continued to maintain that current Hereworth students were not involved in the Facebook site.
He complained to the Press Council that “the headline was outrageously sensational and bore no relationship to what actually happened” as the children “are no longer Hereworth pupils (and were not when this site was created”).
He believed that the article was poorly written, had confused people, and that consequently the headline had influenced them more than might normally have been the case.
He claimed that the school’s good practice was being punished by the paper, and that this article would be likely to encourage others to keep a low profile on such issues rather than to risk being on the front page “in such a sensationalised fashion”.
His complaint to the Council cited Principles 1 and 5, namely accuracy, and headlines and captions.
The Newspaper’s Response
In his response, editor Antony Phillips argued that cyber bullying is an acknowledged issue in Hawke’s Bay and “the story accurately reports that current students of Hereworth School were targets of cyber bulling and that current students at Hereworth School were involved in a social media site targeting other boys.”
He stated that front page lead headlines are always the most prominent typography on the page, and therefore the sensationalism claimed by the school was not intended to be such.
He further stated that neither Mr Scrymgeour nor the school had ever disputed the involvement of current students, either as targets of bullying or as being involved in the construction of the social media site.
While agreeing to run the story outlining Mr Scrymgeour’s concerns the next day, the paper had never offered nor agreed that this would be run verbatim, nor that it would be a front page lead story.
The paper had attempted to further address the school’s concern by printing a letter from the teacher who had exposed the problem site, in which she commended the paper for its efforts to inform and educate the school community, but also maintained that the choice of headline and byline [caption] “did not reflect the intelligent approach one would expect from HB Today after making the decision to print much of Hereworth’s parent newsletter article on the front page…”
On receipt of the paper’s response to the complaint, Mr Scrymgeour responded to the Press Council, reiterating his concerns although stating that “the issue is not with the content of the article or the way the paper has responded in time or manner.”
Rather, he maintained that the headline was completely inaccurate in that there was no cyber bullying at the school, and had damaged its reputation.
He reiterated his initial claim, denied by the editor Mr Phillips in his response, that Hereworth current students were not involved, challenging the photo caption’s statement that Hereworth students had enticed others to join abusive websites.
There is obviously no agreement between Mr Phillips and Mr Scrymgeour about whether current Hereworth students were part of the cyber-bullying that occurred in the social networking site. The reference in the school’s newsletter was equivocal, although it appears to imply that students were merely recipients of requests to participate, not active ‘bullies’.
There was agreement between the two, acknowledged by Mr Phillips, that the photo caption had “overstated [Hereworth’s] degree of involvement”.
The paper is commended for its sidebar advertising how parents can help to prevent cyber abuse.
The Council accepts the paper’s right to publish headlines on its front page that may seem sensational to those who are the subject of the lead story. However in this case, taken together with the caption, the headline gives the clear impression that pupils at the school are participants in the bullying. This is inaccurate and misleading.
Mr Phillips agreed that the warning under the photo caption had overstated the school’s degree of involvement.
Accordingly, the complaint is upheld on the grounds of inaccuracy of the headline and the caption.
Penny Harding and Sandy Gill dissented from the headline decision. They would not uphold the complaint by Hereworth School against the headline for two reasons: Firstly, the letter from the school’s teacher expressing concern about a Facebook site and a YouTube video clearly identified online activities by “current and ex-students” and referred to “cyberbullying”. The letter went to parents of current pupils at Hereworth School and it was reprinted in the school’s online newsletter by the headmaster who said it was “vitally important to all families”. For that reason, it was reasonable for the newspaper to take the view in the headline that there was cyber bullying at the school because of the fact that present pupils had become involved.
Secondly, the school complained about the headline, and the newspaper agreed to publish a further article reporting that concern. In that article the headmaster was quoted as saying that the current students had been enticed to join in.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Pip Bruce Ferguson, Ruth Buddicom, Kate Coughlan, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.